Friday, December 18, 2009

Ethnicity in America: A Couple of Songs

In a post last May, I outlined a theory on how the Civil Rights movement was used to defeat ethnicity. Before Civil Rights, “race” described not the color of one’s skin or one’s genetic make-up – not anything merely physical – but culture: Italian, Irish, Polish, Russian, WASP. Civil Rights effectively eliminated all the immigrant ethnicities, collapsing American into Black and an amorphous White, WASP by default. Civil Rights killed off the ethnic neighborhoods.
Consider our new home, the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Fifty years ago, our older neighbors tell us, our street was Italian: in language, in cuisine, in religion, in culture. Now most of the Italians have fled to the suburbs, where a few pasta dishes and a funny name are all that distinguish them from the WASP culture that they once threatened. I think that’s a loss. I think peculiar culture is healthy, human – and important for preserving the more profound aspects of culture, morality and religion. The ultra-individualism of post-ethnic America leaves little room for tradition, reverence, mystery. And it leaves us isolated, like our old Italian baker around the corner: sometimes his old buddies come in from the suburbs; much of the time he sits alone in his shop, his family’s religion, language, and culture left behind in the days when he had a community.
The death of ethnicity, I submit, hasn’t been good for race relations. Black culture remains different, as it always was: ethnic culture. But that difference, I think, is harder for a homogenous majority-white culture to accept than it was for the ethnics of yesteryear, who were used to difference, who knew how to be uncomfortable with something without thinking it should be eliminated, “assimilated.” But I digress.
Today I would like to address a problem with this ethnic narrative: it threatens to forever pigeonhole people as Portuguese, Italian, or German. I think my point may most clearly be made through two songs that reflect the ethnic background of my wife’s and my families.
My wife’s grandfather is from old Irish Newport, Rhode Island. My wife isn't sure whether it was his parents or his grandparents who were the immigrants, but they certainly lived in old ethnic America, where the cops were all from the neighborhood, and where it was a bit of a scandal when he went after my wife’s Austrian-WASP grandmother.
Grandpa O’Connors is a good-old-fashioned Irish tenor, and at a recent family gathering he got everyone to join him in singing “an Irish lullaby.”
Over in Killarney
Many years ago,
Me Mither sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low.
Just a simple little ditty,
In her good ould Irish way,
And I'd give the world if she could sing
That song to me this day.
"Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry!
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, that's an Irish lullaby."
(Recording here.)
Very sweet. Here’s the problem: do you suppose anyone in Ireland ever sang “that’s an Irish lullaby”? Do you suppose they would have sung it in English? At first glance, this would appear to be, not a traditional song brought over from the home country, but a distinctly American glance backwards.
A small amount of research shows that it was written by a certain James Royce Shannon – birth name James Royce, “Shannon” added to make him sound Irish – of Michigan. He wrote it for a show in New York in 1913. Irish? Well, as near as I can tell, he was a Scottish-Rite Freemason – both ethnically and religiously committed to the destruction of Irish Catholicism.
Does that make it a bad song? Of course not. It’s lovely. Perhaps it’s even musically Irish. But this is hardly the survival of old-country traditions, hardly a bulwark of particularity and mysticism. With all due respect to Grandpa, it would seem to appeal to an Irish-ness that is Irish only in sentiment, but pretty well assimilated. An Irish-ness that doesn't remember Ireland.
And the song raises a further problem. Do you suppose back in County Kerry, they thought of themselves as “Irish”? I’m not sure. I’d guess they more often thought of themselves as being from Farranfore, Balleyheigue, or Lixnaw.
Enter another grandfather, this one mine. My family is thoroughly WASP. It’s been amusing for me, living now in New Jersey, with its heavily immigrant past, to try to explain to people that my family isn’t from anywhere – at least not anywhere overseas. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana. One set of my grandpa’s grandparents may (or may not) have come from Germany, and Grandma had a distant ancestor from Switzerland, but that isn’t too prominent in our family’s consciousness.
What’s important to Grandpa is that his parents met at the University of Wisconsin – where Grandpa and Grandma met, as did, incidentally, every one of Grandma and Grandpa's siblings and their spouses, my other grandparents, my step-father’s parents, my mom and dad, and later, my mom and step-father. I grew up an easy bike ride from UW. My grandfather somehow ended up with the copyright on a song you’ll surely never hear, entitled “My Home is in Madison” (“M-A-D-I-S-O-N, where the girls are the fairest the boys are the squarest of any home town I’ve been in”) – and it’s true, that’s our home. When my grandfather was getting ready to face death, he headed back to our “old country,” where his brothers were waiting for him.
My wife laughs that the fight song “On Wisconsin” (“plunge right through that line, run the ball clear down the field, boys, touchdown sure this time!”) along with its sequel, “If you want to be a Badger” (“just come along with me, by the bright shining light of the moon!”) are far more dear to my family, far more often used as bedtime songs and family-gathering rousers, than any “Irish lullaby” in her family. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I go to and click through all the old standards: “Varsity” (“U-rah-rah, Wisconsin! Praise to thee we sing!”), “You’ve Said It All” (“When you’ve said Wis-consin”), and “Songs to Thee, Wisconsin” (“Queen of all the West . . . May thy sons and daughters, in thy jubilee, See the dawn of greater, grander things to be”). When my grandfathers fought in World War II, I’m quite confident these were the songs that reminded them of their true homeland -- not anything about "purple mountain majesties."
I hope I’m not being prejudiced in favor of my family – though it is precisely such prejudice that I’m arguing for – when I say that I think this is about right. Ethnicity doesn’t mean wearing green on St. Patrick’s day, generations since the last person who knew what town in Ireland you came from – any more than my family’s culture is stuck endlessly in Danville, Illinois, or Duluth, Minnesota (the places my great-grandparents came from, before they met in Madison). It doesn’t mean allegiance to a vague nation like “Ireland”: a nation of four great provinces, thirty-two traditional counties, 32,000 square miles, and who knows how many thousands of little hometowns.
Ethnicity means being from somewhere in particular, with traditions, and roots. We don’t stay there forever – though it would do a lot for our culture if we could stay put for a few generations at a time. We should bring our traditions with us. My children, who have so far lived in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, Minnesota, and who, I very much hope, will spend the rest of their childhoods – indeed, I hope, maybe much of their lives – in Newark, New Jersey, certainly know how to sing “On Wisconsin.” It’s where I’m from, who I am. But I doubt they’ll sing it to their children. They’ll root root root for the home team – Rutgers? Princeton? Seton Hall? – and, I pray, learn to think of themselves as from somewhere, with the traditions not only of our family but of our neighborhood.
An old definition (discussed in my May post) speaks of “A group of persons connected by common descent or origin; a family; a tribe or people; a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock.” Ethnicity means rootedness, knowing who you are and where you’re from, rejoicing in traditions, knowing that you are part of something bigger than yourself. The old immigrant populations give us a point of departure – but it is for our generations to live ethnicity in an American way, to be from Newark, or Madison, or Washington, just as our ancestors were not from Ireland, but Abbeydorney, Knocksnagoshel, or Derrynane, in County Kerry.