Weren’t No Kin

A while back I posted the lyrics to Washington Phillips’s “Denomination Blues,” since I was dissatisfied with the extant web resources for that song; this morning I was frustrated that I couldn’t find anyplace on the web that gave the lyrics to the song known variously as “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt,” “Sad About Roosevelt,” or “Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Poor Man’s Friend.” To redress that lack, I present that song here:

[Tell me] Why’d you like Roosevelt? Weren’t no kin
Why’d you like Roosevelt? Weren’t no kin
Why’d you like Roosevelt? Weren’t no kin
Lord God Almighty, he’s the poor man’s friend

Year of nineteen forty-five
A good president laid down and died
I knew how all of the poor people felt
When they received the message we lost Roosevelt
In his life there were all indications
At Warm Springs Georgia he received salvation
Listen friend, don’t you rush
Elizabeth Shoumatoff she grabbed the brush
She dipped it in water and began to paint
Looked at the president and began to faint
She never painted a picture for him at night
Knew that the president didn’t look right
The time of day it was twelve o’clock
Tell me that Elizabeth had to stop
Great God almighty she started too late
That’s why they call this that unfinished portrait
A little bit later, about one-thirty
Had a cerebral hemorrhage and the world looked muddy
They called Atlanta and Washington too
Like zigzag lightning the call went through
They called long distance to notify his wife
Dr Bruenn said he died at three thirty-five
Great God Almighty weren’t no bells to tollin’
But in less than thirty minutes the world was in mournin’
 
And I cried about Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
I cried about Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
I cried about Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
Great God Almighty was the poor man’s friend
 
Only two presidents that we ever felt
Were Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt
Way back yonder in the olden days
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves
Roosevelt’s administration Congress assembled
First time in history ‘ppointed a Negro general
General Benjamin O Davis I’m trying to relate
First Negro general of the United States
After Dorie Miller had shown his skill
They kept sending him to sea until he got killed
Then Roosevelt said that “I’ll back the attack”
Appointed a Negro captain over white and black
This qualified man was Hugh Mulzac
Racial prejudice he tried to rule out
Invited Negro leaders into the White House
He advocated the fair practice of labor
To let the poor man know he was our emancipator
Made Madame Bethune the First Lady of the land
And made part of his will to Mr Prettyman
He endorsed inventions of Dr Carver
This is why that I say he was an earthly father
Cause he took my feet out of the miry clay
Haven’t had to look back at the WPA
 
That’s why I liked Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
That’s why I liked Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
That’s why I liked Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
Lord God Almighty was the poor man’s friend
 
Well, Hoover’s administration Congress assembled
All of the poor folk began to tremble
The rich would ride in the automobile
Depression made poor people rob and steal
Well, look next door at our beloved neighbor
Wasn’t getting anything for their hard labor
But great God almighty they were moonshine stilling
Brought about a crime wave, robbing and killing
After Hoover made the poor man moan
Roosevelt stepped in, gave us a comfortable home
 
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
 
Well, I’ve told you the history of Roosevelt’s life
Now he’s done with his grief and strife
Great God Almighty but he left a sweet wife
Have been so worried since she was a girl
After Roosevelt’s death what would become of the world
She notified her son across the sea
“Don’t get worried about poor me
But keep on fighting for victory
Your father is dead boys, you all are grown
Wouldn’t worry ’bout your father but the world is in mournin’
 
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
 
Well, God Almighty knew just what was best
He knew that the president he needed a rest
His battle done fought, vict’ry done won
Our problems have just begun
Your burden get heavy and you don’t know what to do
Call on Jesus, he’s a president too
 
It’s sad about Roosevelt
It’s sad about Roosevelt
It’s sad about Roosevelt
Lord God Almighty was a poor man’s friend

This amalgamates characteristics of the two versions I know, one by the Evangelist Singers and one by Willie Eason. The only word I’m flummoxed by occurs toward the middle, when Eason refers to a certain kind of neighbor; I used “beloved” to fit the meter, but I’m sure that’s not what he’s singing.
 
Several observations about this lovely tribute: Can you imagine a song like this today? The closest I can think of in recent history would be “Abraham, Martin, and John.” but that differs from Roosevelt in a number of ways. Dion’s song retains the comparison to Abraham Lincoln, but lacks the staggering avalanche of specificity with which the song recounts Roosevelt’s actions on behalf of African-Americans and the poor. (I know, and will remember, more about Roosevelt’s relation to Black Americans after hearing this song.) Dion’s song submits only that his heroes “freed a lot of people” and died young, a somewhat questionable claim relative to JFK (however good a president one might have thought him). If you want to argue about Roosevelt, though, be prepared to cite names and dates.
 
The other possible contemporary examples that come to minds are the painful ballads by John Ashcroft and Lee Atwater (I think), about how great America is and what a statesman Ronald Reagan was. Are you tempted to hum along with any of those? I have a hard time enduring hearing them at all, much less singing along.
 
This song rings true to me; it doesn’t sound like campaign publicity (which would, of course, be too late anyway) or partisan shillery. The fact that at least two (African-American) performers recorded it suggests that it appealed to more than just taste-impaired red-white-and-blue political climbers. I don’t subscribe to idealizations of any moment in U.S. history, but “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt” burnishes FDR’s standing in my imagination, and impresses me as a popular memorial to that poor man’s friend. (Has anyone been tempted to write, “George W. Bush, The Poor Man’s Friend” or “Ronald Reagan, The Poor Man’s Friend” or even “Bill Clinton, The Poor Man’s Friend”? I didn’t think so.)
 

10 thoughts on “Weren’t No Kin

  1. Im so glad you posted the lyrics to this song—it’s an extraordinary work by just about any standard, and I’ve been captivated by it since I first heard it performed a capella. Hard to imagine today that an upper-crust charmer from New York’s landed gentry could become so beloved by the poorest of Americans…

  2. I am so glad that this was printed! This sill serve as a father’s day gift to my father who first “performed” this for me in sixth grade!! Thank you Daddy for the presentation and for showing me that nothing in this world is new!! What a great tribute to history!!!

  3. yes thank you so much for posting these lyrics sadly unavailable elsewhere. you can hear this moving song at this site http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com/home.html
    just scroll down to this note and play
    February, 2008: Bob Dylan airs an old blues song about the death of FDR and Shoumatoff’s grandmother, Elizabeth Shoumatoff, and talks about her afterwards on his radio show. Click here to listen to the broadcast and here to read about Alex’s grandmother.

  4. My great uncle and his band “The Reliable Jubilee Singers” put out a two-sided record on Apollo of this song. They were an African American group from the 1930s and 1940s, and I think their version is on the internet as a digital thing…so now you know three groups!

  5. Today my mother (76 yrs old) was singing this song, and I tried to go to youtube to see if any recording of it was posted. Where did you find, or could I find a recording.

  6. I’ve just mentioned this song in a discussion of “songs about US Presidents”. I really appreciate being able to find the lyrics properly written and discussed. The detail worked into the lyric is astonishing as you say, it’s a political gospel rap !

  7. I am wondering who ur great uncle is cause my grandfather was also in the group and my mom is looking for more info.

    1. @turquoise etheridge

      I believe my great uncle’s name was Rupertis (Pert) Bowman; I’ll have to check with my grandmother again just to make sure. I’ve contacted his daughter about him and the group and she didn’t seem to know very much, but I will ask again. Also, I have a file that I’m putting together based on what my grandmother has told me.; I can forward it to you if you send me your email. What was your grandfather’s name? Maybe I can ask my grand about him 🙂

      My email is mkinsey@udel.edu if any one needs to get in touch re: the Reliable Jubilee Singers. Any and all comments/questions are welcome (though I don’t have much information at the moment).

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