“Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” “Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn),” “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Turkey in the Straw.” What do these songs have in common? They’re American folk songs, children’s songs, songs everyone knows, right?
Yes, but they’re also the products of blackface minstrelsy. The most popular form of American musical entertainment in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, minstrel shows included songs, plays and dancing. The “minstrels” were usually white men who wore blackface makeup to portray grotesque caricatures of African Americans.
Blackface minstrelsy has been a huge part of American culture for the better part of two centuries. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Pa performed in blackface in “Little Town on the Prairie” (remember when she found a spot of grease paint in his whiskers?). The very first full-length “talkie” film of all time, 1929’s “The Jazz Singer,” ends with the title character performing in blackface while his proud mother weeps with joy at his success.
Many songs that we think of as American folk songs actually originated in blackface minstrel shows. Stephen Foster wrote a lot of music for the Christy Minstrels. “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home (Swannee),” “Camptown Races,” and “My Old Kentucky Home” were all composed for minstrel shows. These songs are from shows that denigrated Black people.
Systemic racism means racism that’s a part of daily life, racism that’s so deeply ingrained in the culture that sometimes it’s hard to see or acknowledge. It’s upsetting to think about just how many American cultural treasures — including favorite songs, books, and movies — have racist histories and are products of systemic racism.
Think of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup or the Washington Redskins — for some people, it may just be breakfast food or a sports mascot, but for others, it’s a symbol of white supremacy, where a non-white culture is mocked or denigrated. In 2020 in particular, many institutions are grappling with how to deal with these histories. As of this writing, Washington’s football team is searching for a new name, and Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima’s parent company, has said they will replace the character later this year.
What does a classical music radio station do with its recordings of Stephen Foster songs? Do we simply remove all of Foster’s music from our library? But what about Foster’s songs that weren’t written for minstrel shows, like “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “I Dream of Jeannie?” Should we keep the non-minstrel songs and purge the rest? Or do we remove all of Foster’s music because he was complicit in racist practices during the 19th century?
Can we keep all of Foster’s music in our library? After all, they’re beautiful, catchy songs that are a part of American culture! Do minstrel songs really hurt anyone in 2020? At the same time, if a cultural item is created in a context of racism, can it ever really be free of that racism? Are these songs worth keeping if they serve as a constant reminder of a racist legacy?
Is the music that a radio station plays ever “just” music?
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