Blues is an old genre of music and often, with our current ears and sensibilities, some songs’ content sounds creepy, in poor taste, or even simply dark. It happens so often that I have a playlist of songs that I only share with others in very specific contexts. To be honest, I’ve felt mildly ashamed of loving these songs due to the knowledge that people often feel uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years. I recently heard a quote about the fact that many artists singing about their abusive partner, or how evil they were, were actually talking about their owners, bosses and white people in their life. It caused me to wonder what other context we are missing in this music. What else are we prejudging?
So, when the song “good morning little school girl” came on, I immediately fell in love, only to feel betrayed two lines in. Oh God, I thought. Is he talking about trying to seduce a young child?! Why? Why ruin this song? [take a listen] I was heartbroken by this song. It has just a good sound and I felt weird for liking it, and wanting to play it. It was felt strange to realize I could never play it, and it would simply have to go into my “sensitive blues” playlist.
Curious if I misheard, I looked up the lyrics. There it was,
“Hello, little school girl
Good morning, little school girl
Can I go home with you?
Can I go home, later wit’ you?”
With more research I found this song had been covered for many, many years. It has topped charts many times over. Many of the artists we know and love have also covered this song, so what’s with it?
Then it hit me. I’m looking at this song through the wrong lens of English and of time. The context of the singers culture matters, particularly since the Black and White English speakers don’t use the same words to mean the same things at times.
Today when we think of “school girl,” we often think of a younger age, say before 10. Why is that? We have word for ages after 10, pre-teen and teenager. Or, we (in America) use “middle schooler,” or “high schooler.” These are ways to suggest age. But before those words were used, anyone is school was a “school boy” or “school girl.”
I can hear you saying, “Ok Grey, but what about the “little”? Doesn’t that denote age?” Yes and no. In white American English, the word “little” is used only for a certain age group, normally under 10. That is often dropped in middle school (10+) because it’s considered demeaning. Here’s the thing: “Little” in black English isn’t used like that. “Little” just means younger than me. It comes back to the hierarchy [we wrote about it] in that black people are very aware of age. Additionally, you aren’t considered an adult until you are past 25 (at least today).
A phrase many black people have heard is “I’m not one of your little friends” and or having a partner referred to as a “little friend” by a parent when they are under 25, for sure and maybe by people much older even after that point age.
Why? The term “little” has nothing much less to do with the person’s age, but more their age in relation to the speaker. Both a 40 year old and a 23 year old and would refer to a 21 year old as “little.”
Then also consider the age of consent at the time. In this era, you were a consenting adult at the age of around 16. The typical graduating age from “high school” was around this age too as well. I believe historically that black women married younger than many black men due to the inability to attend college as well as social expectations.
So, we have established the “little school girl” might not be a very young child, but a young woman on the cusp of being able to marry, and graduate high school, and that she’s younger than the original singer. Ok, that’s not so bad, right?
Then there is this line….
“Now, you can tell yo’ mother an’ yo’ father, mm
That Sonny Boy’s a little school boy, too”
Ehhhhh, weird again. Why tell her to lie? Clearly he is doing something wrong? This brings that feeling up again that maybe he’s WAY too old for her. Sonny Boy at the time of the recording was in his early 20s, which is not really old enough for that comment to make sense given what we know. Alas, we again have missed a contextual detail or two.
He’s a blues man. Blues was considered the devil’s music, and the men that performed it weren’t to be trusted. They were considered to be flaky, shifty, and possibly evil. They had a reputation for being very sexual, which is sinful. On the other hand, him being a little school boy is much better. It’s more honorable, implies they are of a similar age, and doesn’t cause her to lose face or have issues.
With all this in mind, it changes the feel of the song a great deal. It’s no longer a story of a creepy man hitting on a primary school student, but instead a young man hitting on a young lady. It now aligns with the cultural way of flirting. Men are more forward when they make the assumption that women have the power to say no ‘[read more about that here]
Listen to this song again. Tell me what you think!
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