More than a generation after Jefferson Airplane scored one of their biggest hits with the '60s rock classic "White Rabbit" (RealAudio excerpt), school administrators in Missouri are still finding the song's lyrics too controversial for students -- in this case, even if nobody's singing.
The Panther Pride Marching Band of the Fort Zumwalt North High School in O'Fallon, Mo., found this out the hard way recently when it was ordered by school officials to cut a two-minute instrumental segment of its rock routine that featured -- among other classic cuts from the '60s and '70s -- "White Rabbit's" tell-tale marching drumbeat.
"Nobody said anything. ...Three solid weeks of band camp, six hours a day, five days a week, for three weeks, it was a tremendous amount of work," said 46-year-old school-parent Deanna Reinhard, who, along with other parents, helped the students raise money for competitions and helped design band-props.
Bernard DuBray, superintendent of the Zumwalt school district, demanded the change because the song's apparently drug-influenced lyrics were deemed offensive, according to Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the Eastern Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Examining the situation with the intent of filing a lawsuit, Jacobs said the superintendent's actions were a violation of the students' First Amendment rights to free speech. In passing down his order, the superintendent also banned flags that parents of bandmembers had sewn, because they included a discreetly placed mushroom, apparently referencing a portion of the lyrics in "White Rabbit." DuBray believed the mushroom had drug implications, according to Reinhard, mother of sophomore Erin Fanning, captain of the color guard.
The unexpected turn of events caused the 82-member band, which had been practicing the routine since May, to miss the Farmington Marching Festival, a competition involving bands from the area. The decision also sparked a grass-roots campaign by parents to get the song reinstated, Reinhard said.
"They played a parent barbecue Sept. 1 and one football game and then, the following Monday, one board member got a complaint by one parent, and that board member went to the superintendent and he banned it without a vote," she said. "He said he didn't have to consult with the board."
Meanwhile, the civil-liberties group plans to challenge the school district's decision not to allow members of the band to play "White Rabbit" during competitions, claiming it is a violation of the students' right to free speech, according to Jacobs.
"The school district bought the sheet music, and for some reason, when the words of the song came to the attention of the school administrators, they decided they could not play the song, even though there's no singing," she said.
The lyrics of "White Rabbit" -- which play off Lewis Carroll's classic novel "Alice In Wonderland" -- include apparent references to drugs and their disorienting effects. The references are hidden within fairy-tale-style lyrics, such as "One pill makes you larger/ And one pill makes you small/ And the ones that mother gives you/ Don't do anything at all." Another lyrics goes, "And you've just had some kind of mushroom/ And your mind is moving low."
Band-director Rob Babel, an assistant band-director for two years before assuming the head role this year, declined to comment on DuBray's decision to cut the song from the routine. He acknowledged, however, that it came as a surprise.
"It's something I chose based on the instrumental arrangement I heard on a demo tape. It fit well with the '60s theme for our marching show," the 28-year-old Babel said, explaining that the marching band has included in its 10-minute routine this year songs from such psychedelic-era rock bands as the Moody Blues and Yes. The band performs the songs at football games as well as in competitions.
"I was surprised because it's not offensive to me," Babel added. "I'm not surprised people found the lyrics offensive once they were brought to light. ... I only knew a couple of the lyrics to begin with."
Repeated calls to DuBray were not returned.
Wiley Drake, state director for the California chapter of the American Family Association, a conservative organization dedicated to preserving what it terms "traditional family values," praised DuBray's decision. In fact, the group went so far as to liken including the instrumental version of "White Rabbit" in a school marching-band routine to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
"Plenty of people are saying school bands can't play Christian songs in schools because that's promoting Christianity. Jefferson Airplane and that culture that they came out of is religious as any Christian has ever been," Drake said.
"It's a religion of Satanism. I think what [DuBray] has done is admirable. I think he's doing his job, to protect children from a religious intrusion into a government facility."