It's too bad Donald Trump canceled his Chicago rally last week. It would've been something to hear him read the lyrics of "The Snake" right here in the hometown of its author, singer-songwriter and social activist Oscar Brown Jr.
Trump, for those who haven't been watching his campaign rallies, occasionally takes to reading poetry to his crowds in between his declarations of greatness and calls for violence against his detractors. He really likes to read "The Snake," which tells the story of a charitable woman who takes in an ailing snake only to have the creature turn around and kill her with a venomous bite.
Trump read the song lyrics at his rally Sunday in Bloomington, Ill., just after the part of his campaign speech where he alluded to the threat of Islam and his thoughts on terrorism. The song, he said, prepping his audience, "represents terrorism."
In Trump's reading, it wraps up with this line: "'Oh shut up, silly woman,' said the reptile with a grin. 'You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.'"
A grin slipped over Trump's face as he looked back up to the audience. "Right? Does everybody sort of get it?"
The question is: Does Trump?
The song, written by Brown in 1963 and recorded by Al Wilson in 1969, is based on one of Aesop's fables, which means it's been told in various forms for about 2,500 years. It's an allegory, so it can be about a lot of situations where one party unsuspectingly lets in an evildoer and then gets hurt.
It's not clear when or how Trump discovered the R&B song — his campaign hasn't answered my inquiries — or whether he knows anything about Oscar Brown Jr. Trump is more of a classic rock guy, according to Rolling Stone's digging, and especially loves Neil Young. That love soured, though, after Young demanded that Trump stop using his "Rockin' in the Free World" on the campaign trail.
Now Brown's family would like Trump to stop using "The Snake."
Brown, who died in 2005 at 78, was a singer, songwriter, playwright, actor and social activist. Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich called Brown "one of the greatest socio-political songwriters of the 20th century." He wrote such civil rights-era classic as "Signifyin' Monkey" and "Work Song," and he brought scenes from the violent streets of Chicago to the stage through his musicals, "Great Nitty Gritty" and "Kicks & Co."
His family is certain that Brown would be on the "polar opposite side" of Trump if he were still alive — and whether the billionaire presidential candidate is violating any copyright or not (lawyers say it's unclear whether Trump could claim "fair use"), family members say Trump's anti-inclusive message is reason enough to demand that he stop using the song.
"We don't want him using these lyrics," said Brown's daughter, Maggie Brown, also a distinguished singer. "If Dad were alive, he would've ripped (Trump) with a great poem in rebuttal. Not only a poem and a song, but an essay and everything else."
Maybe Trump was just confused? Perhaps he thought he had something in common with Brown because their families both have history in the real estate business.
It's true: Brown's father, Oscar Brown Sr., like Trump's father, Fred Trump, earned his living in real estate. But that's where the similarity ends.
Oscar Brown Sr., the son of a former slave, a World War I veteran and lawyer, was the first manager of Chicago's Ida B. Wells Homes in 1940 and was a lifelong social activist on behalf of fair housing and equal justice. At one point in the 1930s, disillusioned with the progress of racial integration, he advocated for a new, separate state for African-Americans in the South. In 1944 he served as president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP.
Meanwhile, Fred Trump and his son, Donald, spent much of the early 1970s in a legal battle with the Department of Justice over allegations that the Trump real estate business in New York violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against African-Americans trying to rent apartments.
Wait, who's the snake?
Oscar Brown Jr.'s grandson, Sidakarav Dasa, first noticed Trump's use of "The Snake" in January and posted a long objection on his Facebook page. An excerpt:
"I see you liked 'The Snake,' a poem and song written by my revolutionary grandfather, the late, great 'Grandpap of Rap,' Oscar Brown Jr. (who was recently honored by having a street named after him on Chicago's South Side, where he lived). It would have been nice if you credited him for his work, but I can see how telling your crowd that you were quoting a man who resigned from the Communist Party in 1956, declaring himself 'just too black to be red,' might be problematic."
Dasa went on to recommend that Trump consider reading another Brown poem at his rallies, one called "Debris" that addresses the political reaction to the 9/11 attacks and includes this line:
"So efforts to terrorize terror / Just guarantee terror no end / A violent response is in error / For violence then will extend."
Perhaps Donald Trump has done us an unintentional favor, though, by reminding us of Brown's legacy and bringing "The Snake" into this campaign. The lyrics are relevant. There is a snake in our midst, and we should be alarmed.
Does everybody sort of get it?