Be What You Is

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In 1905, a musical named “Moonshine” was mounted at the Original Liberty Theatre in New York. It featured a catchy tune by Silvio Hein, Georgie V. Hobart and Edwin Milton Royle titled “Don’t be what you ain’t”. Even by early 1900 standards, the production had a short run lasting just three months. Yet for decades, the feature song resonated with a young woman named Ethel.

The song was presented as a comical version of the adage “To Thine Own Self Be True.” Perhaps the song’s southern dialect was part of the appeal, but it may have been the lyrics that resonated most with the girl from North Carolina:

Don’t be what you ain’t, jess yo’ be what yo’ is,
If you am not what you are, den you is not what you is;
If you’re just a little tadpole, don’t you try to be a frog,
If you are de tail don’t try to wag the dog;

Over the years the song stuck with her, even as her life grew to include a husband, children and eventually grandchildren. And though her recollection of the precise lyrics may have faltered with time, its meaning was conveyed with pinpoint accuracy each time she recited the song as a poem. I know this because Ethel was my Grandmother.

She has been gone many years, yet each time I face a crossroads in my life I hear her delighted voice reciting this slightly modified, and slightly more poetic version of that Silvio Hein, Georgie V. Hobart and Edwin Milton Royle song:

Be what You Is
Don’t be what you ain’t
If you Is Jes a sinner
Don’t try to be a saint
If you is jes’ a tadpole
Don’t try to be a frog
If you is jes the tail
Don’t try to wag the dog
Be what You Is Don’t be what you ain’t
‘Cause if you am not what you are, then you is what you ain’t
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