Saturday, November 19, 2011

Know Your Place and Like It

Some songs give me the creeps. This one, for example.

I liked Johnny Cash when I was a kid, but I never heard this song until the 70s or 80s. It didn't make me hate him, and I still like a lot of his music, but it took me aback. The little shoeshine boy is never said to be black, though he exhibits some minstrel tendencies: big wide grins and natural rhythm are a traditional part of white stereotypes of blacks in this country. But that's not what bothers me about "Get Rhythm"; the boy could be white, and it would make no difference.

Dealing with the public in your work can be pleasant. It's never been the main part of the jobs I've had, but it's often been part of them; mostly I've enjoyed it. Putting on a smile is just good customer relations. It may lead to bigger tips, but it also makes the time pass more easily. And it's true, physical work goes more easily if you find a rhythm for it.

The thing is, though, work is still work, even when it's relatively pleasant. Many customers want to forget that. They'd like to think that the friendly server or salesgirl or shoeshine likes them, and wants to be their friend. (I'm still haunted by the memory of a middle-aged man in a record store who asked a young store worker if they had a certain recording in stock. He then held forth on the virtues of different performances at great length, as the boy looked more and more uncomfortable. Finally a coworker noticed, came over and asked the boy to help him with stocking or something elsewhere in the store. The older man disengaged, and once he was out of earshot I overheard the kid thank his coworker for the help. I inwardly swore a bloody vow never to do that to a hapless worker; now, of course, I have this blog as an outlet for my garrulity.)

People of higher social status also like to think that the lower orders like their situation, that they don't mind being poor and working hard from dawn to dusk, that they were born to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, and they recognize the superiority of their betters. Indeed, they are eager to serve, to give good homely advice that helps the better-off to forget their own troubles.
He stopped once to wipe the sweat away
I said "You're a mighty little boy to be-a workin' that way"
He said "I like it" with a big wide grin
Kept on a poppin' and he said again:

Get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe
Does a million dollars worth of good for you
Get rhythm when you get the blues
When I hear people talking about the days when schools taught, when an education meant something, when children were given more demanding work, I always remember that those were the days of child labor, of kids who dropped out of school and went to work in the second grade. True, there were more ways for unskilled workers to earn a living in those days, but then you have to remember that the shoeshine boy in this song probably is supposed to be black, and his prospects were limited no matter how many years of schooling he got. But then, the same was true of most poor kids, regardless of their color. I often remember how lucky I've been: if I'd been born a generation earlier, I'd have grown up in a much poorer, limited society; if I'd been born a generation later, I'd have grown up in a society in which an education was good for becoming a shoeshine boy.

Yeah yeah, I know, it's only a song. The infectious rockabilly beat sticks with me, which is why I'm still thinking about it hours after I heard it on the radio today. Most people don't even listen to the lyrics, but I'm a words (as well as a music) person. Even leaving race out of it, "Get Rhythm" exemplifies a romanticizing of poverty that is all too common in popular entertainment, and that a lot of people don't want to get rid of, not quite yet.