Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Considerable Sounds: Banned in the USA

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By DC Music Editor Benjamin New

A Brief History of Music Censorship In America

Censorship is far more offensive than any combination of words.
  • What person or group would want to decide for everyone else what they should read or listen to?
  • Who can say that their sensibilities are superior to others?
  • What music has been considered so harmful as to be outlawed?

The list of perpetrators may be surprising to many of us. The reasons are quite often dubious at best. Let's have a look at some of the material deemed unsafe for public consumption.

An Ascendancy Of Suppression

The “father of country music” Jimmie Rogers witnessed his 1931 song called “What’s It” banned for it’s content. It was a story about "a 200 pound corn fed dog faced gal "who was adept at “necking and petting where it‘s dark”. In 1940 for instance NBC compiled a list of 147 songs banned from play lists on any affiliate stations. This list included Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Gene Autry, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and the Andrews Sisters.

He that would make his own liberty secure,
must guard even his enemy from opposition;
for if he violates this duty
he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.
~Thomas Paine

What is freedom?

I am a bit reticent to make any claims about where lines might be drawn regarding the essential elements of freedom of speech. There are many nuances, but do we have any right to be protected from words? If so, who decides for you what words are OK and what words are not?

There are different types of freedoms.

I believe for instance, that we are all innately free within our selves
if we wish to acknowledge it. The ability within your mind, soul, and spirit to change, learn, expand, or improve our particular perceptions of our own existence reside within us all.

Conversely we are free to believe self destructive and limiting harmful thoughts as well.
Or to allow others to define us. "Your worthless", "You are an anarchist/communist/fascist", "You are (insert favorite derogatory label here.)"

Ultimately we alone make the decision on how to exercise this freedom.
Other liberties are somewhat more difficult to attribute absolutism to.
But if we don't, who then decides the boundaries? When speaking of social and political liberties, we can define through the rule of law what might constitute a boundary.

But art is another matter.

All art of value comes from deep within the individual mind and spirit of the artist.
It comes through the inner self, from that place where freedom is absolute.
It can only be judged on a personal basis in that same zone of implicit and absolute freedom within each of us.

"Freedom of expression is the matrix,
the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom."
- Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, American jurist (1870–1938)

Censorship presumes the people who must be protected
are too inferior to think for themselves.

Censorship exists for only 2 purposes.
  1. The Censor believes he is superior to the public at large, that the masses are too stupid to make decisions for themselves.
  2. The Censor is protecting an ideology that will not survive criticism and seeks to protect it.

Collective assessment fails in the realm of art. If the judgments of a contemporary society were allowed to limit what an artist produced there would be no Van Gogh paintings nor would there be a Nutcracker Suite (The Nutcracker today is the most popular ballet by far. Yet it had closed after a single performance, unanimously rejected by Tchaikovsky's contemporaries.

Tchaikovsky died believing the work was a complete failure.) To those who believe art must be censored I pose the question, when did a song or a painting harm anyone? One either values or dismisses art. It speaks directly to the soul or it doesn't. The collective sensibilities of any given society should never force limitations on the act of creation itself. Sometimes a work that we may have a strong negative reaction to speaks volumes, affecting us in positive ways either opening the door to new ideas or reinforcing existing ones. After all if the value of art were in it's impotency, the concert hall would be echoing the tedious refrains of elevator muzak and dogs playing cards would hang majestically beside a velveteen Elvis in the Louvre.

Let Freedom Ring

In 1951, radio stations banned Dottie O'Brien's "Four or Five Times". “What I like most is to have someone who is true, who will love me too, four or five times…” The lyrics were apparently offensive only if sung by a woman as Woody Herman, Bob Wills and Lionel Hampton‘s versions had not been banned in previous years. The same year Dean Martin's "Wham Bam, Thank You Ma'am" was banned from the airwaves due to sexually suggestive lyrics. Yes this was not the only time the soothing baritone voice threatened to destroy the very fabric of decency with his subversive affable style. He will be expurgated again in 1960.

American traditional folk group The Weavers were completely blacklisted from working in the U.S. for their political beliefs in 1952. "Sloop John B", "Rock Island Line," "The Midnight Special," "Pay Me My Money Down," "On Top of Old Smokey," "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Kisses Sweeter than Wine," and "Darling Corey" are declared subversive during the McCarthyism reign of terror.

Apparently traditional American folk music
is subversive if performed by Pete Seegar.

In 1953, “gardenia perfume lingers on a pillow" is altered to "a seaplane rising from an ocean billow" in the song "These Foolish Things" in Tony Bennett’s and later Frank Sinatra’s recordings of this song. The song had previously charted five times. In 1936, Benny Goodman scored a #1 hit with it, later versions included Teddy Wilson with Billie Holiday , Nat Brandywynne , Carroll Gibbons , and Joe Sanders. Red Ingles, whose novelty vocals with Spike Jones were beloved by many ( and I imagine cursed by many as well, ) charted a humorous version in 1947 called "Them Durn Fool Things" . Also six counties in South Carolina pass legislation outlawing jukebox operation anytime when within hearing distance of a church.

Political Correctness-Nothing New

In 1954 Stephen Foster songs are edited for radio to remove words such as "massa" and "darky." Revising history to suit current thinking is a horrible idea. There was slavery, regardless of how we feel about it today, manipulating history is a disservice
and a dishonest outrage.

Webb Pierce's "There Stands the Glass" is banned from radio because the lyrics are thought to condone drinking. Congressional representative Ruth Thompson, Michigan's first woman in Congress introduced legislation that would make the mailing of certain "pornographic rock and roll" records a crime.

The Boston Catholic Youth Organization initiated a campaign of policing dances and lobbying disc jockeys to stop playing "obscene" songs at record hops and on the radio. The line, "I get no kick from cocaine," is changed to, "I get perfume from Spain." in Cole Porter's classic "I Get A Kick Out of You."

An editorial called "Control the Dimwits," appears in the September 24 issue of Billboard, condemning R&B songs that contain double entendre references to sex. In response, police in Long Beach, California, and Memphis, Tennessee, confiscate jukeboxes and fine their owners. Similar jukebox bans occur across the country.

It is easy to take liberty for granted, when you have never had it taken from you. ~Dick Cheney

Also in 1954, WDIA and several other large popular music radio stations ban several songs for their perceived suggestive lyrics. The station runs on-air announcements saying - "WDIA, your good-will station, in the interest of good citizenship, for the protection of morals and our American way of life does not consider this record, [name of song], fit for broadcast on WDIA. We are sure all you listeners will agree with us."

The ABC network bans Rosemary Clooney’s hit "Mambo Italiano" claiming it did not meet the network's "standards for good taste." I'm not quite sure whether it was the Mambo or the Italians they were trying to protect us from....

In 1955 the former radio deejay Pat Boone launches his career by releasing "sanitized" versions of black R&B hits. Boone's versions of these songs contained edited lyrics: such as substituting "drinkin' Coca Cola" for "drinkin' wine" in T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday" and "Pretty little Susie is the girl for me" instead of "Boys, don't you know what she do to me" in Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti."

In only one week's time, Chicago radio stations receive 15,000 complaint letters protesting the broadcast of rock music as part of an organized campaign. Variety runs a three-part series on what they term "leer-ics," or obscene lyrics, calling for censorship of the recording industry. The articles compare these songs to dirty postcards and chastises the music industry for selling "their leer-ic garbage by declaring that's what kids want."

Land Of The Free...

The Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Commission of Houston, Texas, bans more than 30 songs it considers obscene. The Commission's list is almost entirely comprised of black artists.

Officials cancel rock and roll concerts scheduled in New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut; Boston; Atlanta; Jersey City and Asbury Park, New Jersey; Burbank, California; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire mistaking dancing at concerts for riots and fighting.

CBS television network cancels Alan Freed's Rock 'n Roll Dance Party after a camera shows Frankie Lymon, leader of the doo wop group Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, dancing with a white girl.

Officials in San Diego and Florida police warn Elvis Presley that if he moves at all during his local performances, he will be arrested on obscenity charges.

In 1956 the ABC Radio Network bans Billie Holiday's rendition of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" from all of its stations. Stations are permitted to play instrumental versions of the song. Members of the White Citizens Council of Birmingham, Alabama, rush the stage at a Nat King Cole concert and beat the legendary performer mistaking his crooning for rock and roll.

The Parks Department in San Antonio, Texas, removes all rock and roll records from jukeboxes located at city swimming pools, terming it "jumpy, hot stuff" that is unsuitable for teens.

And officials ban the novelty hit "Transfusion" by Dot and Diamond from ABC, CBS, and NBC radios. According to one NBC executive, "There is nothing funny about a blood transfusion."

You have freedom when you're easy in your harness. --Robert Frost

In 1957, producers of the Ed Sullivan Show instruct cameramen to show Elvis Presley only from the waist up. Fearing the effects of the "hedonistic, tribal rhythms" of rock and roll music, Chicago's Cardinal Stritch bans all popular music from all Catholic-run schools.

Congress considers legislation that would require song lyrics to be screened and altered by a review committee before being broadcast or offered for sale.

In 1958 the Mutual Broadcasting System refuses to play all rock and roll records on its network music programs, calling it "distorted, monotonous, noisy music."

"What is freedom of expression?
Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." - Salman Rushdie

Link Wray's watershed instrumental classic, "Rumble" is dropped from radio stations across the country in 1959 - even though it has no lyrics. The title of the song is believed to be violent. When Wray appears on American Bandstand to perform the song, Dick Clark introduces Wray and his band, but refuses to mention the song's title.

Speaking of American Bandstand, in order to appease the television program, singer Lloyd Price agrees to re-cut the lyrics to his song "Stagger Lee," removing all references to violence. Oddly enough the song had been recorded by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra and others years ago without incident.

The history of liberty is a history of resistance. ~Woodrow Wilson

The turbulent restless 60's began with the innocuous Dean Martin song, "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" being banned. The long, sad history of the die hard button down reactionary with too much time on his hands, plagued with an overactive imagination, and terrorized by harmless pop music fare is directly responsible for the success of the likes of 2 live crew's scatological symphyla.

By feigning outrage, condemning and attempting to censor content, minor works with little or no audience are elevated to galactic importance and given endless notoriety and publicity. Repression demands revolt. Intervention fuels rebellions. The censor seeks to control, to crack down, to manipulate. More often than not, victimized by his own vacuity more than the perceived transgressions of music, literature, or art.

Ray Peterson,
king of songs about overblown
teenage tragedies.

In October of 1960, several radio stations refuse to play Polio victim Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," an intrepid tale of a teenage driver who had a fatal accident in the stock car race he had entered to win cash to buy a wedding ring .

Frank Zappa surely did more to curtail this type of song by lampooning them than censors could dream of but Frank got little thanks from the censorship crowd and gave them bigger headaches than they ever had from the likes of Ray Peterson or Little Richard. It was referred to as the"Death Disk." It even spawned a reply, 'Tell Tommy I Miss Him', recorded by Marilyn Michaels.

Numerous songs about teen emotional baggage involving fatal tragedies popped up in the 50s and early 60s. Would the censors seek to ban "Romeo and Juliet? It too was about a fatal teen tragedy.

Despite the radio taboo in the U.S., or rather because of it, excerpts of the song were broadcast on BBC news. Britain, no stranger to the reactionary knee jerk either, erupted in a moral panic. So great was the brouhaha that Decca Records canceled plans to release Peterson's disc, declaring it "too tasteless and vulgar for the English sensibility," they even trashed the 25,000 copies already pressed. Meanwhile, EMI cut a new version of the song with a previously unknown local singer, Ricky Valance. It became the No 1 hit in England even though the BBC declined to play it.

The best laid plans....

The Hucklebuck, Limbo Rock, and The Twist are the devil!
Chubby Checker-Antichrist?

Meanwhile back in the States, New York Bishop Burke forbids Catholic school students from dancing to "The Twist." Burke considers R&B music, and its associated dances, to be lewd and un-Christian. (Apparently fear of Chubby Checker supersedes the fear of rampant pedophilia eh?)

One Nation Under Surveillance

In 1963 The FBI begins collecting data on folk singers. Phil Ochs is one of several popular musicians to be under surveillance by the FBI (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie). Bob Dylan refuses to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in February after producers tell him he cannot sing "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues." Dylan is never invited to perform on the show again.

In 1964, convinced it contains obscene messages, Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh attempts to ban the Kingsmen hit "Louie, Louie." After review by the FCC, the agency determines that the song's lyrics are indecipherable.

Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word; and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection. - Colin Powell

After splitting his pants dancing at a European concert, P. J. Proby is uninvited to perform on ABC's music variety show Shingdig in 1965. Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher bans all rock concerts in the city following a Rolling Stones performance.

The Barry McGuire song "Eve of Destruction" is pulled from retail stores and radio stations across the country after some groups complain about it's nihilism. Claims that the song promoted suicidal feelings amongst teens was cited as the reason but the songs anti war message was a political time bomb.

The anti-war ballad, “Eve of Destruction,” was issued in 1965
when opposition to the Vietnam war was on the rise.

Christian Crusade leaders charged that the nefarious lyrics were inducing “the American public to surrender to atheism and international Communism.” Such sentiments caused the disc to be banned by many radio stations.

Then, 4 decades later, “Eve of Destruction” was again banned by America’s giant radio network, Clear Channel, in the wake of 9/11 & the ramp-up to the second President Bush’s Iraq War. It was also blacklisted on BBC radio during President Bush’s 1991 war against Iraq. If indeed atheism is the goal of pacifism, how does one explain "the Prince of Peace" of the New Testament?

Blessed are the War Mongers?

In June, radio stations across the country ban the Rolling Stones hit ,"I Can't Get No Satisfaction" because they believe the lyrics are too sexually suggestive.

Many radio stations ban The Who's single "Pictures of Lily". The lyric "Pictures of Lily make my life so wonderful" is a tongue in cheek (Or should we say bird in hand) reference to masturbation. But would anyone really care? It's pretty harmless and I think the censors would have to be really looking hard (no pun intended) for it.

The same year, MGM Records alters the Frank Zappa song, "Money" because it contains a sexual reference.

Pictures Of Lily

In 1966 WLS radio commissioned a local group to re-record the Them hit "Gloria" because they objected to the lyrics. The station management felt that the lyric "she comes in my room" is unfit for broadcast. Instead, they contacted a local band, the Shadows of Knight, to re-record the tune. The Shadows of Knight version became a national top ten hit; the original stalls at number 71 on the charts and disappears.

An off the cuff statement by John Lennon in March, comparing the popularity of the Beatles to that of Christianity, results in wide-spread Beatles record burnings and protests. Lennon's comments regarding the Beatles world wide popularity as literally true. The Beatles records were widely distributed and listened to in many parts of the world where Christianity was not the common religion. His statement that "We're more popular than Christianity now," was taken completely out of context.

After radio stations refuse to air the original, The Swinging Medallions are convinced by their record company to re-record their song "Double Shot (of My Baby's Love)" with more benign lyrics.

In June, Capitol Records recalls all copies of the Beatles' "Yesterday And Today" album following complaints over the album's gory cover art. The "butcher" cover depicts the four Beatles wearing white smocks and covered with decapitated baby dolls and raw meat.

The Beatles, upset that Capitol Records took their 7 UK albums
and stretched the material across 10 American releases,
lampooned the butchery of their art for the "Yesterday and Today" album cover.
This version is now a highly prized collectors item.

Police attempt to shut down a James Brown concert, alleging the singer's dancing is obscene.

After threats of censorship over the song "Rhapsody in the Rain," Lou Christie agrees to change the song's suggestive lyrics. What lyrics were too offensive for the airwaves? "Makin' out in the rain" and "our love went much too far".

None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.---Goethe

In 1967 The Rolling Stones agree to alter the lyrics to "Let's Spend The Night Together" for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in January. Producers request that singer Mick Jagger alter the title phrase to "Let's spend some time together."

Against his wishes, Frank Zappa's record company removes eight bars of his song "Let's Make the Water Turn Black." This occurs when an executive from Verve Records hears the lyric, "And I still remember mama with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys at Ed's café."

The executive thinks the referred-to "pad" is a sanitary napkin. (Oddly enough, the ideas on "We're Only In It For The Money" are far more subversive than references to sanitary pads or sex. The album rips on hypocrisy, conformity, and pretty much all social conventions while equally brutalizing the burgeoning counterculture, as well as the music industry itself. This upset Frank enough to leave MGM and start his own record company "Bizzare Records" which brought us the truly seditious recordings of Capt. Beefheart, Randy Newman, Lenny Bruce, Alice Cooper, The GTO's, Wildman Fisher, and Essra Mohawk.

Perhaps the laws of physics can be applied to humans as it seems for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. For every attempt to control there is an opposite and equal attempt to break free. For every repression , a revolution.

Much of human endeavor can be seen as divided into 3 camps. Those who seek to control, those who seek to be controlled, and the rest of us who have transcended these matters and seek to move beyond the manifestations of tyranny and constraint. This is indeed the nature of the human condition.

Radio programmers pass on Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" claiming the lyrics reference premarital sex and teenage pregnancy. Morrison cuts an alternative version with more acceptable lyrics.

Producers of the Ed Sullivan Show request that Jim Morrison change the lyrics to "Light My Fire" for The Doors' September appearance on the program. Morrison initially agrees to alter the lyric "Girl we couldn't get much higher" to a more innocuous phrase. During the live performance, Morrison sings the original lyric. The band is not invited back on the program.

"I look upon those who would deny others the right to urge and argue their position, however irksome and pernicious they may seem, as intellectual and moral cowards." -- William E. Borah

In 1968 An El Paso, Texas, radio station bans all songs performed by Bob Dylan because they cannot understand the folk singer's lyrics. The station continues to play recordings of Dylan songs performed by other artists with clearer diction.

The Doors' single "Unknown Soldier" is banned from airplay at many radio stations because of its anti-war theme.

Sponsors go into an uproar and threaten to pull support after a television program shows interracial "touching." During the taping of a duet between Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte, Clark lays her hand on Belafonte's arm (Clark is white and Belafonte is black).

Jim Morrison is arrested on stage in New Haven, Connecticut, for making lewd gestures and profane remarks during a concert. The arrest is one of several that occur during Doors concerts after Morrison is marked by the FBI and several police organizations as a troublemaker. Fearing the Rolling Stones' song "Street Fightin' Man" will incite violence during the National Democratic Convention in September, Chicago radio stations refuse to play the song. During the ban, the single sets all-time sales records in the Chicago area.

After being invited by the Smothers Brothers to perform his anti-Vietnam anthem "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on their TV show. Pete Seeger is edited out of the program by the censors at CBS television.

"I am opposed to any form of tyranny over the mind of man."
-- Thomas Jefferson

In January of 1969, New York police seize 30,000 copies of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Two Virgins album.

Controversy over the cover of Blind Faith's debut album prompts their label to issue the record with two different covers. The original cover, released in February, features a photograph of a naked 11-year old girl, holding a metallic, model airplane. The airplane points toward her lower abdomen.

In September, the local Roman Catholic Diocese runs a two-page ad spread in the Seattle Post Intelligencer calling for the criminal prosecution of rock musicians and for bans against "rock festivals and their drug-sex-rock-squalor culture."

"Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot."
-- Eugene O'Neill

Record company officials delay the release of Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane over concerns with the album's political themes. In July, one-half of the country's Top 40 stations refuse to play "The Ballad of John and Yoko" because they feel that the lyrics are blasphemous. The song's lyrics contain references to Christ and crucifixion, which apparently, if mentioned outside of an approved evangelistic environment become a threat to society. After Hudson's, a large department store chain, refuses to carry the debut record from MC5 when it is released in April, the group agrees to delete an expletive from "Kick Out The Jams."

The War On Freedom

As mentioned regarding Pete Seegar's deleted appearance, The Smothers Brothers had a very popular variety show that ran on CBS from 1967-1969. It eventually became a highly politicized entity, over satirical skits about the Vietnam War, US domestic politics, and network censorship. It succeeded in attracting a younger demographic while not scaring away older viewers - any drug references and anti-war swipes tended to be stealthy enough to get through Standards and Practices.

Tom Smothers wrested control, and infused more youth oriented content into the show,
leading to many battles with CBS execs. The battles were over Pete Seeger who sang a thinly-veiled anti-war song (in his first post-blacklist TV appearance), they used footage from the 1968 Chicago riots as the backdrop for another performer's song,
and more of the usual bickering over what you could and could not say on TV. The show also provided a venue for rock bands and comedians who normally wouldn't get on the air - The Who's documentary

The Kids Are Alright includes footage from their Smothers appearance.

The ante was raised further by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (a friend of the Smothers) - Tom Smothers in a sense, became the "Voice of a Generation", and began receiving death threats. Nixon himself is believed to have personally told CBS to shut the show down.

Eventually, CBS pulled the plug; it was still a top-rated show, but the network's corporate ruling class (Bill Paley and Frank Stanton) were trying to please the newly-elected US president Richard Nixon as both wanted to be Ambassador to the Court of St. James (i.e. Great Britain), and both also wanted to avoid clashes over the content of CBS News (all it took was Walter Cronkite's thumbs-down on The War to bring Middle America into the anti-war camp, which made neither LBJ nor Nixon especially fond of CBS).

The Smothers' show was a sacrificial lamb, one that went wasted, since Walter Annenberg (the right-wing billionaire owner of TV Guide) got the London gig, and Nixon, Congress, and the FCC all continued to poo-poo CBS and TV in general in subsequent years, instituting, the "Fairness Doctrine" and the first in a series of crippling cuts to public-broadcasting funding . Bill Maher's ousting for an anti war comment was simply history repeating itself. Free speech is apparently tolerated only if it endorses or does not threaten to expose the political class and their sycophants as erroneous.

The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.
~Tommy Smothers

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