Dumbo “When I See an Elephant Fly” (1941)

In keeping with the unofficial theme this week of covering Disney’s non-politically correct moments, it wouldn’t do to forget the crows in Dumbo. But first, a quick recap as to how Dumbo meets these characters:

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Dumbo “When I See An Elephant Fly” (1941)

Things have been going badly for our baby elephant: first his mother his locked away in chains; then a stunt goes awry and Dumbo is turned into a circus clown; third, and most recently, his well-meaning friend Timothy Q. Mouse accidentally gets him drunk and they both hallucinate pink elephants! (It’s amazing what they could put in a film back in 1941!!) The following morning, Dumbo and Timothy wake up….in a tree!! This is where Dumbo and his friend meet the crows.

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Oh those crows…to be honest, I didn’t realize for a long time that the crows were a racist depiction. When you’re a little kid, you don’t think about those things, you just see some singing birds and that’s that. But as I got older and learned about the history of these things, I began to see these crows in a whole new light. And one thing I learned is that stereotypes can appear in disguise, for instance using black crows instead of, well, pardon the non-PC reference but using black crows instead of black humans. Another big clue? The leader of these crows is named…Jim Crow (no, seriously, check out the credits on Wikipedia!) A third clue? The birds all speak “jive,” a style of slang well-associated with African-American musicians during this time. They also sing jive too, and that’s where we get to “When I See An Elephant Fly.”

I seen a peanut stand, heard a rubber band
I seen a needle that winked its eye
But I be done seen ’bout ev’rything
When I see an elephant fly

(What d’you say, boy?) 
I said when I see an elephant fly
I seen a front porch swing, heard a diamond ring
I seen a polka-dot railroad tie
But I be done seen ’bout ev’rything
When I see an elephant fly

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One thing that is fun about this song is most of the words have a double meaning; it helps if you put quotes around the words with changed meanings: so…a front porch that “swings” (dances); a diamond “ring” (like a bell), a railroad “tie” (necktie), and so on.

(I saw a clothes horse, he r’ar up and buck) 
(And they tell me that a man made a vegetable truck) 
(I didn’t see that, I only heard) 
(But just to be sociable, I’ll take your word)

(I heard a fireside chat, I saw a baseball bat) 
(And I just laughed till I thought I’d die) 
But I be done seen ’bout ev’rything
When I see an elephant fly

Well I be done seen ’bout ev’rything
When I see an elephant fly
(With the wind)

When I see an elephant fly

See, initially, the crows are inclined to tease Dumbo for his ears just like everyone else has throughout the story. But then Timothy sets them all straight by recounting (briefly) all the terrible things that have happened to Dumbo. The shamed crows decide to make it up to the pair by helping Dumbo to fly for real (it’s implied that Dumbo flew to the tree while he was drunk and just doesn’t remember doing so). To help in this process, the head crow presents a feather to Dumbo, calling it a “magic” feather that will help him fly (with a knowing wink to Timothy who catches on quick). Sure enough, with the feather clutched tight, Dumbo CAN fly!! As the crows say (as Dumbo and Timothy return to the circus), “those city boys are in for a big surprise!”

What do you think about “When I See An Elephant Fly”? Were the racist elements obvious or did it also take you a while to catch on? Let me know what you think in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Dumbo “Song of the Roustabouts” (1941)

Disney Films & Soundtracks A-Z

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2 thoughts on “Dumbo “When I See an Elephant Fly” (1941)

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