Does the phrase “ching-a-ring-a-ring-ching-chaw” have any deeper meaning?
Sometimes I start researching these posts with the thought that I know what's what and just need to fill in a few blanks, only find out that my ideas have been completely wrongheaded. Other times I think there's not too much to say and end up with enough material for a doctoral dissertation. This post fulfills both conditions. Racism and the transformative power of art are all packed into this one short selection.
First, some general background. This selection is drawn from Copland's “Old American Songs Part 2” that he wrote in 1951. He had written Part 1 in 1950 (which includes our other selection from these pieces, “The Boatman's Dance”). The fascinating thing about that first set is that it was commissioned by the composer Benjamin Britten, and it had its premier in England at his Music and Art Festival, with Britten himself playing the piano. Copland was in the midst of other compositions but turned to writing this music with, he said, “the hope of recharging my inspiration.” I detect a certain amount of creative procrastination here. He was in the midst of writing a song cycle based on twelve poems of Emily Dickinson at the time, and while I do like Dickinson's works myself I can see that she might become a bit . . . wearing. Turning to some straightforward American folk songs must have been a relief. Copland invested a great deal of time and energy researching the material for the songs, which were a great success at the festival. They were premiered in America the following year and were so popular that Copland decided to write a second set of five, which includes “Ching-a-Ring.”
When I read through the lyrics of this piece at our first rehearsal I assumed that it was some type of backwoods revivalist hymn, with its references to the Promised Land and the glory of God. Our conductor had mentioned, though, that it was a minstrel song (and indeed the sheet music says “minstrel song” right under the title), which didn't quite jibe with my impression. The starting point in my research was to figure out the meaning of the “ching-a-rings,” assuming that they were some sort of nonsense rhyme. The words are actually supposed to represent the strumming of a banjo, so I was wrong in that assumption. Then my revivalist theory hit the dust: the original lyrics had nothing to do with Heaven or salvation. And here was where the story got really interesting, because it was indeed the case that the original song was drawn from pre-Civil War minstrel shows.
Here's where the doctoral dissertation could start, as these shows give us a picture of a whole range of racial attitudes present in America at the time. Starting around the 1830's, it became popular for white performers to put on blackface makeup to present songs, skits, parodies and dances. This makeup exaggerated racial characteristics; it's kind of a shock to see what it actually looked like. The black characters tended to be portrayed in negative ways, as lazy, unintelligent and happy-go-lucky but also musically talented. By around 1850 the shows had become a major American musical form, with packed audiences. I don't know if free blacks living in the North would or could have attended these performances. It is true that after the Civil War there were some minstrel shows that featured black performers in blackface. (I cannot leave this particular subject without mentioning Al Jolson, most famous for his performance in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, who performed often in blackface but who was also known as a proponent of racial integration. So the use of the makeup did not in and of itself indicate prejudice.)
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the immense popularity of the minstrel shows, there was a lot of controversy about them. Most people just enjoyed them without feeling any need to justify them; others did try to legitimize the portrayals by saying that the shows provided a venue for black music and culture. There's little evidence that much if any of the material was written by anyone other than whites; the one strand of genuine black music coming from spirituals, which started being included in the 1870's. Abolitionists and integrationists saw the shows as furthering negative racial stereotypes and widening racial divides, “falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them” (Wikipedia). Segregationists, and especially slaveowners, saw them as subversive, especially in the sympathetic portrayals of runaway slaves.
By the time Copland started ransacking the Boston University Library for lyrics the minstrel shows were pretty much dead, but he was certainly aware of their legacy. He was very much taken with the melody and rhythm of “Ching-a-Ring” but didn't feel that he could leave the words in their original form. As he said, “I did not want to take any chance of it being construed as racist.” Several sources point out that Copland's concern on the matter was pretty enlightened and progressive for the 1950's. The original words date from 1833 and were in the form of a speech by a character named Sambo to his “brethren,” and he's extolling the joys, not of Heaven, but of Haiti. Yes, Haiti. You may recall that there was a brief period of about a decade when Haiti was a republic governed by former slaves who had risen up against their white masters. For some in America, Haiti was seen as a place to send blacks and thus remove the “problem.” (Abraham Lincoln at one point pondered the wisdom of sending freed slaves back to Africa.)
Now that we know the source of our song some of the puzzling lines become clear. I couldn't quite understand, for instance, why food was emphasized so much in a song that seems to be about Heaven. You don't need money to buy your milk and honey, and dinner has four courses. Also, there's a lot of dancing, which usually isn't thought of as a heavenly activity. But if this was originally a song about the earthly joys of life in a free land, those references make sense. Copland has left intact as much as he can even as he broadens the theme to that of a universal rather a specific Promised Land. He's taken something from an offensive source, recognized its inherent musicality, and transformed it. We should all be rejoicing in his accomplishment, shouldn't we?
Alas, no. In some circles the heavy hand of political correctness has descended on this selection. I can't do better than to give a couple of quotations from ChoralNet, the website of the American Choral Directors Association, on the subject:
In celebrating the 100th anniversary of Copland's birth, I encountered a
MAJOR problem with his "Ching-a-Ring Chaw"! One of the Social Studies
teachers is working on a unit in American history focusing on the
mid-1800's. They've covered minstrel shows, Jim Crow, etc., and the kids
have come back to me complaining that they will NOT sing the
song..........that it would be demeaning toward black people. Even going
over the lyrics with them doesn't help: they still think that it shouldn't
be done (nor does the Social Studies teacher!). Has anyone else encountered
such a problem? If so, what to say???? I really think it's a great song to
learn and sing!
The best answer is the following:
Tell them, in that case, they would have to stop singing other forms of
music performed by African-Americans throughout the past hundreds of
years: spirituals, jubilees, jazz and a lot of gospel that stems from
that incredibly rich source.
Tell them, also, that the expression of African-American music, even if
organized and arranged by arguably the best American composer-arranger
of the 20th Century who happened to be Jewish, has nothing at all to do
with supporting slavery. Mr. Copland (nee Kaplan) would be horrified to
If you'd like to read the full discussion, go here.
I'm now more glad than ever that we're singing this selection. Not only is it fun (although difficult) to sing, not only does it fit beautifully into the theme of our concert, but its use honors Copland and his efforts to transform part of America's musical past and give it new life in the present.