The economy? Foreign policy? Urgent matters, but they could wait. Speaking directly to his young daughters, Barack Obama discussed another topic early in his landmark election-night acceptance speech: “I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”
The announcement is sure to have elated Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, who, as the nation knows, have long lobbied their parents for a dog. Obama, the first black man elected president of the United States, and his wife Michelle, recently revealed that the “First Puppy” will join the First Family once they’ve settled into the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Uplifting news for dog aficionados across the political spectrum, revelations about the forthcoming canine addition to the Obama family hold special resonance for Bernard LaFayette, Jr. A distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, LaFayette is also the co-writer of a famed civil rights anthem, “Dog Dog.”
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Available on the 1990 release Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the tune (also known as “My Dog Loves Your Dog”) features these lyrics:
My dog a love a your dog and your dog a love a my dog
I’m talkin’ ’bout a black dog, rabbit dog, coon dog, white dog
All’em dogs, Lord, Lord all’em
If my dog a love your dog and your dog a love a my dog
Then a why can’t we sit under the apple tree?
As for the song’s pedigree, LaFayette, 68, explains, “I was raised in Florida during segregation. There was this white family and my family, and we both had dogs. It didn’t make any sense to me that we kids couldn’t play together when all the dogs would just rip and run and get along fine.”
Determined to help improve race relations, LaFayette later became active in the civil rights movement. He recalls that he was in the thick of organizing a student protest in Nashville when childhood memories inspired him to compose, with a friend, the music and lyrics for “Dog Dog.”
“I’d been a tenor in various church and street-corner choirs,” he says. “So, the song just seemed to evolve naturally out of the spirit of the times. Music was a major mobilizing force for civil rights activists. ‘Dog Dog’ was always well-received because it takes a child’s perspective and points out the silliness of discrimination in a humorous way.”
Indeed, Yale University sociology professor Ronald Eyerman brightens when he recalls his discovery of the song while conducting research for a book. Coauthor (with Andrew Jamison) of the 1998 volume Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, Eyerman appreciates “Dog Dog” for its engaging, secular charm. “It is very different from most other civil rights anthems in that it is non-religious and about everyday life,” he observes. “Also, what struck my mind was that it took rhythms from popular music. It’s kind of a doo-wop children’s jingle, a non-serious piece with a serious message.”
Like LaFayette, Eyerman notes the influence of music in civil rights struggles. “The impact was stunning and robust,” he says. “The use of song to build collectivity and maintain courage and solidarity in the face of enormous threat got people through things they might not have otherwise. Song was also a great pedagogical tool, as the ‘Dog Dog’ song attests.”
Founder of the legendary a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bernice Johnson Reagon counts “Dog Dog” among the most popular songs in her extensive repertoire. A student civil rights leader in her hometown of Albany, Ga., Reagon says she learned the tune in the early 1960s from Cordell Reagon (whom she later married), an organizer who came to southwest Georgia to lead voter registration drives and train emerging activists.
Later a member of the acclaimed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers, Reagon says that the group performed “Dog Dog” at nearly every concert. “It was a wonderful song because it taught lessons people could learn from their pets. Dogs seemed to be ahead of humans on the social level in the South.”
Retired from Sweet Honey since 2004, Reagon says she was cheered to find “Dog Dog” on the ensemble’s Grammy-nominated 2007 children’s album Experience … 101. “They sent me a copy of the CD and it includes a version of ‘Dog Dog,’ she says, with a smile. “It’s so clearly a song for the young and the young at heart.”
Oakland musicologist and choir director Melanie DeMore recognizes the entertainment value of “Dog Dog.” “I usually teach it in three-part harmony,” she says. “I encourage both adult and children’s choirs to add barking sounds and to be very animated during its performance. It’s hysterical when you see a whole bunch of folks on the stage delivering the powerful message of the song and still having fun by jumping up and down like puppies and barking.”
In another interpretation, Harry Belafonte, on his 1967 album Belafonte on Campus, adds a rousing calypso beat to the song, which also includes this verse:
My little doggy was a playing one day
Down in the meadow by a bundle of hay
Another little doggy well he come along
Said let’s get together and eat this bone
Now a why can’t we sit under the apple tree?
Reflecting on the historic victory of President-elect Barack Obama, Bernard LaFayette says “Dog Dog” serves as a reminder of the stunning racial progress achieved in the past 50 years.
“Dogs are therapeutic,” he declares. “They can be unbiased eyes and ears for us in so many ways. When dogs get to know each other, regardless of their breed, they inevitably become friends. They show us how to break down barriers, overlook differences and focus on common bonds. I consider ‘Dog Dog’ a benchmark of how far we’ve come since segregation. It seems only fitting that the Obamas would welcome a puppy to the White House.”