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"Tom and Sally"

April 6, 2011 | 50 Comments

I just finished listening to your song about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. I don't know what to call it other than offensive trash.

If this what you find entertaining and funny, you've clearly gone senile.

Maybe you've always been that way. I wouldn't know since I don't listen to your broadcast. After this taste of what you find entertaining, I'm glad you'll be off the air soon.

They should pull your show today if they had any sense. You make Rush Limbaugh look sensitive.

Susan Bullard
Arlington, VA

Not much is known about the relationship about Jefferson and his housemaid, Sally Hemings. There's been conjecture, starting back in their time, and for many years Hemings descendants claimed to be blood relatives of Jefferson, a claim that was given  some credibility by DNA tests. Jefferson himself wrote nothing about the relationship, and Miss Hemings, who was freed after his death, did not divulge anything either, so far as is known. The case for his paternity is further strengthened by the fact that he freed the five Hemings children who were thought to be his offspring. At any rate, the story is something of a blank, and I decided to make it a love story. In the lyrics, she sings:

 I begged him to teach me to read and to write
         But we only met in the dead of the night
          I left his bed when the sky turned blue
           What happened between us only we knew.

He feels that, though she is his by slavery and though it is wrong to lie with her, nonetheless she cares for him. Many listeners objected to the duet chorus:

 It was love though no one could understand
         It was love between a woman and man
          In the dark, forbidden, condemned as wrong,
           But love will sing its song.

And the song ends on a strained note:

TOM: I rode my horse around the plantation
SALLY: I bowed my head as he passed
TOM: I could see in her eyes a dark accusation
SALLY: When he died, I was freed at last.

A great many listeners agreed with you, Susan, that love was absolutely not possible between a slave and a master. There's much to be said for that. After thinking about Jefferson and about his wife Martha, who made him promise on her deathbed that he would not marry again, I took a different point of view.

"Tom and Sally"

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"Tom and Sally" (lyrics)


Sexual victimization and exploitation of black women by their masters is an ENTIRELY different set of power dynamics than those of current day consenting adults in loving relationships. Whether love is possible is one thing. Many folks (of both sexes) who have been victimized or sexually exploited report loving abusive partners, spouses, parents, and even children.

The other thing entirely is whether consent is possible. The owner/property relationship makes that possibility moot to say the least. The "one drop" law (one drop of black blood makes you black) was designed so fellows like TJ could sell their own children. And many men did.

I've been a listener since 1984 and your duet with Jerelyn made me feel angry and sad. It made my skin crawl. Clearly you and she have the sort of relationship that makes a song like that comfortable for you to sing together but I think it shows very questionable judgment on your part to ask a black female guest to participate in such a musical fiction.

Thanks for hearing us out. And for posting a response to Ms. Bullard.


Ms. Bullard,

Aside from stating your displeasure with the song, you list no reason why you found the song so offensive. Maybe if you had shared your reason for dislike, a dialogue could start to heal whatever is the source of your anger and the purpose for your insults. We can not change the past, but, if we learn from it, we can work towards a more harmonious future.

I'm disappointed that PHC picked such an angry and unthoughtful letter to print (and from somebody who doesn't regularly listen to the show, no less)on this topic. I know that there were much more thoughtful emails submitted to the show's website about this song from writers who were equally offended by it.

I understand that, in this song, GK is filling in the blanks of the historical record in a way that he finds interesting. It just didn't work this time, though. It comes of as tone-deaf at best, and offensive at worst.

While I'm willing to believe it's possible for there to have be some reciprocal romantic feelings in this complicated relationship, I simply don't think we can realistically discuss it without acknowledging the fact that one party owned the other. Casting these two as a sort of colonial Romeo and Juliet who cling to each other in spite of the forbidden nature of their love is absurd.

I believe the vast majority of PHC listeners appreciate GK's ability to shake the tree of life from time to time. That is one of the things which keeps the show fresh and entertaining. Where else would you find the originality and creativity he gives us week after week? Considering the times of Jefferson and Hemmings, this interpretation is totally logical and to my mind, in no way insensitive to anyone. In all probability, it was an accurate depiction of the relationship. Most historians accept it as fact. If I remember correctly, Jefferson's family long ago accepted the reality of the relationship with Hemmings. (This comment is coming from a long time lover of all things Jeffersonian.) And it was not an uncommon situation by any means.

Senility doesn't result in the quality of writing and entertaining we hear every week on this one of a kind show. This listener likes a bit of the unexpected from time to time. And if this song offended you, hope you're not reading Mark Twain.

I thought it was clever and a wonderful song. There has been much said and joked about with regard to their realtionship in the comedy work and I for one think Garrison's point of view was one of love. I am sad that Garrison will not be on the air in the near future.

Interesting that the complainant has no specific complaint other than that the material was "offensive.". Exactly what was offensive? The topic itself? The suggestion of love? What?

I did not find it offensive T Ll. Keep doing what you do, Garrison!!

I always enjoy your balanced and insightful commentary, whether in prose commentary, fiction, or song, Mr. Keillor. IMO your radio show is a beautiful, beautiful thing: so American, so multicultural, and so inclusive.

As to the Hemings-Jefferson relationship, it's interesting to note that Sally Hemings was Martha Wayles Jefferson's half-sister. As you no doubt already know, Annette Gordon-Reed has much more on Hemings and Jefferson in her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family."

I found the song very thought provoking. And to deny that love could exist between two people, even a master and a slave, is to deny the mystery of life itself.

I thought it was a beautiful and touching song. It spoke directly yet gently to the basic reality of being human. I was reminded (again)that one of the hardest things we are faced with is recognizing that what we think is true may not be so. Things are not, and likely never were, the way we imagine them.

Mike Thomasson

Wow, he/she is really steamed! I was all set to join him/her, thinking the song might be belittling or snide in some way, but once I saw the lyrics and listened to the recording, I was stunned and puzzled. I wish he/she would have been specific about their issue/s. For example, maybe they misheard a lyric and the whole thing's a misunderstanding. Otherwise, I simply do not get the problem and I fail to see anything offensive in the song. Somebody, 'splain me.
Thanks so much,
Mary Ellen

Garrison, I happened to be in my car and listening on Saturday afternoon when you sang that song. I must confess it certainly challenged my sometimes all too prim and proper sensibilities, but on retrospection it occured to me that to have possibly fathered several children with her that there was most likely something other than sexual gratification to the Jefferson-Hemmings relationship.

At any rate I appreciated your take on the ramifications of that reltionship. It made me think. I'd be curious about how postive/negative the feedback was, given that more people are more likely to "write in' when they disagree or are offended.

You're not leaving the air soon, are you? I confess I also miss your syndicated op-eds on

Donna Williams
Macon, Ga.

GK..your commenter should give it up!! What does it matter other than to celebrate love regardless of perceived and real barriers!It had to have been extremely difficult for both of them.

GK, just please disregard my previous comment when I asked what's up with the leaving. I just delved into older Posts to the Host and found the answer to my question.

While I am just a couple of years behind you in age and can fully appreciate the desire to get out of the way before someone pushes you, that shouldn't and doesn't hold true for someone with your enormous talents. Like a lot of other comments to that post, I actually do love you. Please stick around.

Donna Williams
Macon, Ga.

I, for one, thought the song was good and thought-provoking. I do not think it diminishes Jefferson's role as a Founding Father. His relationship with Sally Hemmings only adds to the complexity of a man with many contradictions in his life. When we place people on pedestals, then we shouldn't complain when they fall from them and crush us. There are many things in Jefferson's life that make me pause, but in the end, he was still a remarkable person. Your song was a creative way to make that point. It also lifted Sally Hemmings out of the shadows and by presenting her perspective on the relationship, it truly made her Jefferson's equal.

You have always been the soul of propriety and incapable of saying anything offensive--even when you could. Your gentle humor, kind words, warm and gentle voice inspire us to be better more accepting humans. The song was lovely. I will so miss your show --more than I can say. Till then keep singing.

Sophie Klejmont
Summit, NJ

With so much in our world to be offended by, Miss Bullard picks your song. Really? Good thing she doesn't listen to your wonderful PHC---that would send her off the deep end.

Brilliant. It happened untold times in the course of history. Why not Jefferson? Please write another love song.

Jefferson and Hemmings and all their children and grandchildren and several generations after have vanished from the face of the Earth. Hard to see any motivation for getting so worked up.

I think Ms. Bullard could use a lot more ketchup in her life. Legend has it that Sally Hemmings made her own ketchup recipe from Thomas Jefferson's gardens. Unfortunately the recipe was lost when President Jefferson died and Monticello was sold to pay off his debtors. Some say Ms. Hemmings actually buried the ketchup recipe with him so that the true ingredients would never be revealed. Ketchup, it makes the world so much better.

Tom Reinke
Milwaukee, WI

I thought the song was an interesting exploration of a very unusual and complex man and his intimate personal relationship with a loving woman who happened to be a slave. It got me thinking about the unnatural and often uncomfortable dynamics of relationships between masters and slaves in pre-Civil War America. My thanks to Garrison for daring to cast Jefferson in a more honest light than he had previously been revealed in our history. Garrison's song put some life and emotion into the enigmatic person of history we call Thomas Jefferson.

I read The Hemingses of Monticello and thought this song was close to the account. Wasn't Sally Thomas Jefferson's wife's half sister? I think Mr. Keillor's version of the story set to music is very sensitive.

I'm slowly reading "The Hemmings of Moncello" and find it is a very interesting book (however very big and long). The Jefferson/Hemmings relationship seems based on the fact that Sally was his wife's half sister and appearly Sally looked very much like Martha. From what I've read so far, love for Sally didn't enter Jefferson's mind it was lust and her being near by.

Another question for GK, when are you leaving PHC? It will not be the same without you since you're the creator of the show.

I'm shocked that there are people finding the love song of Tom and Sally so offensive as to compare Mr. Keillor to Rush Limbaugh. Talking about sensibility! I sigh about the ignorant and narrow mind that is so prevalent in our modern time.

For one thing about Tom and Sally, Sally Hemming could have left Jefferson in the slave-free Paris, but she chose to follow him back to the slave-holding Virginia. If it's not love, I don't know what it is.

I totally agree with Brenda, and Gayle, Helen, Mike, Robert, and Sophie. And Pam was right on when she said, "And to deny that love could exist between two people, even a master and a slave, is to deny the mystery of life itself."

Rock on, GK!


My understanding of the Jefferson-Hemmings story is that he was devastated after the death of his wife, Martha. Sally Hemmings was Martha's half-sister, and her resemblance to his wife is probably what caught Jefferson's eye. Perhaps that resemblance seemed reassuring to him. Whatever the case, there are so many stories of liaisons between slaves and members of their owners' families that this one is not unusual. What is hard to understand is not Jefferson's private life so much as his public one. He felt that slavery was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence, but was shouted down by his fellow slave-owners. Later he wrote that the existence of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom was a "fire-bell in the night," and history proved him right.

As for Ms. Bullard's comments: has she listened to what passes for "music" on most popular music stations nowadays? Better a small song about a mystery from our historical past than the garbage some people listen to all day long.

Show me the love

Although the first letter was harsh, it made the point that this song came off as a political smear. I am hard-pressed to see this as a love song, and it doesn't pass the three question test: is it kind, is it true, is it necessary?

"I begged him to teach me to read and to write but we only met in the dead of the night" - sounds like TJ was only interested in one thing. "He held each baby and then gave them back and said no more" - where's the love in that? The ending, "I could see in her eyes a dark accusation", "When he died, they freed me at last." - if they shared a mutual love, why did he feel accused; when he died, why did she not mourn his passing?

That being said, tom and sally are a tiny speck in a vast repertoire of outstanding entertainment. Garrison, you're still the sweetest little baby in town.


Can anyone actually believe Jeralyn would have sung this song if she thought it offensive? As the mother of a bi-racial woman I have learned that I don't get to make the call on topics racial that involve African Americans. What is more, none of us gets to judge others' relationships.

Thanks for a new point of view. It giveth the imagination mightily to exercise.

Cendra Lynn
Ann Arbor, MI

The make-believe song? Oh for crissakes! Lighten up PEOPLE.
Pull the sticks out of your sit upons! Truly - try it! The seating will be so much more comfortable!

This song made me curious. I have now read more about Sally Hemings and her family and the times in which they lived. In the process I have come to feel even more deeply the shame, humiliation, and pain of being a slave. We in America still have a very long way to travel to get to social justice, but I think we have also walked some distance since Sally Hemings lived. I'm glad this song prompted me to read, think, and pledge to do more toward justice and equality for everybody.

I wasn't thrilled with this song, as it wasn't appealing to my ears as many of the others on the show.
However, the show is entertainment, which means it is meant to entertain most people, in some way. That being said, not everyone will like a particular performance. I didn't like it much, but I moved on. 99% of the show I DO enjoy.
I didn't give it much thought as to whether it was a racial song or not. Anyone can find racial issues in just about anything if they work hard enough at it.
I suggest if someone really truly finds the words of this song offensive, they sit down with the lyrics and write a version themselves they deem non-offensive and present it to the the show for a future performance. Who knows, we all might benefit from the experience.

The song was most of all, poignant. It makes us think, and that is the best form of "entertainment." I too do not believe he would have freed the children and had a total of five indicates there was more to this relationship than just master exerting dominance over his slave. I will miss you Garrison. Such a talent!

Did not hear the recording, but I don't see what is so very offensive about it. I'd like to hear opinions from people of all colors, however. To me the song seems very much about a slave owner trying to justify his actions, and the slave pushing back a bit against it. In those days, no doubt Jefferson WOULD have found himself moral if he stooped to free his children, if he fraternized with slaves. "What a guy I am!" he'd be thinking. Then we get Sally's point of view: "Don't buy it. He never cared. He always kept me separate."

It certainly challenges the boundaries of love, that is for sure. However, "love" has many definitions, and not all of them are pretty. And rarely does reality match what Disney movies would have us believe about love. I can't take away a meaning about this that has anything to do with the type of romantic love most of us think of. But often, in some small way, people find regard for each other--notice I didn't even use the word "affection"--even through the negative. Perhaps "love" was not the word to use, it's true. It's easily misconstrued. Or perhaps it is indeed a tongue-in-cheek use of the word and the way people can twist and bend it, from the wife-beater who "loves" his wife to the codependent who "loves" the object of his/her affection [too much].

In this case, was the "love" right? Or good? No, not in any context. It may not even have been love. "Love will sing its song." Whatever form--no matter how twisted it is--love (or "love") is out there. Could she have loved him? Yes, of course. A person can find one or two admirable things in someone to love, even in the face of plenty that isn't worth loving. And someone else mentioned the amazing propensity of people to love those who hurt them. Or perhaps she was putting on an act in hopes it might get him to do right by her in some fashion. We don't know. It's just a speculation.

Dear GK

I, too, found the song a little disturbing, but then, I find Thomas Jefferson a bit disturbing because of this relationship. I would have to have heard almost anything else in that time slot.

Like TJ, you, too are profoundly gifted, a veritable genius. However, I think this one cut too close to the bone. Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave was very incestuous, and people who have been wounded in this manner may have found the refrain disturbing for that reason.

I, for one, found it to be painful. In fact, it colored and stained the whole show for me.

I agree, the purpose of art is to "shake the tree" off and on so we don't get to thinking there is only one way to explain the inconsistencies of life. I think it was brave and very appropriate for GK and JS to do this as a duet. what a way to present history!! the cultural circumstances at the time made it necessary for secrecy and role playing, maybe more a comment on the positive aspects of the relationship than anything else. Was she a victim? of course, but her victim-hood started before she was born (half sister to Martha, so her children were double related to Martha and Toms offspring). I hope this relationship provided some solace, as the best one of a lot of uglier options for an otherwise powerless person. Kudos to GK and JS for causing us to THINK. this was a very powerful reminder of the legacy of injustice that we have a responsibility to not repeat, in ways large or small.

As unconscionable as slavery may seem to us today in the future we will look back on exclusionary relationships between two people in much the same way.

Much of the great unhappiness and strife of the world can be traced back to the frustrating and unnatural condition that two adults find themselves in and that society imposes upon them expecting a lifetime of commitment and fidelity with no sanctioned outlet for relief or solace outside that claustrophobic bond other than its dissolution.

Certainly some have the temperament to find all that they need with one individual and if reciprocated in kind then more power to them.

But the vast majority of our species have proven themselves unwilling if not incapable of abiding by such rules no matter the scorn or condemnation by society, family, law and religion.

When women and men are free to love one another without obligation, duress or shame is when we will have truly liberated ourselves from our self-imposed shackles.

It was common in those days.. for men to marry sisters of their late wife... Sally was the half sister of Jefferson's wife... Sally was in the Jefferson household for years as Jefferson's wife's closest friend and confidant.. it was also common for slave owners to have sexual relations with slaves, The South was filled with that hypocrisy .. or exploitation..

Jefferson made extraordinary contributions to this Country... so those who are a pure as the driven snow... Stand up.... and measure your contributions to the country...

This I must say was clearly a blatent attack on one of the last wholesome comedy shows left. Mr. Keillor I'm a twenty three year old college student who admires your show and just within the past six months started listening to it regularly. It is most unfortunate to hear of your retiring several years from now and please do not let comments such as Susan's deter you from any future programming. Lets just hope that Susan doesn't hear some of the things that Lefty says on "The Lives of the Cowboys". She then may need counseling.

I've heard Keillor on this topic before, so his turning a song from the material seemed totally of a piece with the whole corpus of his work. It's always been controversial in many ways. And plenty of people say there is no way anyone can condone relationships between -- well, sexual relationships, where there is not parity. I am just wondering what these people think about relationships between men and women when women could not vote, or in places where women cannot own property. Or what about between men who have jobs and careers who have relationships with women who are expected not to be breadwinners, but who rather are subjected to the men in earning power as well as physical power.
Are all those relationships viewed the same way? As impossible to represent valid unbribed-for love (however you want to say it)?
Or what about age differentials? Sometimes age qualifies one with considerable more experience, creating in-built unfairness, lack of "real" choice. The world is full of such. Read about India where the natural ratio of men to women is getting warped to where a family may select for men, and the women nonetheless end up traded into marriage (because of dowry traditions or some such). I don't understand it, but I understand that attempts to build emotional bonds are necessary nonetheless. I have to celebrate when one such bond seems to have been successful.

GK, One reason I enjoy your show is I am always taken to a place I can never get to by myself. Your works are always woven with the thread of love. When I read your stories and hear your songs I am amazed at your ability to communicate the deepest human emotions which enables me to consider people in ways that I have never thought about before. I am often left with a hearty warm laugh.

My wife and I were at the show, and were intrigued by your reference before the broadcast to something possibly controversial you might do regarding Jefferson. When the song came, we found it troublng, ambiguous, touching, ultimately very thought-provoking. In that, it is like Jefferson, and like the country itself in its complex relationship with the notion of human freedom.

It was also one of your more beautiful compositions (and I'm a longtime fan of your songwriting). You and the incomparable Jearlyn sang beautifully, with real (if necessarily ambivalent) feeling. Thank you.

G. I've followed you since the beginning (my gawd) and find little fault with all that you have attempted to keep alive and vibrant. Think Jean Shepherd. But you have taken it to a higher level along with occasional parallel absences. Some just don't get it but you are still breathing life into what has become a rare beast. That would be live radio and all that that brings with it. We still need to experience some of your standard of creativity in "The Greatest Nation" (on one of the remaining great networks). I'm troubled about its future. As long as you are involved at any level, the world is a better place because of it. You've earned your place in heaven - hope we meet there, or elsewhere. Also Jefferson, Franklin and other true fathers of this great place we call home.

The web does to the tone of a comment what vinegar does to baking soda.

While I did not hear this particular performance I am interested in many of the remarks. Consistent with his past I trust GK will thoughtfully consider the points raised. That, I believe, is any artist's responsibility, and he represents the most responsible of this generation of performers.

I will comment on the conventional wisdom that our forefathers had little choice but to continue the institution of slavery. Robert Carter, who played in a quartet with Jefferson and happened to be the wealthiest man in Virginia and corresponded regularly with Washington, decided with uncommon courage to free his more than 450 slaves. And, they said it couldn't be done! (The First Emancipator; Levy, A; 2007)

Bravo GK. So many find the truth too painful. So, they smack the story teller. I think TJ and SH would appreciate your honest remembrance of their days. Wrong be it for those who judge their life. They may need to look at their own and wonder why they are so offended.

Good discussion over all. I don't expect all the material on a live show to appeal to everyone. I am glad that the show is willing to experiment, put the variety in variety show, even if some bits come off as edgy or daring. The song in question was just one story about T.J., and only a story, take it or leave it.

Since none of us were there at the time, we couldn't possibly know what really happened between Ms. Hemmings and Mr. Jefferson. And if, indeed, Mr. Jefferson truly loved Ms. Hemmings, then SHE became the master and HE became the slave.

Great song. The disgruntled soul should grow up and put on her big girl panties.

These days, some folks are just looking for something to criticize. It's more important for them to find fault with others than to find a common bond of humanity. We live in the land of "Us Against Them." Every conceivable effort is made to define the "Other", and then great care is taken to demonize that immoral opponent. Of course, God is on their side, cheering them on and coaching the plays from the sidelines. GOOD GRIEF...AND PLENTY OF IT!

The song is literature, a stab at the truth, a speculation, designed to provoke thought and discussion. It succeeds in that. It offends some because it mentions that which is unmentionable in the South (and MUCH is indeed unmentionable in the South). It is the elephant in the room, the unclothed emperor of slavery. Here in the South, we ignore the obvious with practiced skill, and nothing offends more deeply that mention of the unmentionable.

Wow. This song made my skin crawl. I posted my distress on my personal blog, and I got a number of comments from people who were equally displeased.

I've been listening to PHC as long as you have been on the air, and I have never been this disappointed.

There is no evidence that Hemings had any choice in the relationship. Legal historian and Hemings family chronicler Annette Gordon Reed has noted that Hemings was Jefferson's wife's half sister.

Are you really comfortable glorifying this second generation sexual exploitation?

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