Thursday, October 19, 2017

Listen: Listen Mr Bilbo

Pete Seeger: Listen Mr Bilbo


In the early part of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party was the one that welcomed racists. One such was Theodore Bilbo, Senator from Mississippi from 1935 to his death in 1947. Bilbo was one of the most important Southern racist senators that Roosevelt courted to win passage of his New Deal programs. Bilbo boasted of his membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and he promoted segregation and Jim Crow laws throughout his career. Listen Mr Bilbo was written by Robert and Adrienne Claiborne in 1946, the year of Bilbo’s last Senate campaign. Robert Claiborne performed with Pete Seeger, so that would be where Seeger learned the song. I have not been able to find a recording of the song by Robert Claiborne, if there even was one. Bilbo had by this time made himself the face of Southern racism, and of bigotry more broadly. Claiborne’s song is a reminder of how important all the people Bilbo hated were in American history.

Peter Paul and Mary: Listen Mr Bilbo


By 1990, when Peter Paul and Mary recorded Listen Mr Bilbo, Theodore Bilbo himself was largely a forgotten figure, but the attitudes he embodied were still very much with us. So they sang the song as Listen Mr Bigot, but they kept the original title. Where Pete Seeger kept the arrangement simple, just him and his banjo, Peter Paul and Mary created a musical setting that reminds us of the cultural contributions made by minorities, especially black musicians. The song has eerie echoes in our situation today, so it may be time for someone to make a new recording of it.

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