Wake up, wake up!
Updated: May 7
What's this song about?
At eight years old, I sang “couple in the next room, bound to win a prize, they've been going at it all night long...”, before being stopped by my elementary school music teacher, Miss Wallace."You can't sing that. It's inappropriate." I didn't know know what inappropriate meant, but later that day when my mom defined it for me at an child’s level, I understood why. A song that had a couple fighting wasn't the best choice for the annual school talent show. That's what I thought was going on. I wouldn’t have understood that sex was the thing that was keeping Lincoln Duncan up at night in the cheap motel room of Paul Simon's song, Duncan. So, we went to my old standby, Harry Belafonte, and I sang Day-O.
I was obsessed with Harry Belafonte, and will be forever grateful to him for setting off the spark in me that set off my voice. When I was six, after a long stretch of being an introverted loner, I was off to the races when my mom put on the record Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. Meaning, you couldn't get me to stop listening to all four sides, and you couldn't get me to stop singing. In the house, on the street, in school for the class, wherever, whenever I could find an audience, I was belting out all the songs from that album. My poor family in particular endured hearing them over and over for probably close to two years, but at least I sounded good - it turns out I was talented. I got to see him live in 1987 and I was so excited I nearly died. He's singing Day-O here in that year:
I learned every musical nuance on that album, but as with Duncan, innuendo and lyrical nuance was another story. You’d have to be a grown-up to get how funny (and sexist, of course) Man Smart, Woman Smarter, as well as how clever the calypso number Man Piaba is. (How many songs have Sigmund Freud AND Rudyard Kipling in them?)
But if you were a white grown-up, I wonder if the full implication of the following song might have gone over your head if you heard Belafonte singing it at any point in his career. Belafonte at Carnegie Hall opens powerfully with Darlin’ Cora. There are different versions of the lyrics, which is typical of folk songs and this song has a rich history, It would be interesting to know who wrote the lyrics that Belafonte sang (possibly Fred Brooks) and what circumstances influenced them. Here they are:
Wake up, wake up Darlin' Cora
Wanna see you one more time
The sheriff and his hound dogs a coming
I gotta move on down the line
I don't know why darlin' Cora
Don't know what the reason can be
But I never had found a single town
Where me and my boss-man agree
I ain't a man to be played with
I ain't nobody's toy
Been working for my pay for a long, long time
How come he still calls me boy
Well I'd rather drink muddy water
And sleep in a hollowed out log
Than to hang around in this old town
And be treated like a dirty dog
Well I whopped that man darlin' Cora
And he fell down where he stood
Don't know if I was wrong darlin' Cora
But Lord it sure felt good
If it wasn't so dark darlin' Cora
You'd see tears trickling down my face
It breaks my heart darlin' Cora
But I got to leave this place
Wake up, wake up darlin' Cora
My child self understood this: the man hurt his boss after being treated badly over and over again. Sounds like the boss deserved it. Still, hitting’s not nice. He’s now in trouble with the law, and so he’s on the run. He’s leaving his loved one, probably forever. Does she even wake up in time to realize he’s leaving? What a sad song!
I do remember asking questions to my parents. What’s so terrible about being called “boy”? They explained that “boy” was a put-down, refusing to recognize one's manhood, and it also had to do with race. We knew the man in the song was black because Darlin’ Cora was in Act I: Songs of the American Negro. Obviously the boss and the sheriff are white. Of course the deep implications of this song were lost on me. And I'm guessing that except for my first grade teacher Miss King and the music teacher Miss Wallace, both black, the white adults who heard me sing it just didn't pay it that much thought. I’m thinking about it now.
This is a song about a desperate black man who needs to get the hell out of town, and maybe even a few states, to escape being lynched. My young mind simply figured he’d go to jail. Right?
And be treated like a dirty dog. Blacks in the south got lynched for looking at whites “the wrong way.” It appears that any reason was a fine enough reason and even a good excuse to get a community picnic together to watch or participate in the torture and killing of a black man (or woman). The guy in Darlin’ Cora punched a bossman. Death surely awaited him. Death by mob. Most likely along with brutal, and yet at the time, commonplace torture.
With the killing of George Floyd and so many other, the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding whites to LOOK. Really look and see what’s been going on. For decades. For centuries. We cannot look away anymore. And that just might be why I’ve been thinking about this song. How was it received at that concert in 1959 here in New York at Carnegie Hall? Well, you can hear it. With polite enthusiastic applause. This is just the first song - we’re in for a treat. We're here to be entertained. But, of a handsome man in the prime of his career that was mostly loved for his calypso songs - this is mainstream entertainment (we could have a field day with that term), quite different than Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. The trials and tribulations they were expressing just weren’t so important to most whites back in 1959. Certainly Harry knew what he was singing about. I don't know what that was like for him, but I imagine it was a powerful way to express what was going on in this country. This is not just a song of the American Negro. This is the life, the escaping of terrorist acts, illustrated in a powerful piece of music, soulfully sung. We were just on the precipice of the Civil Rights Movement, in which Belafonte had a huge role, pouring much of his wealth into it. I fell in love with him that much more when I learned what an activist he was and that he was one of MLK, Jr's confidants. (Watch this video to hear what he has to say to the CBC in 1967 about racism. I doubt it would have been so well-received here.)
I write about this because songs have power. Songs have meaning. They have a context to time and place, and they can transcend time and place. There is so much that this country needs to reckon with at this time and there is much white people, myself included, need to understand. George Floyd’s murder is understood to be a modern day lynching by many. Over 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in the United States. Between 1910 and 1970, over six million African Americans migrated north and west, away from the South where they were threatened by racial terror. That’s just a small piece of what we need to not just know as a fact, but to try to deeply get inside of. A song can help.
I gotta move on down the line. Now listen to the song.
I welcome your experience and I invite you to share it with me.