Race and Music – Children’s Songs

by Mary Cota

Music has delivered powerful social and political propaganda for thousands of years. I wonder how music can play into today’s fight for racial equality and justice, and what I can do as a musician. It’s overwhelming to know where to begin, as there are many ways that music supports a doctrine of white supremacy. I try to acknowledge music’s political power with care, both by thoughtfully choosing the music I perform, and by learning about the music I listen to and teach. Lately I’ve been thinking about where it all starts – the music we teach our infants and youngest children.

I will share one story from my personal experience in which I realized the need to be more thoughtful. The first situation was when I was teaching a student from a very popular and renowned piano method series. The student had successfully completed one piece, and we turned the page to the pieces I would assign her that week – “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” At the moment, I did not know the racist history of these pieces, but immediately felt a sense of discomfort with the idea of teaching them. I said something vague about how I didn’t really like these pieces – that they were a bit “farmy” and that we would skip to something “better.” After the lesson, I googled the pieces and was shocked by their racist roots; both pieces were originally minstrel songs, or songs performed by white performers who blackened their faces in order to caricature African Americans.

I have been surprised to find the same thing about a huge number of other children’s songs, such as “The Ice Cream Truck Song,” yet another minstrel song. While the lyrics of these pieces may have been changed to make them more politically correct, the melody still embodies a culture of racism; with the assumption that melodies hold and carry history, and are perhaps even more important than the words, I don’t really feel the PC versions of these songs are much better than their original versions. I am not sure whether this music should be avoided, modified, or used to teach older children of the insidious nature of how a culture of white supremacy is carefully and “innocently” disguised, but at the very least, I know we must handle children’s songs with thought and care.