Saturday, September 15, 2018

Being Sensitive with Our Song Culture and History

*Updated 11.25.19
In the United States, the song literature we use in elementary music education is rooted in folk songs.  As we grow as a culture and deepen our sensitivity and understandings of our past history, we learn things about our culture that are problematic and offensive.  Some of our songs have histories with inappropriate themes and others have racist overtones, mocking or degrading various cultures, particularly black or African American culture.  Just recently a music teacher friend learned that the folk song, "Jump Jim Joe" was racist.  The New England Dancing Masters changed the title of their book, "Jump Jim Joe", to "Rise, Sally, Rise" acknowledging the sensitive and negative history of the song.  Although the one song is problematic, the remainder of the collection is a treasure trove of children's song material.  It is available here.

By now you may have heard that "Ring Around the Rosie" is a song about the Black Plague. That is FALSE and urban legend according to historians. Read the full story here. The plague began in 1347 and the earliest print appearance of “Ring Around the Rosie” did not occur until 1881 when Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes was published. 
What you may not know is that that "Sing a Song of Sixpence" is about piracy, and that "Lucy Locket" is about the prostitute Kitty Fisher.  Back in the day, Locket was a euphemism for "vagina".  Check out the full story, along with how Casanova plays into the story here.

 Is your mouth hanging open yet?

Mine was.   Though many of these songs appear innocent at first glance, as the lyrics have been "whitewashed",  I cannot "unlearn" the offensive and often racist histories behind these problematic songs.

Here is a partial list of problematic song material:

  • "All the Pretty Little Horses" has a 2nd verse referring to enslaved women's children who died as a result of white children taking their place during breastfeeding. Original lyrics and more information here
  • Black Joke" AKA "Hey Ho, Diddly Dum" is about sex.  Original lyrics here.  Read more  here.

  • "The Boatman's Dance" was originally titled “De Boatman’s Dance".  It was performed in minstrel shows and mocked the speech of enslaved people.  Read more here.
  • "The Cat Came Back" was originally titled, "“The Cat Came Back: A N...r Absurdity”. The lyrics mocked the speech of enslaved people and was sung in minstrel shows.

  • "Camptown Races" is a minstrel show which mocked the speech of enslaved people. Read more here.
  • Chicken on a Fencepost" AKA "Can't Dance Josey"  the original lyrics contain the words, "n...r died" and "n...r on the woodpile".  Listen to recording here.
  • "Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees" AKA "Four in the Middle" is a variant of "Can't Dance Josey" (See above).

  • "Dinah" is a code word for an enslaved woman.  This song was used in minstrel shows. Read more here and here.
  • "Do Your Ears Hang Low" most likely began as a sexual song sung by soldiers in 1900. The tune is also problematic in that it was used in minstrel shows. Read more here and here.  Also see "The Ice Cream Truck Song" below.
  • "Eenie Meenie Miney Mo" is rooted in the enslaved people trade.
  • "Epo i tai tai" is often listed erroneously as "Hawaiian". It is from New Zealand from the Maori people. When I contacted the Maori Cultural Center they were clear that this was not a song for children as it references male genitalia, bull testicles, and the virility of male warriors. 
  • "Five Little Monkeys" was originally about enslaved people, one who was sick and the other one dead.  "Shortnin' Bread" is the chorus of "Five Little Monkeys".  "Monkeys" was a sanitized yet veiled epithet in reference to black people.  Read the full story here.
  • "Hey Ya Na" AKA "Apache Melody" cannot be verified as being authentic.
  • "The Hokey Pokey" evolved from "Hocus Pocus"  and referenced witchcraft - read the story here.
  • "The Ice Cream Truck Song" is associated with a song called "N...r Love a Watermelon". Also see "Do Your Ears Hang Low" above.
  • "I've Been Working on the Railroad" was used in minstrel shows and the original lyrics mock enslaved people's speech and uses the word "n...r". Read more here and here.
  • "Jimmy Crack Corn" AKA "Blue Tail Fly" is about an enslaved person whose master has died. Many historians believe the enslaved person is rejoicing in his master's death.
  • "John Kanaka" was sung by English speaking sailors who had difficulty speaking the names of their fellow Hawaiian sailors. The Hawaiian name "Kanaka," means "Hawaiian Man" and became a stereotypical name for any Hawaiian person.
  • "Jump Jim Joe" began as the song, "Jump Jim Crow".  From Wikepedia,  '"Jump Jim Crow" or "Jim Crow" is a song and dance from 1828 that was done in blackface by white minstrel performer Thomas Dartmouth (T. D.) ... As a result of Rice's fame, the term Jim Crow had become a pejorative meaning African American by 1838 and from this the laws of racial segregation became known as Jim Crow laws.'
  • "Jim Along Josie" is a song that began as a blackface minstrel song in which African Americans and enslaved people are mocked and demoralized.
  • "Johnny on the Woodpile", the name "Johnny" is often used as a euphemism for "n...r" and is related to the song "N...r on the Woodpile".
  • "Lucy Locket" is about prostitution. Read more here. 
  • "Oh Susanna" contains lyrics about killing 500 "n...r" and mocks African Americans and enslaved peoples speech.  It was originally sung in minstrel shows.  Read more here.
  • "Old Dan Tucker" was sung in minstrel shows and the lyrics mock the speech of enslaved people.
  • "Pick a Bale of Cotton" pokes fun at the conditions enslaved people endured.  A bale of cotton weighed about 500 pounds. An average man picked about 200 pounds a day working sun up to sun down (and often beyond). It was not humanly possible to pick a bale in a day and therefore mocked enslaved people. The song also contains the "n" word as has been referenced previously. There is some thought that the song may not have been a work song at all but a song created at the time of minstrel shows as there is no documentation of it before the 1930's. Read more here. 
  • "Run, Children, Run" had an original title of "Run N...r Run". 
  • "Shoo Fly" was almost certainly used in minstrel shows and contains language which mocks enslaved people.  Original sheet music here. 
  • "Ten Little Monkeys" also is the probable root for "Ten Little Indians" - Both are racist. Read more here.
  • "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" is an Australian song, the original lyrics include a racial slur against Aboriginal Australians.
  • "Turkey in the Straw" is a tune used in minstrel shows. Read more here.

Some of these songs came from minstrel shows, in which performers appeared in blackface makeup. 
Folkloreforum has this to say about the minstrel show, read the full story here:
The minstrel show was popular even before the Civil War, performed before audiences in both the North and the South. However, the shows’ materials changed once freedom was granted to the Negro slaves in the United States. Before the matter of freed slaves became a volatile issue, the typical minstrel show exhibited white men in black makeup performing song and dance exaggerated by lack of coordination and improper English, a style that became known as Jim Crow. After the Civil War, the stage opened itself up to new performers, recently freed slaves, willing to impersonate the impersonator. These performers, though already darker skinned, adhered to the minstrelsy tradition of blackface makeup. The tone of these black caricatures became less innocent and more damaging to blacks. 

So what do we do with these songs?  To sing or not to sing?  To teach or not to teach?

Does failing to acknowledge the history behind the songs negate/devalue how far we have come from these times?  

As music teachers, we control the narrative of musical culture and history for most of our students. We need to be aware of what we are supporting, perpetuating, and celebrating.  Prejudices, stereotypes, and biases can be subtle and unclear.  For me, I cannot use songs that have brought pain and humiliation, or devalue people. I cannot use the melodies and alter the words, either, as the melody has meaning and will be associated with the lyrics.  If we are committed to including ALL of our students and fighting systemic racism, we have to be prepared to let go of these songs that have the power to exclude and offend.  
We are so fortunate to have such a variety of song literature - there are so many high quality songs that do not perpetuate stereotypes or bias.  Problematic songs have their place; studied at a time when children are developmentally ready for it. For me, that is not with my 4-10 year old children.
The choices we make matter, not only to us as individuals and educators, but also to our students sense of self and identity.  The potential impact, not our intentions, guide us in deciding the choice to use a song and if so, how much information to share. If  using a song may offend, or has the potential to do so, then we should reconsider our choices.
Continue to research, the more we learn, the more informed choices we can make. 
Once we know better, we must do better.


  1. I knew about most of these but not Camptown Races! I agree, it's impossible to know everything about everything but we can and should always continue to learn and grow. And I also agree that there is so much good musical material out there, that using modified lyrics to continue to sing songs with such dark histories seems pointless. Not to mention we can always make our own new songs, as I know you have done yourself.

  2. Yes, I am glad you are raising all these questions! I'm right there grappling with you. I also agree that there are so many rich songs that don't have blatant racist histories, that we aught to focus our attention towards teaching them.

  3. Thank you for this. Some of the blogs link to suggest we can still use some of these with the modified lyrics, but there's no way I'm going to now that I know the histories. I would never feel comfortable doing that. Also, I wish I could read more, but some of the links you tried to provide do not work. I hope you can fix them.

  4. This is confronting reading... thank you for writing it. I wonder how many of these songs started like this, or on the other hand were they 'corrupted' versions of existing songs? I mean, people change the lyrics to songs - think 'Happy Birthday to you, you were born in a zoo...'

    Not an easy topic to address, but very much timely and perhaps even overdue. Thanks again.

  5. Thank you so much for including this list! It's difficult to know where to start when researching the music we use, and this is a super helpful resource.

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  9. Hi Amy! Thanks for your post! Can you update the links? They don't go anywhere.


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