2012 marks the 40th anniversary of my favorite song from childhood: Three Dog Night’s “Black and White.” This thing became a national phenomenon, selling over a million copies and reaching number one on the Billboard 100. In late 1972 you could go nowhere without hearing this. My best friend David Glickman and I would clap and sing along whenever we heard it on WRKO-AM. (Yeah, radio. Get over yourselves.)
The hit was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed racial segregation of public schools. The original folk song was first recorded by Sammy Davis Jr. in 1957. His version had opened with a verse in reference to that decision:
Their robes were black, Their heads were white,
The schoolhouse doors were closed so tight,
Nine judges all set down their names,
To end the years and years of shame.
This version sung by Three Dog Night did not include this lyric, but retained the emotional potency of those ideals. The song eventually became poignant for me as I became a teenager. We lived near Boston during the city’s school desegregation crisis and what my family would see on the news and in the papers would shock us. http://bit.ly/ZQWz4
Yeah, forty years later music like this may sound cloying and simplistic. Today, with tales of poverty, crime and injustice, rap music now comes closest to crystalizing the issues being expressed here. In fact, rap has more in common with real folk music than anything contemporary.
That said, simple, memorable songs – songs about generosity, commonality and courage – are still worth celebrating. Folk music can transcend class, ethnic, generational and even temporal boundaries. A renewal of these values in big, pop music is overdue and will, hopefully, arrive far before the big election in November.
Here’s hoping that the muses of Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson or Three Dog Night will blow in a song writer’s ear in 2012.