Determining Racist Roots of Popular Folk Songs: Sources for Uncomfortable but Necessary Introspection


As owner of Dr. Stafford’s Musical Cures , I support Black Lives Matter and stands in solidarity with Black friends, colleagues, students and loved ones. The treatment of Black people in relation to white people is a travesty. I am is dedicated to providing resources and information on racism and recognizing the white privilege with which I live. Additionally, I pledge to help fight against any police brutality, support officers who are making a positive difference. As a member of AOSA , OAKE, and NAfME, I also stand by their pledges to support their Black members. And I will continue to provide resources and information on teaching music, a way to help the world heal.

A Little Bit about White Privilege and Teaching

In the midst of a pandemic, learning online teaching, figuring out where to get masks, whether not we listen to the advice of the CDC, WHO, or our friends’ memes……….amid all that confusion………
A man was killed. Maybe he passed a counterfeit bill. Maybe he didn’t. But in the ensuing arrest attempt……he was murdered. I won’t go into the details. Many of us have those details seared into our brains. We saw the video. As horrid as it was, if not for the video, four officers would not be charged with second degree murder. It would be another case of a Black man’s word against four police officers. And guess who would win………HOWEVER, stereotypes don’t help. Not all police officers are rogue. In fact, the majority of them honestly want to serve their community. And, for the looting and riots: things are not always as they seem. They are usually not Black people. And like Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

I’m going to say little about my white privilege because that’s not the focus. But, by the same token, I am learning to face it. It’s not always pretty. That’s why I want to mention it.The way I wanted to go in to city schools and teach after retirement because I wanted to make a difference? I marched in with my box full of Black musicians and those books about little children with “special” names. I wanted to make MY perception of difference, not theirs. I pronounced that I couldn’t be racist because I drove 50 miles one way and took the job after retirement. I wanted to discipline them my way, consistently sending kids to ISS on the advice of others. But………I rarely took the time to listen. Maybe that’s why a teacher and a student claimed I was racist. I was shocked and taken aback. And I let it affect my health. I resigned 10 weeks in, doctor note in hand. In all fairness to me, there were other situations going on that made it less than ideal. But I certainly didn’t help matters. I was operating on white privilege. 

Folk Songs and Racism

Folk songs have been a music teaching staple for centuries. As we know, folk music was passed down from generation to generation, often not written down. Kodály levels students are taught how to trace the roots of folk songs back to as primary of sources as possible. Sometimes, however, we don’t go back far enough.Take the popular favorite for sixteenth notes “Chicken on a Fencepost (Dance Josey)“. My students in the school before I retired LOVED it. Thank goodness I never got to it in my city school. There are subsequent verses that include the “n” word. There is a host of songs with minstrel histories and derogatory terms for Black people and indigenous peoples. Also, quite a few of the songs we might have taught have questionable authenticity regarding the culture attributed to them. 

Why Does This Matter?

Practical Reasons

  • Parents. Many parents are more savvy than we give them credit for. So, you better have good reasons to back yourself up if you have a parent calling and saying, “So, you’re teaching ‘Dinah’. My child came home singing it. I looked it up and found it has racist roots. Why are you teaching our children this?” which can lead to ….. 
  • Administration. Whether it’s that parental phone call that skips you and goes right to your principal (or in smaller districts, even the superintendent), is it really worth getting called on the carpet to sing a song where you can play a game to chase a rubber chicken? (OK. According to Aileen Miracle, a prominent Kodaly instructor, the racist version of Dance Josey was included after the song had been around for a while, but she still chooses not to include it). That’s your judgement call. Which leads to…. 
  • Your community. Some songs in a “gray” area might be fine in certain communities. When in doubt, discuss with your administration if you trust them. 

 Emotional Reasons 

  • Pride of Heritage. Why drag a race or culture down? For instance, for the sake of argument; some of us remember a time when people of German ancestry were called “Kraut” (a derogatory term for German soldiers in World Wars I and II). If you were teaching songs from those wars, would you really include one that included the word “Kraut”? Probably not, because Germany is an ally AND because you probably have students with that heritage. Why, then, would we want to include songs that ridicule Black people? They are our citizens: probably a majority who had ancestors with choice about coming here.
  • Bogging Down with the Negative. Why do that? Black people have had a tremendous history of contribution during and after slavery. Despite odds of not having the advantages of whites merely because of white privilege, numerous people of color have overcome obstacles. Pulling on songs from a minstrel history or songs with racist overtones recalls times of oppression. Why go there? 

What Do We, As Music Educators/Directors Do?

  • Research pronunciations. Do you have a singing soloist sing a German art song without getting a grasp of German? It’s the same with dialect. Check out Black composers. Note that all the big names in choral or band arranging may sacrifice dialect for mass production. Jester Hairston is an example of an arranger considered to be true and authentic to Black dialect. (even though his music was around when I was in high school!) If it uses the derivative “chillun” for “children”, think again. At this time, when one thinks about gospel or spiritual arrangements, one thinks Moses Hogan, but there are many others. (See list in references)
  • Bring on the jazz. Why was jazz so ignored in earlier music series except for some token units? It’s the art form developed in the United States. It was developed from songs of oppression, yet perseverance through work songs and spirituals. Think of the musicianship that goes into improvisation. Use (with common sense!) the lives of jazz musicians as life lessons. Billie Holliday’s life was horrible, You MAY not want to touch on her history of prostitution. You can, however, touch on the abuse. If your kids are doing DARE or other types of substance abuse education, you can touch on her drug use and how it killed a rising, brilliant star. Bring on the songs of civil rights. “We Shall Overcome.” Bob Dylan. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Help your students to understand that music was important in the fight for social changes throughout the centuries of our country.
  • Face the Uncomfortable with Your Kids WITH DISCRETION. You and your principal need to decide IF you can use certain folk songs and delve into the ugly history. You know your kids. You know your families. When it doubt, leave it out. If you are using songs in conjunction with civil rights, it might be beneficial.
  •  Check your defensiveness/denial. I say that in all love, because I am terribly defensive. Until now, I have avoided books on white privilege/supremacy. Denial and defensiveness. Honestly, I was scared to see what I would find. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s necessary in order to be a fully empathetic educator. The world is diverse. We need to embrace that diversity. I feel if I had read those books, I might have not had as many issues in the city schools. Who knows?
  • Read, read, read! Learn from others. Check out the list of resources below.

As teachers, we are taught to utilize introspection to continually evaluate ourselves and our teaching. A huge part of our teaching is respect for all of our students. The following graphic was found on Jean Pierre’s Facebook page, posted on June 10, 2020. You may wish to look a it and evaluate yourself: where do you fall? When we are able to determine this, we can go forward with the evaluation of our pedagogy, our Kodály binders, our resources, and our outlooks.


Probably the most current definitive organization resource dedicated to research into musical equity is Decolonizing the Music Room by Brandi Waller-Pace Executive Director and Lorelei Batislaong, Co-Editor and Deputy Director. A nonprofit organization, the mission of DTMR is focused on helping music educators develop critical practices and utilize the knowledge and experience of Black, Brown, and Indigenous People in order to challenge the dominance of Western European and white American music, while making more prominent non-dominant races and cultures in music education to make the field more equitable for all.

Resources on songs with questionable pasts

Resources on Teaching

NAfME Webinars: PD certificates possibly available.

Classical-style music written by Black composers.

Choral Arrangers with a Specialty in Authenticity of Spirituals

  • Jester Hairston
  • Moses Hogan
  • Rollo Dillworth
  • Andaya Hart
  • Rosephanye Powell
  • Andre Thomas
  • William Grant Still

Books on Spirituals and White Fragility

Children’s Books about Black Musicians and Music from Black Tradition

Spotify/Smithsonian Folkways

If you have any contributions to these lists, please leave a comment. It would be wonderful to have this list grow as a handy resource.

Next time: Using Boom Cards™ with SeeSaw.

Until then…stay safe, stay healthy, keep musicking…….


  • Check out the award winning picture book "Trombone Shorty." It is written by the real Trombone Shorty and beautifully tells the story of how he became a jazz musician. He's young and cool too.


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I am an elementary music teacher and adjunct professor from Missouri and have completed my Ph.D. in music education through the University of Kansas.

I am an elementary music teacher and adjunct professor from Missouri and have just completed my Ph.D. in music education through the University of Kansas.


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