On my album Big Bang Baby Boom there is a song - Black Man at the Door - that puzzles people as to why I would write and perform a seemingly racist song.It's a fairly long story...
It started when I read about a conversation between Chuck Cannon, Janis Ian and another songwriter at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. It is in chapter three of Susan Tucker's excellent book, "The Secrets of Songwriting."(1) Chuck had only recently moved to Nashville and had auditioned for the Sunday night writers' show before judge Janis Ian. Later that evening, Chuck was sitting at Janis' table when another songwriter observed that to write good songs, you must write what you know about. Janis responded to the effect that a great song could come out of writing about what you don't want people to know about you. Chuck trumped that with - "Yeah, and if you want to write awesome songs, write what you don't want to even know about yourself."
So I took his advice.
I was also trying to follow Brenda Ueland's idea that a universal is best evoked by focusing on a particular.(2) If you listen to my song, or read the lyrics, you will see it describes two or three particular minutes in the life of a suburban home-owner when a black stranger comes to his door. The man hides, basically - he is scared of...what? Being confronted by a black man or confronting his own racist nature?
I know that many white Americans have experienced something like this. That's one reason the song makes them uncomfortable. I decided to confront my own racist attitudes, or at least admit they exist - the thing I didn't want to even know about myself. The first step in trying to change a habit or an attitude is to admit that you have it!
I haven't performed the song live in many years. When I did, and especially when there were black people in the audience, you could literally cut the tension with a knife. The average white person would have a frozen facial expression of "He's not really saying that!". Black people would be more likely to nod or smile - "Yeah, that's right." We live in a society where racism towards African-Americans is simply part of the fabric of our daily lives. I was hoping my song would cause people to wake up a bit, see themselves as the protagonist in the song and maybe challenge themselves to try and change. Step one.
(1) The Secrets of Songwriting. 2003, Susan Tucker. Allworth Press
(2) If You Want To Write. 2nd edition 2004, Brenda Ueland. The Schubert Club, Viking Press.