Last week, a friend shared an email with me, written by a songwriter I have never met. The songwriter said that she was deeply offended by songwriters who recycle a melody that, “still has the symphonic stench and terrible tune of racism.” She felt that contemporary composers should refrain from using traditional melodies that were once associated with the black face minstrel show or contained politically incorrect language. Her expressed position reminded me of an August 20, 2015 article published in the Atlanta Black Star called, “12 Childhood Nursery Rhymes You Didn’t Realize Were Racist.” This week I noticed several people posting references to this article on Facebook and vowing to “clean up their repertoires.” If I feel a song is offensive, I won’t sing it (unless I am using it in an instructional or historical context). But if I try to control what songs other people can or cannot sing, well that’s a very different story. To advocate for the banning of traditional melodies is only a hair’s breadth away from burning books. Suppose one wanted every copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” arguably one of the greatest works of American literature removed from public library collections because of the countless uses of the “n” word? Within the world of 21st-century children’s songwriters, many people share the belief that certain venerable folksongs need to be sanitized for the protection of our children. The popular ideological trend we call “political correctness” has only existed for a few brief decades; traditional songs and tunes have been around a whole lot longer. In the folk process and the oral tradition, it is common for one group to appropriate and change a song (even a song formerly sung by their oppressors) to fit their own changing needs and beliefs. “Songs are funny things,” the late Pete Seeger once observed, “They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells.” Historically, efforts to sanitize or cleanse traditional songs and customs have usually resulted in strengthening peoples’ ties to those very songs and customs. The oral tradition springs eternal, no matter how vigilant or organized the opposition. Consider “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” more widespread in the repertoires of American K-3 students than “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Old Mac Donald Had a Farm,” and “Happy Birthday to you!” It sure isn’t because the parents passed it on in an oral tradition; they did not. The kids didn’t learn it out of a book; rather, they learned it from their classsmates, because that’s how the oral tradition actually perpetuates. The song’s lack of political correctness only makes the song more appealing to children (thus its widespread popularity and variety of local variants) “The Joker got away,” “The Joker did ballet,” etc. Monuments are man-made and it a governing official has to posses both desire and political will to erect them or dismantle them. Songs and melodies are not monuments. They can’t really be legislated. It isn’t quite as easy to retire folksongs by edict or decree, even on the grounds that one feels deeply offended by the melody’s former association with oppressive social climates. The oral tradition is the collective sum of millions of mostly unconscious, practically invisible individual choices. There is no system of selection in the human experience more organic or democratic than that of the old oral tradition. In the days before radio and tv, the oral tradition could hardly be rigged, gerrymandered, biased, or easily influenced. Twenty-first century parents and children who enjoy singing the extremely widespread traditional American fiddle tune and song “Turkey in the Straw” are mostly unaware that the melody is recycled from a two-hundred year old minstrel show song called, “Zip Coon,” the original lyrics of which were written in an exaggerated African-American dialect that was popular in that era. The easily recognized tune has long outlasted the original, now politically incorrect (and practically forgotten) lyric by centuries. As far as most contemporary singers and pickers are aware, it’s a song about a bird; the kind you eat at Thanksgiving. And they likely didn’t learn this one out of a book: it is widespread in the oral tradition. It might be the most recognizable of all American fiddle tunes. It survives because it is a good tune that people enjoy, independent of whatever lyric happens to be associated with it long before their great-grandparents were born. One of the greatest traditional 19th-century African-American folksongs, “Oh Freedom,” first collected in Old Plantation Hymns by William E. Barton (1899) recycles the melody of “Lilly Dale,” (1852) a maudlin, self-pitying popular song, written by a Caucasian composer of songs for the minstrel show, H. S. Thompson. “Oh, Lilly, sweet Lilly, dear Lilly Dale / Now the wild rose blossoms o’er he little green grave / Neath the trees in the flowery vale.” Apparently, race, class, or station didn’t stop the song’s anonymous composer from recycling a great tune and chorus and writing new lyrics appropriate to the singer’s experience and condition: “Before I’d be a slave / I’d be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and I’d be free.” That’s the folk process: taking an old song and changing it so it makes more sense. The result is a much better and far more memorable song. We often fail to fully appreciate the sheer staying power of some of these traditional songs and tunes. They have already survived for generations, which is more than anyone of us can say about our own compositions. (It’s more than any of us could ever hope for: that our song will still be sung in 400 years.) Is it not hubris to quickly condemn such organic works of folk art that have existed for centuries in the oral tradition? One song or melody survives the generations while others are forgotten. Anyone who didn’t like the song was free not to sing it, if that was their personal choice. So, if the song it still sung today, perhaps there’s a good reason.