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South Pacific – You’ve Got to Be Taught

An evening pause: This clip includes the scene that leads up to the song, and helps explain its dramatic context.

To be honest, this has never been one of my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. The musical, South Pacific, is magnificent, and has been featured before as an evening pause, but this song to me always seemed a bit preachy. It was written in the 1950s, however, and thus for its time was, as was the musical, important components of the civil rights movement that ended the bigoted discrimination against blacks in the United States.

I should add that as a child who loved this musical when I first heard and saw it in the early 1960s, I never understood what Nellie’s problem was. Why did it matter that the kids’ mother had been Polynesian?

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

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  • Jim Davis

    I should add that as a child who loved this musical when I first heard and saw it in the early 1960s, I never understood what Nellie’s problem was. Why did it matter that the kids’ mother had been Polynesian?

    And here I thought virtue signalling was a left wing prerogative. :)

  • Jim Davis: I am not “virtue signalling.” I am describing what I actually remember. As a child I simply did not understand, which in a sense proves the point of the song.

  • mike shupp

    Oh my, I guess I’m a whole lot older, but I understood PERFECTLY Nellie’s … issues. Emile has had sex with a black woman. That’s bad enough but he went back and repeated the performance, probably many times. And it’s not just that he got a cheap orgasm or six, he’s irrevocably stained his very soul each and every time, because that’s the sort of thing true white gentlemen simply don’t do! (Also the woman stained her soul too but she was (a) a native and (b) black and (c) dead and (d) a woman, so it didn’t matter nearly as much.)

    And even worse, Emile went through some sort of ceremony — probably Catholic! — and pretended he was married to this black woman and that it made perfect sense to have black children with her. And no one in the community objected to this behavior, or at least not enough to make any difference. And probably because he was French and all alone in the middle of the south Pacific and no one was around to notice, no one cared what he was up to until — thank God! one shiny day the US Navy showed up with the sacred goal of punishing the unGodly Japanese and, just in passing, to demonstrate to other lessor breeds how the true Ladies and Gentlemen of a superior Civilization behaved when dealing with inferiors.

    Which is a lot of Attitude to carry around, which takes Careful Teaching and all that.

    And people really did have such attitudes. I was born after WW II ended, and I grew up central Ohio hundreds of miles away from Nellie Forbush and her clan, much of the time in communities so small that nobody but white folks were ever in sight, and my moderate Republican parents would have winced to hear such attitudes expressed. But I certainly learned them as a kid, I heard them expressed by adults on all sides and encountered them in movies and novels and newspapers and it really wasn’t till I got off to college in the middle 60’s that I really started to lose such feelings.

    Lots of stuff in South Pacific.

  • Garry

    I have lots of anecdotal evidence that children learn bigotry rather than being born with it.

    In elementary school I remember being confused about who was what race. At one point I thought my friend Mike was black, but in reality he was a dark-skinned Italian American. I was very confused when he told me that he couldn’t stand his uncle because he held a high post in the ku klux klan; I wondered how his uncle could hate blacks when (in my mind) his nephew was one of them.

    I also remember my kids being confused when we tried to explain that their mother and I are of different races. They became even more confused when they went to school and other kids made comments about it.

    When my nephew, then in Japan, was young he was genuinely curious why I didn’t have brown eyes; he thought that was really cool. His mother was embarrassed and tried to change the subject, but I took it as genuine curiosity and enjoyed the conversation.

    I once found myself surrounded by about 30 young boys in South Korea who yelled excitedly and crowded around me; one brave lad even dared to touch my skin (I was tempted to growl at him). It remains one of my favorite memories; the boys were curious because apparently I was the first white man they had seen up close, and they seemed to think it was very exciting.

    I also remember at some point getting the idea that non-whites are all good people, so from around the age of 10 to the age of 15 I went out of my way to be nice to and speak well of every non-white I ran into (there weren’t many in the town I grew up in), and I felt morally superior for it.

    The liberals didn’t hold me in their misguided clutches for very long; at some point I realized that race has nothing to do with whether one is a good person or not.

    I think children decide whether they like somebody mostly from whether or not they look friendly and nonthreatening, which is based largely on facial expression, body language, and especially in the very young years, the amount of and nature of attention given to the child.

    Bigotry is learned later, from older children and adults.

  • Dick Eagleson

    To the extent Rodgers & Hammerstein are “preachy,” I think it’s Oscar Hammerstein who gets most of the credit – or blame as the case may be.

    South Pacific was hardly Hammerstein’s first broadside fired at erstwhile American racial attitudes. Over two decades before South Pacific – in 1927 – he was also the lyricist for Jerome Kern’s Show Boat. Now that show was path-breaking. A major plot element was that a half-black character was “passing” as white, to use the language of the day. And all the characters were American.

    Actually, most of Hammerstein’s work with Rodgers had “preachy” as well as quite dark elements. The King and I is full of abolitionism. The Sound of Music’s plot is driven by post-Anschluss Austrian resistance to the Nazis. The first R&H musical, Oklahoma, had a character who was a sexual psychopath. Their second – Carousel – was all about the post-mortem regrets of a rudderless protagonist over his wasted life and tragic death. The unsuccessful Allegro was all about urban angst. The disastrous Pipedream was based on a sequel to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and featured a “waitress” (prostitute) in a “diner” (brothel) as the lead female character. The modestly successful Flower Drum Song includes a suicide among its plot points. Cinderella, of course, famously starts out quite darkly. Of all their collaborations, only State Fair – which was, from the start, written as a film, not a stage, musical – and Me and Juliet, a musical about the backstage life of a theater company that puts on a musical every night, lacked tragic elements. But Me and Juliet was a flop.

    I sometimes wonder at Rodgers & Hammerstein’s popular image as writers of “family” musicals. There is a lot of, at the very least, PG-13 stuff in their work.

    That is not, by the way, meant as a criticism. I’ve always thought the idea, for example, that The Sound of Music is light and fluffy to be completely bonkers.

  • wayne

    Excellent stuff!
    – Highly appreciate the backgrounder & commentary!

    My late wife was a huge (yuge) fan of Musicals, myself– not so much, although I’ve been trying to appreciate them more recently. Or rather, trying to convince myself that I should like them more than I have in the past.
    (I do have literally, “all of them,” on DVD.)

    Personally, I do enjoy Holiday Inn, White Christmas, Music Man, and State Fair, I struggle with pretty much everything else. [I do like “Quadrophenia,” & “The Wall” if those count as actual Musicals.]

    To me, it’s sorta like buying a double-album (for those of us who remember what those were) and only liking a few of the tracks at most, and not understanding any of the Concept. And I have a big (yuge) problem temporarily suspending my disbelief in the Story-line, when everyone breaks out into Song every 12 minutes.

    That having been said– I am going to preview me some R&H again, but in a new light.

    (har– tangentially– everybody did/does realize…. that Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke, was the madam that ran the brothel upstairs at the saloon? )

  • wayne

    Excellent stuff, as well!

    pivoting tangentially….
    “Signs You Were Born In The Midwest”

  • Wayne: I strongly recommend that you watch The Sound of Music. Not only is it badly underrated by our blowhard intellectual class, it does a good job of telling a human story in the context of the events of history. Moreover, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief. Some people do like to sing, and end up making their living doing it. This moves tells that story (though obviously in a somewhat idealized way).

  • Edward

    You wrote: “And I have a big (yuge) problem temporarily suspending my disbelief in the Story-line, when everyone breaks out into Song every 12 minutes.

    I had the same problem until I was able to think of musicals as a series of music videos with a plot to link the videos together; now I don’t mind so much that an entire street of strangers suddenly bursts into song and coordinated, well-rehearsed dance. An alternate view is to think of them as being those newfangled “flash mobs.” (To be fair, I haven’t seen “West Side Story,” because I still can’t quite get my head around a gang of street fighters bursting into song and dance.)

    You have chosen some good musicals to enjoy. I especially like “White Christmas” for its fun story and the comedy of Danny Kaye.

    I second Robert’s recommendation of “The Sound of Music” as one to watch. Not only do I enjoy the music, but it has an excellent story that would stand alone, without the music, as a good short story.

  • wayne

    West Side Story, is just Romeo & Juliet, as near as I can tell.

  • Wayne: West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet. They based it on the Shakespeare play.

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