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Censored Songs In American History

| October 25, 2011 | 3 Comments

Censorship is nothing new. In fact, it was 1735 when the first song was banned in this country. The issue in that case, as often it is, was one of politics—namely the party in power didn’t like the tone of the tune. Songs have also been censored in the name of sensitivity, morality and racism; here we look at eight examples found throughout history. Though our ideas of what is offensive may have changed, the reasons to resist censorship remain the same. Freedom of speech is a right inherent without qualifiers.

“A Song Made Upon the Election of New Magistrates To the City”
Catchy title! Dating back to 1735, this is the first example of a song banned in this country. When John Peter Zenger, who owned the first printing press in America, was shut down for printing articles critical of the English king, they also seized his song publishing for songs that mocked the authorities. While this predates the First Amendment, he was acquitted when his attorney argued that by printing the truth, he should not be condemned. And the truth set him free.

“Strange Fruit”
“Strange Fruit” was written by a New York school teacher, Abel Meeropol, and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. With an anger and sadness stemming from a photograph of the lynching of a black man, Meeropol wrote what Time Magazine later called “the most important song of the century.” On its first performance at the Café Society in Manhattan, it took what seemed like an eternity for the stunned audience to applaud. Holiday reportedly showed some uneasiness about continuing to perform the song. Barney Josephson, the club’s manager, understood the reaction and insisted she sing it nightly, always at the end of the show in a single spotlight. Holiday’s label, Columbia Records, refused outright to release the song but the small Commodore label dared to distribute the recording. iI is available now through Holiday’s Verve collections.


“Good Rockin’ Tonight”
While the original record by performing songwriter Roy Brown barely raised an eyebrow, the Elvis Presley recording blurred all the lines between race records and pop music. This playfully suggestive song faced reactive measures; Elvis’ first banned record occurred courtesy of the Juvenile Delinquency Commission in Houston which removed it from all local jukeboxes and record stores in 1954.


“Louie Louie”
Written by Richard Berry and first recorded in 1957 with his band the Pharoahs, the lyrics of rock ’n’ roll’s ultimate party song were clear enough on his original recording, even through a faux-Jamaican accent. The lyric had no sexual references: Louie was a bartender. “Me gotta’ go! Sleep it off!” It wasn’t until the Kingsmen cut their garbled, garage-rock hit version in 1963 that sparks flew. As legend grew of the Kingsmen’s singing dirty lyrics on the radio, it became common all over America for kids to claim to have deciphered the “real” words to “Louie Louie.” Frat party combos took lyrical liberties from coast to coast. Word spread from kids to parents to the FBI, who opened a six-city, 30-month investigation on the matter. After purchasing multiple copies in search of the “dirty” one, they exhausted all possibilities and deemed the record “unintelligible at any speed.” They never chose to interview Richard Berry.


“Society’s Child (Baby, I’ve Been Thinking)”
Janis Ian was only 14 when she wrote this song about interracial dating that eventually became a worldwide hit in 1966. Knowing that the subject matter was going to be a tough sell, her producer, Shadow Morton, was turned down by 22 different labels. In the end, it was the Verve label that ended up with a hit on its hands after Leonard Bernstein featured a young Ian on his national television program. While this success brought Ian opportunities to perform on the road, she also had to face hostile audiences that would sometimes try and drive her off stage with taunts and shouting. She quit the music business for a couple years but got back to recording with her 1975 hit “At Seventeen,” and hasn’t stopped since.


“A Little Help From My Friends”
President Richard Nixon told radio broadcasters in 1970 that rock music should be screened for content and drug messages. Giving a speech in Las Vegas, Vice President Spiro Agnew singled out this song as evidence that the Beatles were talking to the kids in code: “I get high with a little help from my friends.” Taking their cue from this speech, the FCC created a pamphlet suggesting that radio stations could lose their licenses if they played songs with lyrics as questionable as these. Today it’s one of those Beatles songs that you can always find on elevator Muzak.


“Short People”
When tunesmith Randy Newman finally scored a hit single as an artist in 1978, it was with this wickedly ironic pop morsel. To find out who didn’t “get it,” look no further than the Maryland House of Delegates, where a proposed law to ban the record from the state’s radio stations made the rounds. Luckily, the Attorney General, Francis B. Birch, came to the following conclusion: “The long and short of it is that we feel that the bill cannot measure up to constitutional scrutiny. We hope that we have correctly sized up the situation.”


While this Olivia Newton-John hit from 1981 may have temporarily put some kind of “edge” on her career, it’s somewhat baffling to hear now about the response this song received from radio stations in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah. Reportedly worried how their (predominantly Morman) listeners might react when hearing the provocative lyrics from this disco-era smash, they banned the record from both stations. It was a No. 1 hit everywhere else.

—By Bill Lloyd

From Performing Songwriter Issue 79

Category: Best of PS

Comments (3)

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  1. May says:

    @Joseph and @Chuck, are you guys kidding me???
    Chuck, the rappers on the radio WISH they were real gangsta rappers. All they know is “f*** b****es, get money”; that’s not even half the gangsta life.
    Joseph, Waka Flocka isn’t a gangsta rapper. He’s a mainstream you-know-what. His lyrics are the same as Lil Wayne’s and Drake’s, and God knows they’re anything but gangsta.

  2. Joseph says:

    @Chuck Gangsta Rap isn’t even really created nowadays. The only real “rapper” you can label as a “gangster” is Waka Flocka and even he’s a joke.

  3. Chuck says:

    The above songs are so innocent compared to today’s heavily
    layden gangsta rap…

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