Border Mail, Wednesday 19 January 2011
In the scheme of current events the reportage of attempts to sanitise one of the world’s acknowledged classics of literature and a classic song of the 1980’s may seem trivial, but for me it points to a growing tendency to view artistic works through a current lens, and sometimes that of a vocal minority, rather than in the context of their time.
Both reports come out of North America: one from the US and the other from Canada, but we’ve experienced similar moves to make lyrics of songs, names of our wildlife and even names of landmarks more palatable to the sensitivities of some.
In the first case the word ‘nigger’ is being replaced with ‘slave’ in a new combined edition of ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, while the second the Dire Straits’ song ‘Money for Nothing’ has been censored for a word which one person found offensive.
Editor and Twain scholar, Alan Gribben, who is responsible for the new edition of Mark Twain’s most famous works, believes by replacing what in the US press has been termed the ‘n’ word with the ‘s’ word, Twain’s works will be more accessible to a wider audience.
Language is a living and changing thing, but each piece of writing whether it is a poem, novel or song is written in the context of its time and its value can often be measured by the extent to which it continues to be read, or in the case of a song, listened to.
The appeal of ‘Huck Finn’ lies in its authenticity, accurately documenting the time and dilemma for Huck who befriends the slave, Jim and makes the decision to aid his freedom, rather than return him to a certain fate of being sold. Huck’s actions reflect Twain’s own anti-slavery views.
But would changing that one word make it less authentic?
Twain was well known for his wordsmithing and the time he took to find the perfect word for the narrative or his characters’ dialogue.
At that time ‘nigger’ was the word used to describe people of colour, many of whom were slaves, but some were free, so its wholesale replacement could change the meaning.
I was contemplating all of this and recalling other examples including one in Australia last year involving changes to the lyric of the well known children’s song ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’ from ‘gay your life must be’ to ‘fun your life must be’ because of concern about the changing use of the word ‘gay’ and its connotation when, through Twitter, I was alerted to the Dire Straits ‘Money for Nothing’ lyric controversy.
The 1985 hit song’s inspiration is drawn from a visit to a hardware store by the front man Mark Knopfler where he overheard a worker refer to rock stars in a video clip as ‘faggots’.
Despite the song’s popularity and Grammy winning status, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found that particular word in the song derogatory to gay men, and has ordered radio stations in Canada to censor the lyrics. They can still play the song, but must beep out the word which caused offence to that one listener.
Again, will deleting the word make the lyric less authentic?
Perhaps not, but Dire Straits songs did reflect the issues of the time including celebrity, consumerism and even the Falklands War giving us accessible social commentary.
Over time the most influential writers in all forms give us an authentic view of what may be happening in the world.
As readers and listeners we have a choice: take it or leave it.