By Andi Meyer, Fine Arts Instructor
Educators at Horizon Academy and across the country are working to make sure their curriculum is culturally responsive. One of my specialty areas, Music Education, is undergoing a significant transformation as teachers and scholars work to uncover songs with racist or derogatory terms, questionable meanings, and questionable origin. In this blog post, I’d like to provide you with a look into some of the research that has been conducted on songs with a questionable past.
In May 2014, Theodore R. Johnson III, who is a writer, Naval officer, and former White House Fellow, published the article, “Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News for You,” on NPR’s Code Switch. His piece went viral and by August 2015, multiple articles had been published exposing popular nursery rhymes, songs, games, characters, and book series as culturally inappropriate. Many nursery rhymes--like Baa, Baa, Black Sheep--are turned into simple melodies, making them the perfect fodder for elementary music education. My childhood was infused with little bits and pieces of these narratives. The problematic histories of these elements have educators questioning the place that this material has in our classrooms.
Lauren McDougle, Director of the esteemed American Kodály Institute located at Loyola University in Maryland, has been researching and compiling a publicly accessible list titled, “Songs with a Questionable Past.” Her list is built on the work of Theodore Johnson III and the other writers and music educators of color who dedicated themselves to taking steps toward a more equitable curriculum. The document is a concise reference of (currently) 94 songs and histories that thousands of music educators are now using.
You'll find numerous songs that we have all been taught, sung, or at least familiar with— “Oh! Susannah”, “A-Tisket A-Tasket”, “Land of the Silver Birch”, and a handful of holiday classics. "Jingle Bells," by James Pierpont has been an interesting topic in recent music education discussion, due to its origin as a minstrel song. This is a practice where white performers dressed in blackface for the Vaudevillian audience. Schools of music education pedagogies, publishers, top clinicians, and music educators are putting these songs to the side, in favor of songs that do not have a problematic background. It is not an exhaustive list. Other music educators have also been doing their own work and compiling other songs not yet on this list. This list is only expected to grow.
Music Educator, Bethany Bennit, offers this helpful list of questions to consider when facing the removal of songs from school use:
● How is this song culturally inclusive?
● How does it foster community?
● What culturally relevant values does it discuss?
● Is it musically challenging?
● What musical concepts will you teach that are found in this work?
● (In the case of “Jingle Bells,”) if it’s actually about a canon of winter-themed sing-along songs, why is this one so worthy that it gets airtime over others without an origin in racist performance?
By incorporating the work of people Theodore R. Johnson III, Lauren McDougall, and countless other scholars across all areas of the curriculum, our team is pulling together to make strides in all areas of our students' education. We can all be a part of the ongoing education process as it relates to culturally appropriate musical material. Let’s challenge ourselves to keep learning more about the materials and traditions we take for granted.