Friday, October 18, 2013

"Song Of The Roustabouts" In The Movie "Dumbo" (video, lyrics, & comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

I happened upon Walt Disney's "Song Of The Roustabouts" while searching for information about and lyrics to the Old Time music song entitled "Roustabouts".* Disney's "Song Of The Roustabouts" is included in his 1941 animated movie "Dumbo". "Dumbo" is a story about an elephant who is ostrazised because of his big ears but who learns how to fly with the help of his friends the crows.

This post features a video of "Song Of The Roustabouts", lyrics for that song, and selected comments about the alleged racism in the visual depiction of the roustabouts, and in the lyrics of that song. These comments are from the featured YouTube video's viewer comment thread. In addition, some comments & Links to comments about the movie "Dumbo"'s depiction of the crows is found in the Addendum to this post.

*Click for lyrics to a version of the Old Time Music song "Roustabouts" (also known as "High Hop Lula" and similar titles.)

Also click for a pancocojams post about "Chanties Sung By Black Circus Work Crews".

WARNING: All comments that are quoted in this post are free of pejoratives and profanity. However, some other comments on that YouTube comment thread include pejorative references, profanity, and other content that may be inappropriate for children.

The content of this post is presented for educational, cultural, and sociological purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Dumbo - Song of the Roustabouts (English + subs)

19Szabolcs91, Uploaded on May 25, 2009
Dumbo - Song of the Roustabouts

I was really surprised it wasn't up on youtube, because Song of the Roustabouts is probably my favorite song, not only from Dumbo, but from any of Walt's films.
Just by listening to it I get filled by energy.

I don't own this, Disney does.

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We work all day, we work all night
We never learned to read or write
We're happy-hearted roustabouts
Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we're almost dead
We're happy-hearted roustabouts
Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We don't know when we get our pay
And when we do, we throw our pay away
(When we get our pay, we throw our money all away)
We get our pay when children say
With happy hearts, "It's circus day today"
(Then we get our pay, just watching kids on circus day)
Muscles achin'
Back near breaking
Eggs and bacon what we need (Yes, sir!)
Boss man houndin'
Keep on poundin'
For your bed and feed
There ain't no let up
Must get set up
Pull that canvas! Drive that stake!
Want to doze off
Get them clothes off
But must keep awake
Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave!
Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave!
Swing that sledge! Sing that song!
Work and laugh the whole night long
You happy-hearted roustabouts!
Pullin', poundin', tryin', groundin'
Big top roundin' into shape
Keep on working!
Stop that shirking!
Grab that rope, you hairy ape!
Poundin'! poundin'! poundin'! poundin'!
Oh...Hep! Heave! Hep!

(These comment are numbered for references purposes. I've tried to present the comments in chronological order with the oldest comment given first, the numbers may not always reflect that chronological order.)

1. WasteOfAmmunition
"what's a "roustabout"?"

2. Gone2Huntin
"It's basically a worker that works unskilled hard labor"

3. Joemeister
"Good god the atmosphere! Those voices and that imagery! Stunning every time. I would not really call it racist, it actually show the afro-american people as a proud community + they have compassion. They don't need money or anything seeing the smiles on childrens faces and the happiness and joy is all they need... Simply excellent."

4. jesster816
[Editor: This was written in response to a comment that has since been deleted.]
"false. racist because it's perpetuating the idea that slavery/conditions that arose from slavery "weren't all that bad" and black people were still a bunch of happy old folks anyway when that was the opposite of the case. it's not about money causing happiness or unhappiness but about being given the same chance at life that the other part of the population had/has"

5. Starbuckskat
"When everyone has gone to bed, we slave until we're almost dead"

6. Jimboman300
"The most telling lyric is "We don't know when we get our pay and when we get our pay we throw our pay away. When we get our pay we throw our money all away"

This seems to imply that when black men make money they will just waste it on booze or cheap women. Which is sometimes true but its also the case for many white men as well but is rather insulting to the many blacks who worked hard to feed there familes."

"Yes, this is blatantly racist. It is portraying black men as nothing but dumb muscle. Let's not dismiss that because it's a "stupid kids movie" and kids wouldn't see that.

If the Disney company produced a scene like this in modern times, then they'd be ostracized, and for good reason. Times have changed since 1940, and our tolerance for each other is one way humankind has changed for the better."

8. Pippa87
"When people complain that this stuff is racist, I wonder if they would prefer just to pretend it all never happened? "OH NO, you were ALWAYS treated well, we NEVER did ANYTHING awful to you." This is just an honset portrayal of life in the 1940s, frankly it's more insulting to pretend it was perfect for black people."

9. Rick Sims
"The racism isn't in the portrayal of the circumstances, but the perceived mental attitude of those being discriminated against. No black was happy to be worked all day and all night for little to no pay, while being denied access to education. The disgruntlement of the situation is what lead to the Civil Rights marches @ 15-20 years later."

10. Timothius81
"people need to realize that this was in 1941. The great depression was still going on (though not as bad as the 30's) and any job anyone had was a blessing and they were happy to have it. To me, this is not racist but a look into the times. A time when blacks would have been hired because they could be paid less (or not at all if the circus wasn't making much) and do hard work. Also, literacy rates (especially among blacks) were low. It's just how it was."

11. Rick Sims
"True, but it didn't make them happy. If so, then MLK, Jr., made mute points about the condition of black society under those economic conditions. Yes, literacy rates for blacks were low, but it didn't result from lack of effort to be educated by blacks. It was the denial of equal and quality education that made it so."

12. spellbounddetroit
"Well I'm white, I'm educated, and I have done this kind of work. Pounding stakes in the rain, setting up the big top. Why? Because I'm a "Happy Hearted Rousteboute" lol. although the lines about not knowing when your getting paid and throwing (a.k.a. drinking) your pay away ring true. but after this back breaking work I think a drink is well in order. Cheers. And May all your days be Circus Days..."

13. Rick Sims
"I agree with what you are saying, but it's the beginning lyrics that causes the problem. "We work all day, we work all night, we never learned to read or write. We're happy-hearted roustabouts." "

14. Rich High
"Last line "grab that rope you hairy ape" bout as racist as u can get"

15. wheeeeeeatthins
"Those defending this song as a kind depiction because "this group isn't motivated by money, how nice!" must realize one thing:

This is fiction. It's not a real testimonial of black people saying they don't want money; it's words put into the mouths of a class of people who'd never actually say these things. If you ask anyone with a demanding menial labor job if they work for money or for the "joy" of the job, they'd laugh. In reality, you can't pay for food and housing with kidsmiles."

16. Carl Brush
"The video has nothing to do with race. The reason for them being dark is to symbolize that they are unseen, faceless, and invisible. It represents that there was nothing remarkable or distinctive about them in society. The "hairy ape" comment refers to them being less than hygienic and just there for muscle. Similar to using the term "wrench monkey" to describe a mechanic. Just a general run of the mil wrench turner. Nothing racist here."

17. ericpaul698
"I'm certain the line, "we throw our pay away", referred to alcoholism and nothing more. Of course I might be wrong. Currently I'm in shock after enjoying this song as a child and now reading the lyrics as an adult."

18. evilbisback
[Editor: This comment was written in reply to a comment that has been deleted.]
"Point taken about not coming down too harshly on people who engaged in (to modern eyes) problematic practices that were commensurate with the times. But I fear your comment perpetuates the unfortunate view that if something isn't "intended to be racist," there's nothing wrong with it. Maybe Walt Disney isn't wholly blameworthy for depictions of race in his movies, but we can still point to the exploitative and insensitive nature of these portrayals as an unfortunate part of our history."

19. FreddyKrueger49
"As a kid, I've always found this scene awesome and a bit epic! Though this might appear racist, back as a four-year-old white kid, I just saw a bunch of guys working with animals to raise a circus tent in a thunderstorm. It was freaking cool!"

20. chiflynex
"This movie was released in 1941, ergo it was only reflecting the truth back then."

21. kellen dunkelberger
"Not truth, it was reflecting white opinions of black people."

22. Hanna Elizabeth
"Ugh, all the excuses for the song in the comments are making my stomach turn...this song drove my friend to tears as a kid. That's not racism to you? You can like a movie and acknowledge that it's racist/sexist/whatever. Saying it's a "reflection of the times" completely ignores the fact that there WERE people, black and white, working towards equality during the forties. If it was a "reflection of the times" it's a reflection of the absolute worst of those times, not the best."

23. 1LovetheRainbow
"Hate to say but I like this songs music and the thunder, it's moving. That said, after watching years later, the firsts racist I noticed was they have no drawn faces on the black workers. Didn't bother atleast give them a facial idenity. After reading the lyrics, that's more racist even. I'm surprised no one talks about this song in comparison to the crows song which I didn't find that racist at all."

24. PrincessGweneviere
"So being dark makes you unseen, faceless and invisible? It represents that there is nothing remarkable or distinctive about you in society? Yeah, that's racist."

25. Philip Grindle
"just watched this movie the other night and of course I remembered the crows and racist they were but completely forgot about this song..... talk about stereotyping"

26. HappyJackKitty
"REAL racist... the only thing i like about it is that its catchy and rainstorm atmosphere make it feel powerful.... ... ... .."

27. "GlasgowPhilosipher
"the audience for this film when it first came out would have only seen the circus from the spectator side, and probably not even considered the amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes, by people who got far less than they deserved for it. That to me is what makes this sequence so powerful."

28. skrivbok
"I guess that's what most kids see when watching this movie - I seriously doube that most four-year-old kids are able to analyze a scene like this from a racist perspective. Most kids barely know what racism's about."

"Dumbo is a 1941 American animated film produced by Walt Disney Productions and released on October 23, 1941, by RKO Radio Pictures...

Allegations of racial stereotyping
Writer Richard Schickel charged that the crow characters in the film are African-American stereotypes in his 1968 book, The Disney Version. The leader crow, played by Cliff Edwards, was originally named "Jim Crow" for script purposes, and is listed as such in the credits. However, all of other crows are voiced by African-American actors, who were all members of the popular all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Despite suggestions by writers such as Schickel who have criticized the portrayal as racist,[35] others reject these claims.[36] Defenders note that the crows form the majority of the characters in the movie who are sympathetic to Dumbo's plight, that they are free spirits who bow to no one, and that they are intelligent characters aware of the power of self-confidence, unlike the Stepin Fetchit stereotype common in the previous decade. Furthermore, the crows' song "When I See An Elephant Fly", which uses intricate wordplay in the lyrics, is oriented more toward mocking Timothy Mouse than Dumbo's large ears."
This article doesn’t mention the “Song of The Roustabouts”.

"Disney Takes Things a Step Too Far: Dumbo and Racism"
..."While Disney has had a history of racism in their films and amusement parks, as discussed by Giroux in his article, "Are Disney Movies Good For Your Kids?" Dumbo seems to have taken things a step too far. A set of racist black crows with stereotypical African American traits, and names like Jim Crowe is only the beginning, and in my opinion not nearly as offensive as the lyrics to one of the films opening songs, "The Song of the Roustabouts".
The article cited by Henry Giroux can be found at
Editor's comment:
Some people have written that the depiction of the crows wasn't racist because the crows were friendly & helpful to Dumbo. However, it occurs to me that these crows are a variation of the "Magic Negro" characterization.
"The Magical Negro is a supporting stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film's white protagonists.[1] These characters, who often possess special insight or mystical powers, have been a long tradition in American fiction.[2]

Many within the African-American community in the United States now express unhappiness about the ongoing use of such magical characters. In 2001, Spike Lee, while discussing films with students at Washington State University and at Yale University, said he was dismayed at Hollywood's decision to continue using the premise; he noted that the films The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance used the "super-duper magical Negro".[3][4][5]

In an article in Time concerning the re-election of Barack Obama in September 2012, cultural critic and TV personality Touré said: "While some may think it complimentary to be considered 'magical', it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural."[6]

Critics use the word "negro" because it is considered archaic, and usually offensive, in modern English. This underlines their message that a "magical black character" who goes around selflessly helping white people is a throwback to stereotypes such as the "Sambo" or "Noble savage".[2]"

Note that in that movie the crows given Dumbo a "magic feather" which helps that elephant fly.

Click for detailed information about the crows in the movie "Dumbo".

Thanks to those who are quoted in this post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Replies
    1. Anonymous, thanks for your comment, but I'm curious how the work these songs are about are just like your work.

      Your work must really be backbreakingly difficult.

  2. Something everyone seems to skip over.... While the other circus animals sleep and are carted around, the elephants continue to work - even the infant Dumbo. The humans have no faces, are portrayed in shadows, and towards the second half of the song are just voices while the elephants work. Disney made an "Animal Movie," and the humans were either irrelevant background, directly antagonistic, or situational to progress the story. You could just as easily agree that it was an intentional poor portrayal of the black man specifically to call attention to it - specifically to create a metaphor to the elephants: all work and no respect...

    1. Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

      While what you wrote could be an interpretation of the faceless Black workers, given the depiction of the crows and other racist elements in Disney movies of that time, I stand by the interpretation of that scene that I gave in this post.