My #MusicAdvent pick for today, from 1972, was another Three Dog Night song, one I mentioned a couple of days ago: “Black and White.” My two-year-old self probably fell in love with the catchy melody and watered-down message of unity. Hey, I come from a progressive, liberal family. What else would you expect?
It’s a song that has stayed with me most of my life, partly because of it’s innocent optimism, and partly because it’s just fun to sing. And hear. And bop around the house to. In my head, when I hear this song I’m six or seven, with golden-brown hair that borders on being strawberry, and thick braids, and a summer tan, and sand in my shoes. I have memories of having a family friend, one who was trained as a classical musician, to play it on his organ (and we’re not talking a cheap electric organ, but one of those room-filling instruments with pull-out stops for different sounds, and a dual keyboard, and…yeah).
So, yesterday, when I went looking for the songs of my first few years of life, I investigated the history of this song (thank you, Wikipedia), and learned that Three Dog Night’s version, while immensely popular, is a cover of a song that was written by David Arkin and Earl Robinson, and first recorded by…wait for it…Pete Seeger.
No, really, it’s a folk song.
In fact, it’s a folk song about Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ended segregation in public schools.
Here is one of the verses that the popular version omits:
Their robes were black, their heads were white
The schoolroom doors were closed so tight
Were closed up tight
Nine judges all, set down their names
To end the years and years of shame
Years of shame
And here is another:
Oh, the slate is black, the chalk is white
The words stand out so clear and bright
So clear and bright
And now at last, we plainly see
The alphabet of liberty
The activist part of me likes the original better. It has more depth, tells a better story, and makes sense.
But the Three Dog Night version is the one that turns into an earworm, probably because they based their version on a reggae-inspired cover by a British band, and that freshens the melody, and adds syncopation that the original didn’t have.
But it loses the message.
Want to compare them yourself?
Here’s the Pete Seeger version:
And here’s Three Dog Night:
Which one do you prefer…and why?