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5 Children's Songs With Racist Histories

For centuries children's songs have been used to introduce little ones to language, rhythm, rhyme and cultural history. Many of us have fond memories of singing songs on playgrounds and in schoolyards. Unfortunately, many of our most beloved children's songs have a very dark history.



1. Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe
Just the other day I took my girls to the park.  A large group of elementary school aged children on a field trip ran over to the playground and I overheard them reciting the popular rhyme: Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe.  They recited in the same context that I did as child, as we choose who was “it” playing hide and go seek.  I did not hear them say the whole rhyme, but I imagine they said it as we did:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (pages 184-187) this rhyme may have derived from the following rhyme that was recited by children in New York as early as 1815

Hana, mana, mona, mike;
Barcelona, bona, strike;
Hare, ware, frown, venac ;
Harrico, warrico, we, wo, wac.

There are versions of this rhyme in French and German but the American English version of this rhyme was found in “colloquial use in almost every State of the Union” in 1888.  The lyrics printed in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes are as such:

Ena, meena, mina, mo
Catch a [N-word] by his toe;
If he squeals, let him go,
Ena, meena, mina, mo.

Growing up I never knew that there was a racist version of the rhyme in which the N-word is used in place of “tiger.”  Yet, two sisters on a Southwest flight however did have knowledge of the version with the N-word.  They unsuccessfully sued Southwest airlines when a flight attendant recited the rhyme in an attempt to get them to find a seat.  Although the judge acknowledged that they rhyme had racist origins the jury decided in favor of Southwest Airlines.

2. Bowl of Cherries/Pick a Bale of Cotton
I first heard “Bowl of Cherries” in a children’s indoor play area.  The song has the same melody as “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”  The cover, "Bowl of Cherries" was adapted by Norman Jones and on his website he writes:

“The universal appeal of the title track "Bowl of Cherries" is really my catalyst for the whole project. There is an old work song that sings about picking cotton and it has the catchiest hook ever. I have no reason to sing about working in the fields as a slave, so one day in a random moment of silliness on stage I sang about cherries…….and now it's on [an] award- winning Putumayo Kids compilation Picnic Playground and being played daily on Sirius/XM Kids Radio.”

Calling “Pick a Bale of Cotton” an old work song, is like calling a slave master a mean supervisor.  The lyrics to this song contain the N-word multiple times. One of the verses according to American Ballads and Folk Songs, goes like this:

"O massa told de [N-word]
Pick a bale of cotton
O massa told de [N-word]
Pick a bale a day"

I had a little wife could
Pick a bale of cotton
I had a little wife could
Pick a bale a day"

Why someone would want to take such a song and convert it to being about eating cherries is beyond me.   Apparently some schools have children sing another version of “Pick a Bale of Cotton” in class and school programs.  One website dedicated to children’s songs has the following lyrics:

Gonna jump down, spin around,
Pick a bale of cotton
Gonna jump down, spin around,
Pick a bale a day
Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton
Pick a bale a day

Several twitter users have childhood memories of this song as well.

Last year some parents in Wisconsin protested the song being part of the music line up.

3. Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport
A couple of years ago my husband and I were watching an episode of 30 Rock called “Meet the Woggles.”  In this episode there was an Australian Children's Band called The Woggles.  There was a scene in which one of the band members says, “Woggle Power” and then it is explained that “Woggle” means white.  I didn’t really get this episode until now.  There is actually a real children’s music band in Australia called the “Wiggles.”  Among their many recordings is a song called “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” written by Rolf Harris.  Like many songs that have racist origins, the most recent versions simply eliminate  the racial epithets.  However the original version of this song contains a racial slur against Aboriginal Australians.

Let me [A-word] go loose, Lou
Let me [A-word] go loose:
They're of no further use, Lou
So let me [A-word] go loose.

Harris gave a half hearted apology for these lyrics, then shamed Aboriginal people for their misfortune in Australia.   Now the “Woggle Power” reference from 30 Rock makes sense.

4. Oh Susanna
Known to many as a love song and to others as a children's camp song, “Oh Susanna” has it’s origins in minstrel shows.  Written by Stephan C. Foster, a sample of the original lyrics goes like this:

I come from Alabama with my Banjo on my knee—
I’se gwine to Lou’siana my true lub for to see.
It rain’d all night de day I left, de wedder it was dry;
The sun so hot I froze to def—Susanna, dont you cry.
Oh! Susanna, do not cry for me;

I come from Alabama, wid my Banjo on my knee.
I jump’d aboard the telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber,
De lectrie fluid magnified, and kill’d five hundred [N-word]
De bullgine bust, de hoss ran off, I really thought I’d die;
I shut my eyes to hold my bref—Susanna, dont you cry.

One can do a quick youtube search to find many childrens animations that contain modernized lyrics of “Oh Susanna” w/o the N-word, and updated grammar.  There is even a popular cover of this song called “Oh California” that highlights the 1849 Gold Rush.

This song is very ingrained in American musical history.  However the minstrel origins and use of racial epithets in the original lyrics are enough for me to want to never hear this song again, even with new lyrics.  I definitely do not want my children to learn these songs and sing them thinking they are ok.

5. Short'nin Bread
Another song that has deep roots in American history is none other than “Shortnin Bread.”  After viewing Donald Duck  singing this tune while making pancakes, it would seem that the tune is innocent.  Nevertheless, the original lyrics as recorded by American Ballads and Folk Songs  By John Avery Lomax are printed as such:

Two little [N-word] lyin' in bed,
One of 'em sick an' de odder mos' dead.
Call for de doctor an' de doctor said,
Feed dem darkies on short'nin bread
Mammy's little baby loves short'nin short'nin
Mammy's little baby loves short'nin bread

Other verses that can be viewed in the book contain more racial slurs but are usually not present in modern recordings.  In more modern recordings, “Mammy” has been replaced with “Mama”, and the “N-word” and “darkies” has been replaced with “children.”

What has your experience been with these songs?  Have you heard them played in children's play spaces?  Seen them performed in school programs?  Watched them in animations?  How do you feel about keeping these songs in rotation?  Do new lyrics make it ok?  Should they still be taught to children as fun songs or only to adults for historical purposes?

Originally posted on Baby & Blog   


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