PEEK

"Whitey On The Moon" Revisited

On the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11, it's worth considering what Gil Scott-Heron had to say.

My sense is that if most people know any reference to the music of Gil Scott-Heron ("GSH") nowadays, it would likely be the title of his arch, sardonic proto-rap single "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," from the 1974 compilation album of that name.  For many of us who grew up in the mid-1970s, this GSH album was the Richard Pryor concert of music -- the rebellious and pugnacious and smart as hell spirit of Malcolm X in 40 or so minutes.  It was a common fixture in the record collections of the hosts of parties I attended then, and one that, when I was hosting, a guest was likely to pull out to play.

This song contained not only proto-rap, but some of the most beautiful and haunting songs you could ever want to hear, such as "Lady Day" and "Pieces of a Man."  But the one that prompts this diary, on the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11, is "Whitey on the Moon," because I can't think of the events of that day without thinking of that song and the challenge that it offers.

The first thing that I have to address, I suppose, is the song's use of a racial slur in the title.  It is, in some sense, "not OK," and yet I have to say that being white I'm more likely to react to it with a snicker than with fear or umbrage at an insult to my dignity.  I understand why he says it.  If you don't, well, maybe this video or lyrics below will offer a hint.

Whitey on the Moon

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)
I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon)
The man jus' upped my rent las' night.
('cause Whitey's on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
I wonder why he's uppi' me?
('cause Whitey's on the moon?)
I wuz already payin' 'im fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes takin' my whole damn check,
Junkies makin' me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin' up,
An' as if all that shit wuzn't enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an' arm began to swell.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Was all that money I made las' year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain't no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey's on the moon)
Y'know I jus' 'bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I'll sen' these doctor bills,
Air. Mail. Special
(to Whitey on the moon)