When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I was in a class involving music. The year would have been 1977 or ’78. One of the kids played a piano piece by Debussy: “Le petit nègre.” Someone asked the teacher, “What does the title mean?” I noted that the teacher, an elegant man, evaded the question, neatly.
“Le petit nègre” is a cakewalk—delightful piece, of course. To hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet play it, go here.
You know what else is a cakewalk? The sixth and final movement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner. It is “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” To hear Debussy himself play it—in a piano-roll cut—go here.
According to Merriam-Webster, a golliwog is “a type of black rag doll with exaggerated features and colorful clothing that was formerly popular as a children’s toy in Britain and Australia.”
Readers may recall that, in 2009, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, got in trouble for referring to a French tennis player, of Congolese paternity, as a “golliwog Frog” (that second word being a pejorative for “Frenchman,” of course).
Why am I bringing up all this? Good question. Recently, I recorded a podcast, an episode of my Music for a While. I used a movement from A prole do bebê—“The Baby’s Family”—the collection of piano pieces by Villa-Lobos. Book I is all about dolls. And how are those dolls described? Well . . .
“Little Light-skinned Girl,” “Little Dark-skinned Girl,” “Little Mestizo Girl,” “Little Mulatto Girl,” “Little Black Girl” . . .
Is this innocent? To my sense, it is. But it is awkward all the same. (To hear Artur Rubinstein run through this suite of dolls, go here.)
We could go on in this vein—and I will, for a second longer.
One of the most beloved and beautiful lullabies ever penned is “Canción de cuna para dormir un negrito.” It comes from the Cinco canciones negras by Montsalvatge. To hear Teresa Berganza sing it, go here.
The song begins (in English translation),
Lullay, lullay, lullay,
tiny little child,
little black boy,
who won’t go to sleep.
Head like a coconut,
head like a coffee bean . . .
It is utterly affectionate. But is it . . . cancellable, so to speak? These are issues that will affect the music world for some time to come, and are affecting it now.
What is my opinion, you ask? Well, even if you don’t: I think you have to go case by case, guided by common sense, taste, and humanity.