“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught…”

Last Friday night, my wife and I saw the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of South Pacific. [For those of you not familiar with the festival, in the summer season they do three Shakespeare plays – this summer, Henry IV, Part 2, King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew — and two non-Shakespeare plays, South Pacific and Amadeus.]

When Lieutenant Cable finished singing “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” I realized, again, what a powerful song it is, especially considering that it was an anti-prejudice, anti-racist song composed in 1949 by two white males, and a song that initially stirred more than a little controversy in the then-largely white theatre community because it points out graphically the prejudice is taught, not inherited, and that whites were the ones doing that teaching. I don’t think that it was incidental that Cable is portrayed as a Princeton graduate, a university that was then a bastion of upper-class white privilege.

But my second realization was the fact that in more than fifty years of hearing popular songs, I’ve only heard it performed once outside the context of South Pacific, unlike songs from many other musicals, such as “Send in the Clowns,” which has been performed by something like fifty different artists. When I tried to search for singers who had recorded it solo, I could only come up with two, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Barbra Streisand. There certainly may have been others, but I doubt that there are many.

At the same time, there are many written references to the song, but a written statement doesn’t have the same impact as a song, as witness the impact of many black and protest songs, ranging from “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (associated with the Underground Railway), “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Bell,” “This Land is My Land,” etc.

The “problem” with “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” is that it’s not a triumphant song, but a remonstrative one, and one that strikes directly at the failings of the “white culture” of the pre-civil rights time period… and, unhappily, still is relevant to far too many white Americans….which is why I suspect you’ll seldom hear it outside of South Pacific.

5 thoughts on ““You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught…””

  1. Thom says:

    On the other hand, outside of the musical there is a lack of context, and the lyrics could be taken as sincere rather than ironic. Considering how easily people misinterpret at the drop of a hat these days, it’s probably better that it not be left to chance. It would be incredibly ironic if one of the most controversial pro-equality songs of its time were to be banned by today’s shrieking eels of literalism and righteous indignation who can’t be bothered with context.

  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks… Interesting and something to ponder. I miss the Shakespeare Festival and its offerings

  3. Wine Guy says:

    Thom: nice “Princess Bride” reference. I give you 2 points.

  4. Guy says:

    My wife is a big fan of South Pacific and loves that song, I’m a big fan of your thoughtful, rational thinking so I wanted to share this with her. She immediately went to Youtube to listen to the song and what do you know? You can add Mandy Potemkin of all people to your rather short list of people who have sung it outside of the context of the play.


  5. Guy says:

    You’d think I would be more careful, that should be Mandy “Patinkin”. Maybe Thom was giving us a clue with his Princess Bride reference!

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