Political Correctness and Traditional Folksongs: Can They Exist in the Same Time and Space?

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.

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“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.

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Some people believe that children should be sheltered from the unsavory tale of a farmer’s wife cutting off of a mouse’s tail with a carving knife.

Is it so subtle that we nearly miss what the little lyric has to teach children about real life 400 years ago (or today, if you live in a rural environment). The kitchen’ is so over run with rodents, that the mother of the house will, in fact, enthusiastically aim for the mouse’s tail with her carving knife. And baby mice are, in fact, born blind, are they not? Rodents are the reason why people began keeping domesticated cats as pets, some 10,000 years ago – especially in families that raised crops of grain. There’s a lot of minute detail in this little lyric!

A well-meaning songwriter changes the “Three Blind Mice” lyric to instead be about “Three Kind Mice,” satisfied that they are enriching the cultural experience of the children who hear and sing the song, and sparing many families the seemingly unpleasant act violence – the very action sequence that made the song an memorable adventure in the first place. Will a song about three kind mice remain in the oral traditional for the next 400 years? Isn’t it a better story if the mice are blind and they’ve just barely escaped from the jaws of death? This cannot be over emphasized: in a world lit only by fire, these poems, songs, and ballads were the Harry Potter and Star Wars epics of their day: cautionary, moralistic tales for young eyes, ears, and minds, in an age before the present-day concept of children’s literature and music even existed.

Apparently, some parents and educators are afraid that children who sing the traditional lyric will, in fact, literally cut off the tail of their family pet. Or do they fear that the song will make the listener prone to acts of violence? Fifty year ago, when I was a little boy, nobody felt that “Three Blind Mice” was inappropriate for small children; rather it was ubiquitous. And none of us were inspired to cut off the tails of our pet mice and rats. So what has changed in a few short decades?

To my mind, there’s not much difference between the “Three Kind Mice” rewrite and the concept of abandoning traditional melodies because 200 years ago offensive lyrics were sung to those tunes. Both songwriters share a desire to sanitize works in the oral tradition – works that they deem unsavory or unpleasant or politically incorrect – and feel righteous in the stance as a sanitizer of traditional works.

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“Yankee Doodle’s” familiar melody was popular in a number of Western European countries for centuries before the Revolutionary War in 1776. At a time in history when people made their own music, songs were one of many ways American colonists (the civil rights activists of their day) could express their dissatisfaction with their British rulers across the Atlantic. British soldiers responded with songs ridiculing the colonists as country bumpkins, one of which told of a Yankee simpleton (a “doodle”). It became so popular that the British troops played it as they marched to battle on the first day of the Revolutionary War. The Americans claimed the song as their own and composed verses ridiculing the English and lauding George Washington. By the time the English surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, “Yankee Doodle” had become the unofficial national anthem of the new nation. This happened largely in an oral tradition: the song wasn’t just in the mind and the ears of the people: it was on their lips. Today, “Yankee Doodle” is the state anthem of Connecticut. Elementary school students sing it at schools in fifty states. Does anyone think kids shouldn’t hear or sing “Yankee Doodle” because it makes fun of simpletons or country folks? Or, because it was sung by our former enemy and oppressor, Great Britain?

This is the essence of the folksong of protest: recycle the tune and change the words so they make more sense. This is how the oral tradition works: some wandering folksongs and melodies go on forever, morphing with each generation, suiting the changing needs of the people who sing it. These are the lessons learned from the folklorists. This, and an abiding respect for the lyrics and melodies that have, unassisted, survived the centuries.

It requires some understanding of American history to appreciate the paradox of living in a time when many of our most irrepressible traditional songs and stories are considered to be politically incorrect. Can traditional songs and stories and political correctness exist simultaneously, in the same time and space?

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From the Minstrel Show to Motown, American popular culture has been fascinated with (and dominated by an interest in) African-American music and culture. For centuries, American popular and folk music has been a hybrid of music shared by two musical communities, as white people learned songs from black people, and visa versa.

Whatever the meaning of the term “politically incorrect,” the blackface minstrel show is among its best examples, and perhaps even its definition. It is nearly impossible for 21st-century Americans to understand the popularity and cultural appeal of the blackface minstrel show in its day.

It is worth noting that male entertainers from Charles Chaplin, to Milton Berle, to RuPaul are celebrated for performing in drag (dressed as women). But you rarely hear anybody complaining that their doing so is offensive to women (or drag queens). It is considered entertaining. Similarly, in its day, the black face minstrel show was considered to be very entertaining.

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Leonard Reid, a blue-eyed, light skinned African American vaudeville entertainer, was born in 1907. He performed in both all-white and all-black vaudeville.

“The definition of acting is ‘to do.’ All of this is an act,” said Reid. “[T]hey put on cork – not to be black, but to get the expressions from the face. When you put on cork and white lips, you can move your lips around, and everybody can see them moving around, and that’s a laugh. And I think anything that you can do to get a laugh should be in show business. Show business is show business.”

Prior to the Second World War, almost all the African American comedians wore blackface, even when performing before black audiences. It was simply a matter of conformity.

Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, born in 1904, joined a carnival at the age of fourteen. Markham remembered:

“Mr. Booker came over to us before the show with a can of Stein’s burnt cork and showed us how to put it on in front of the mirror. He also had some pink and white lip make-up … You may wonder why a Negro had to do that, and all I can tell you is that’s the way it was. Just about every Negro entertainer in those days worked in burnt-cork and lip make-up – even Bert Williams who was the greatest of them all. Matter of fact, I never went before an audience without my burnt-cork until 1943 – more than twenty years later.”

The mask of blackface, like the make-up worn by circus clowns, exaggerated facial expressions, while providing the performer a certain level of anonymity offstage, when the make-up was removed.

“And when Pigmeat took off his cork,” Leonard Reid remembered, “He lost the edge that he had in laughter. I said, ‘Pigmeat, what’s happening?’ I said, ‘The bit isn’t going.’

“He said, ‘I don’t know – I can’t express myself anymore.’ He said, ‘They made me take off the cork and it wasn’t to prove I was Black – they knew I was Black (Negro, that’s what he said). But I just lost the edge. I can’t feel like I felt when I had the cork on.’

And he was broken hearted until the end – Pigmeat was broken hearted until the end that he had to take off cork.

Markham was one of the last African American comedians to remove the mask of blackface. His audience was surprised to see that his face was darker than the make-up he had worn for decades. He’d actually been “lightening up,” applying the burnt cork.

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Two centuries ago, in the days of slavery, with a population swelling with immigrants, the blackface minstrel show offered a comical and satirical (but nevertheless instructional) reflection of the racial caste-system found throughout the American society – a society in which these immigrants hoped to someday assimilate. The minstrel show burlesqued the obviously unjust, mistrustful, and forced relationship between blacks and whites in American culture. Today, we call this “speaking truth to power.”

Consider “The Blue Tail Fly,” (“Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care”) a song made popular in the 1840s, that tells of an enslaved African-American who manages to murder his white master, cleverly convincing the jury that the master’s death resulted from a fall from a horse – a horse that had been bitten by a blue tailed fly.

As songs made popular by black face minstrels were passed on from one generation to the next, the lyrics were changed to reflect the sensibilities of the time. In time, the grotesque African-American dialect, as well as the offending words and verses were frequently changed or omitted by mindful parents and publishers sensitive to the changing times.

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In 1846, twenty-year-old Stephen Foster dropped out of college and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to work as a bookkeeper in the office of his brother’s steamship company. There, in 1848 he wrote “Oh, Susanna,” which became the anthem of the California Gold Rush and the most popular (and most parodied) song on the continent.

Though Foster only received $100 for his composition, “Oh, Susanna,” was copyrighted and published more than twenty times, selling over 100,000 copies. Stephen Foster became the first person in American history to quit his job to become a full-time professional songwriter.

Foster wrote some of the most beautiful melodies in American history. Many of Foster’s songs were composed for entertainers working in the then wildly-popular blackface minstrel show. These songs employed an exaggerated African-American dialect that, like many of the original lyrics, has become politically incorrect in our time. The earliest American example of a song lyric written in this dialect was published in 1812, before Foster was born.

So great was the popularity of the blackface minstrel show in Foster’s time, he quickly discovered that if he wrote a new song lyric in this exaggerated Negro dialect, it sold ten times as many copies than a song written in plain verse. And yet children in 50 states still sing the first verse of the song much as it was published. In this century, you won’t hear anybody singing the second verse of “Oh, Susanna” the way it was originally published – it has been left behind. That’s how the oral tradition works: if folks don’t like a verse, they change it or abandon it.

Foster’s songs, primarily about happily enslaved African-Americans and their beloved masters, depicted an entirely fictional, idealized American South – devoid of racial inequality, compulsory human bondage, or suffering – that never actually existed.

But this hasn’t diminished the longevity of both Foster’s lyrics and the melodies in the oral tradition. Art reflects the time in which it was created. Just because you don’t like the time in which the art was created, is it now appropriate to ban the art?

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Folksongs travel through History. History travels through Folksongs.

Every individual is free to remove any song from their own personal repertoire as they see fit. If one is obstinate enough, one can bully their peers into banning a song, or simply make others feel too uncomfortable to sing it.

I have a deep and abiding respect for the folk process and the oral tradition. Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents didn’t bother passing on songs and stories they don’t enjoy. That’s why so many of the old songs and stories are good songs and stories. Every country on earth has its own special folksongs. Every ethnic culture in the United States has its own special folksongs and they an important part of our heritage and tradition.

To paraphrase a concept that my mentor Sam Hinton (1917-2009) shared nearly sixty years ago: this civilization of ours is a fast-moving thing. New inventions and discoveries continually change our ways of living. We move from place to place and fewer and fewer of us live in the neighborhoods where our parents spent their childhood. In some ways, the changes are good: distant neighbors are not so distant as they used to be. And we are slowly learning to be less suspicious of people just because they happen to be different in some way from ourselves.

Unfortunately, it is has become harder for us to see how we are related to our ancestors, whose lives were so different from ours. And this makes it harder for us to say, “I know who I am, and I know where I belong in the world.” In my own case, my interest in folk music has made this easier. My ancestors seem more real to me when I learn that we have both laughed at the same old song.

So, when I sing a song that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her father, who learned it from HIS father – and so on back for generations – I have a feeling that there is a place for me in the world, because so many people have helped to prepare it for me. Even when I sing a new song, it gives me pleasure to think that it may live to be an old song, and that in some far-off day somebody may feel a kinship with me because of it.

And so, I pass these songs and stories on, in the hope that others will enjoy them, that they will make some of them their own songs and stories, and that they may pass them along to future boys and girls who will call us their ancestors.

Banning traditional songs is tantamount to burning books. Do not go gentle into that good night.

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