Songs with a Questionable Past

compiled by Lauren McDougle

Created: 5 July, 2019 (.ppt list only)  Last Updated: 25 October, 2021  - 94 Songs

Have a song to add? More information? This document is updated regularly as new information is shared and gathered. Email: americankodalyinstitute@gmail.com

Updates 10/25/2021

  1. Bookmarks have been updated and text features were added, which should allow navigation via the Google Doc outline.  
  2. Due to the innocuous nature of A-Tisket, A-Tasket, it has been removed from this list. Thank you for the questions and feedback that helped to clarify the context and information surrounding this song.
  3. It Rained a Mist and Wild Irish Rose have been included in Songs with Adult Themes.
  4. Cindy has been removed until citations are organized more thoroughly. Please note this song is found in both Anglo and African American traditions, both with lyrics, and as a fiddle tune. Fragments of lyrics and melody are found in a variety of other songs, including versions with adult themes, or used in minstrel songs.  Akin to Liza Jane, Juba, and Fire on the Mountain, the history of this song is intertwined with many communities and tunes.

 “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

Our purpose as music educators is to find what is truly “best for the child.” The songs and music in our everyday lives should exalt the human spirit. Truly timeless songs can cross cultural and generational divides. This is a list of songs that are part of our past and for one reason or another, may now be questionable for people to sing in the 21st century. Digital libraries and collections are more prolific now, and many of these resources and historical insights are available to the masses for the first time. So, if you’ve ever taught a song on this list that may now be considered questionable, know that the love in your heart is not any less bright. Educators should avoid celebrating art that will hurt people living today. That is not to say that we ignore history’s uncomfortable moments, but we must diligently help our students become musical and global citizens. Some of these songs may stay on repertoire lists, but now with added context and history. Other songs, because of the context or history, may not align with today’s cultural norms and values. Trust your heart and treasure your students first. Then, use your knowledge and judgment to make an inclusive and informed pedagogical decision.

Section Descriptions

Songs with racist or derogatory terms or themes may not be suitable in a K-12 educational setting, or in 21st century social and professional settings. In the 19th and 20th century, some problematic terms were used as common vernacular. Other times, like with many minstrel songs, the words or original performance context were used with the intent to degrade or mock. Frequently, if the song or text's beginnings were problematic, over time it was modified and sanitized for broader consumption in song collections and recordings. For some songs, only one or two problematic versions may have been found and were listed due to their availability on the internet, making them accessible to our communities.

Songs with a questionable origin have notations or publications that for one reason or another, have not included enough cultural, historical, or contextual information. Songs with questionable origin may also be misattributed to a culture, region, or historical reference. In addition, due to limitations in early recording technologies, songs often changed due to oral transmission. This impacted pronunciations and translations, as well as creating lyrical, melodic, and rhythmic variation that may or may not have then become “the standard” of the tune shared in publications and recordings.

Songs with a questionable meaning may have an inaccurate translation, a misunderstanding of lyrics or missing lyrics, or the song has contextual and historical context that would impact the meaning. In some instances, the children’s versions of the songs are innocuous, whereas their adult versions are problematic. In other instances, the song or text's beginnings were harmless, and over time were parodied within the culture or appropriated. This appropriation and erasure is most evident (on this list) in minstrel traditions or songs like Juba, which is an African American music and artform. Finally, because culture changes, a song may have questionable meaning because the content was more socially acceptable in the 19th and 20th centuries, but is no longer acceptable in the 21st century.

Songs with questionable authenticity may have been composed in the style of a particular culture and shared as authentic, but have been found to be inauthentic. It can also mean that perhaps the song was shared without permission of the culture bearers, the song has been drastically modified due to oral/notational sharing, or that the culture bearers that are living today no longer wish for it to be shared.

Songs with adult themes may reference alcohol, sex, violence, bullying, enslavement, and other topics that may or may not be suitable in a K-12 educational setting. In some instances, the children’s versions of the songs are innocuous, whereas their adult versions are problematic. In other instances, the song or text's beginnings were problematic, and over time were modified and sanitized for broader consumption in song collections and recordings. For some songs, only one or two problematic versions may have been found and were listed due to their availability on the internet, making them accessible to the families in our communities.

List of All Questionable Songs

List of Songs with Racist or Derogatory Terms or Themes

  1. (When It’s) Darkness on the Delta
  2. Baa Baa Black Sheep
  3. Boatman’s Dance (Boatman Dance)
  4. Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn)
  5. Buckeye (Limber) Jim
  6. Cat Came Back
  7. Camptown Races
  8. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  9. Chicken on a Fencepost (Dance Josey (Josie))
  10. Coffee, C-O-F-F-E-E
  11. Cumberland Gap
  12. Dinah
  13. Do Your Ears Hang Low?
  14. Eeny Meeny Miney Mo
  15. Five (Three) Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
  16. Five Little Monkeys Swinging from a Tree
  17. Going Over the Sea
  18. G*psy Davy
  19. G*psy in the Moonlight
  20. G*spy Laddie
  21. G*psy Rover
  22. G*psy Turn (dance figure)
  23. I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (Levee Song)
  24. Jim Along, Josie
  25. Johnny on the Woodpile
  26. John Kanaka
  27. Jump Jim Joe
  28. Limber (Buckey
  29. My Old Kentucky Home
  30. My Yallow (Yellow) gal
  31. Oh! Susanna
  32. Old Dan Tucker
  33. Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)
  34. Pick a Bale of Cotton
  35. Polly Wolly Doodle
  36. Sandy Land
  37. Shoo, Fly!
  38. Shortenin’ (Shortnin’) Bread
  39. Sioux Lullaby
  40. Skip to My Lou
  41. Rabbit and the Possum
  42. Run Children, Run!
  43. Ten Little Indians
  44. Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
  45. Topsy and Sambo
  46. Turkey in the Straw
  47. What Makes the Red Man Red? (Disney)
  48. Winter Wonderland
  49. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (Disney)

List of Songs with Questionable Origins, Meaning, or Authenticity

  1. Apache Chant
  2. Banana (Banaha)
  3. Bowl of Cherries (tune of Pick a Bale of Cotton)
  4. Buffalo Gals (Lubly Fan)
  5. Ching-a-Ring Chaw
  6. Dixieland (Dixie)
  7. Down the River (Down the Ohio)
  8. Earth is Our Mother, the
  9. Fire in/on the Mountain
  10. Good King Leopold
  11. Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime)
  12. Iroquois Lullaby
  13. Jingle Bells
  14. Juba
  15. Land of the Silver Birch
  16. Liza Jane
  17. Kokolikoko (Kokoleoko)
  18. Maryland, My Maryland
  19. My Paddle (Canoe Song)
  20. Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown
  21. Sea Lion
  22. Shenandoah
  23. Snake Baked a Hoecake
  24. Star Spangled Banner
  25. Ute Sundance
  26. Yellow Rose of Texas

List of Songs with Adult Themes

  1. All the Pretty Little Horses
  2. Black Joke (Hey Ho, Diddly Dum)
  3. Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees
  4. Cotton-Eyed Joe
  5. Crabfish
  6. Down Came a Lady
  7. Epo I Tai Tai E
  8. Escravos De Jo, Zigy Zigy Za (Slaves of Job)
  9. I Whipped My Horse (I Fed My Horse)
  10. It Rained a Mist
  11. Lucy Locket
  12. K-K-K Katy (Katie)
  13. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
  14. My Rifle, My Pony, and Me (Purple Light)
  15. Murder Ballads
  16. Princess Pat
  17. Stuttering Man
  18. Wild Irish Rose
  19. Yankee Doodle

List of Songs in Alphabetical Order

  1. (When It’s) Darkness on the Delta
  2. All the Pretty Little Horses
  3. Apache Chant
  4. Baa Baa Black Sheep
  5. Banana (Banaha)
  6. Black Joke (Hey Ho, Diddly Dum)
  7. Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn)
  8. Boatman’s Dance (Boatman Dance)
  9. Bowl of Cherries (tune of Pick a Bale of Cotton)
  10. Buckeye (Limber) Jim
  11. Buffalo Gals (Lubly Fan)
  12. Camptown Races
  13. Cat Came Back
  14. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  15. Chicken on a Fencepost (Dance Josey (Josie))
  16. Ching-a-Ring Chaw
  17. Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees
  18. Coffee, C-O-F-F-E-E
  19. Cotton-Eyed Joe
  20. Crabfish
  21. Cumberland Gap
  22. Dinah
  23. Dixieland (Dixie)
  24. Do Your Ears Hang Low?
  25. Down Came a Lady
  26. Down the River (Down the Ohio)
  27. Earth is Our Mother, the
  28. Eeny Meeny Miney Mo
  29. Epo I Tai Tai E
  30. Escravos De Jo, Zigy Zigy Za (Slaves of Job)
  31. Fire in/on the Mountain
  32. Five (Three) Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
  33. Five Little Monkeys Swinging from a Tree
  34. G*psy Davy
  35. G*psy in the Moonlight
  36. G*psy Rover
  37. G*psy Turn (dance figure)
  38. G*spy Laddie
  39. Going Over the Sea
  40. Good King Leopold
  41. Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime)
  42. I Whipped My Horse (I Fed My Horse)
  43. Iroquois Lullaby
  44. It Rained a Mist
  45. I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (Levee Song)
  46. Jim Along, Josie
  47. Jingle Bells
  48. John Kanaka
  49. Johnny on the Woodpile
  50. Juba
  51. Jump Jim Joe
  52. K-K-K Katy (Katie)
  53. Kokolikoko (Kokoleoko)
  54. Land of the Silver Birch
  55. Limber (Buckey
  56. Liza Jane
  57. Lucy Locket
  58. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
  59. Maryland, My Maryland
  60. Murder Ballads
  61. My Old Kentucky Home
  62. My Paddle (Canoe Song)
  63. My Rifle, My Pony, and Me (Purple Light)
  64. My Yallow (Yellow) gal
  65. Oh! Susanna
  66. Old Dan Tucker
  67. Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)
  68. Pick a Bale of Cotton
  69. Polly Wolly Doodle
  70. Princess Pat
  71. Rabbit and the Possum
  72. Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown
  73. Run Children, Run!
  74. Sandy Land
  75. Sea Lion
  76. Shenandoah
  77. Shoo, Fly!
  78. Shortenin’ (Shortnin’) Bread
  79. Sioux Lullaby
  80. Skip to My Lou
  81. Snake Baked a Hoecake
  82. Star Spangled Banner
  83. Stuttering Man
  84. Ten Little Indians
  85. Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
  86. Topsy and Sambo
  87. Turkey in the Straw
  88. Ute Sundance
  89. What Makes the Red Man Red? (Disney)
  90. Wild Irish Rose
  91. Winter Wonderland
  92. Yankee Doo
  93. Yellow Rose of Texas
  94. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (Disney)

Songs with Racist or Derogatory Terms or Themes

At this time, a song listed in this section is most likely not acceptable to share in a K-12 setting due to the cultural norms of the 21st century. Continue to research, listen, and learn - let me know if you have any questions or information to share or add.

Songs with racist or derogatory terms or themes may not be suitable in a K-12 educational setting, or in 21st century social and professional settings. In the 19th and 20th century, some problematic terms were used as common vernacular. Other times, like with many minstrel songs, the words or original performance context were used with the intent to degrade or mock. Frequently, if the song or text's beginnings were problematic, over time it was modified and sanitized for broader consumption in song collections and recordings. For some songs, only one or two problematic versions may have been found and were listed due to their availability on the internet, making them accessible to our communities.

Thank you to Marlon Guinn for emailing the song title (6 June, 2020).

Note: There appear to be several barbershop arrangements of this song with altered lyrics. It was also recorded by jazz musicians Cassandra Wilson, The Chordettes, and Thelonius Monk.

  • Baa Baa Black Sheep - African American version contains derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

Note: Some schools and communities in England and Australia have altered or banned the commonly known version (Moffat, A.). The evidence supporting the changing of the lyrics is still debated.

  • Boatman’s Dance (The Boatman Dance) - derogatory towards African Americans
  • Ernst, P. (1844) Deboatman dance, Ethiopian ballad. C. G. Christman, New York, monographic. [Notated Music] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
  • (1998) The early minstrel show [liner notes].  New World Records 80338. Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

  • Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn) - derogatory towards African Americans; adult themes: alcohol

  • Buckeye (Limber) Jim - derogatory towards African Americans

Thank you to Jeanne Lynn for emailing about the song and providing the Azizi Powell resource (19 April, 2020).

  • Cat Came Back by Harry S. Miller - includes derogatory term(s) for African Americans
  • (1934) OKeh matrix 8607. The cat came back / Fiddlin' John Carson.  In discography of American historical recordings. (accessed November 24, 2019)
  • Lee, Y.S. ( 2014, June 18) The cat came back.  YS Lee. (accessed 17 August, 2020)
  • Mahony, F. (1905) And the cat came back. [or 1906] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress. (accessed November 24, 2019)
  • Miller, H.S. (1893) The cat came back. Chicago: Will Rossiter Publishing. (accessed November 24, 2019)

  • Camptown Races by Stephen Foster - includes derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

  • Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire - includes derogatory term for Inuit

Note: According to Andrew Ellingson, “...Holy Names University folk song collection...only transcribed the lyrics to 8 or 9 verses, but the recording had more than a dozen. The verses they left out include the n***** word.”  The Holy Names Folk Song Collection recording referred to on that webpage song resource was: Lomax, J. A. & Unidentified Children. (1936) Can't dance Josie. near Austin, Texas. Aimee Curtis Pfitzner contacted Holy Names regarding the discrepancy (2019, November 12), the song webpage was taken down, and Curtis Pfitzner  received this response from Holy Names. “We are currently working through the song collection to ensure sources and transcriptions align and to provide more information about the history and cultural contexts of the songs. Some songs may be temporarily unavailable during this process. We are committed to disrupting harmful historical narratives and practices in music education and the process of auditing and including further information to the collection is a priority.”

  • Cumberland Gap - variant(s) contain derogatory term(s) for African Americans; portrayal of violence against Indigenious people         

  • Dinah - derogatory term(s) for African Americans

Note: There are several songs featured in various children’s songbooks with “Dinah” in the title or lyrics. “Dinah” was utilized to characterize a stereotype, but it was also used as a common name or descriptor in African American songs. There are songs from the African American tradition that also have “Dinah” title or lyrics. Examples are sung by Butterboy, Henry Truvillion, Flat Foot Four, and  Mike Seeger. Butterboy and Seeger both demonstrate eephing (Drummond, 2013) in their performances of Dinah songs. In addition, there is some conjecture regarding this song's connection to Dinah Mendenhall, an abolitionist from Pennsylvania. At this time, no definitive connection between Ms. Mendenhall and the song Dinah has been found.

  • Do Your Ears Hang Low? - derogatory towards African Americans, some variants are sexual         

  • Eeny Meeny Miney Mo - US variant contains derogatory term(s) for African Americans                 

  • Five (Three) Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed - derogatory term(s) for African Americans; associated with Shortnin’ Bread, Ten Little N*****s         

  • Five Little Monkeys Swinging from a Tree - loosely associated with Five (Three) Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and Shortnin’ Bread 

Note: There is concern and conjecture regarding the use and popularity of the derogatory term “alligator bait” at the turn of the 20th century. No definitive connection has been documented between the nursery rhyme and the term.

  • Going Over the Sea - derogatory term(s) for Chinese people

Thank you to Sandra Divnick for emailing the title and the excerpt from the text book.(12 June, 2020).

Note: This is the only text containing derogatory term(s) thus far. Many versions of this song have been published and performed using the word “sailor” or “pirate” ship.

  • G*psy Davy - derogatory term(s) for Romani (Roma) people

Note: There is documentation that England deported and/or enslaved Romani people in the West Indies.

  • G*psy Laddie - derogatory term(s) for Romani (Roma) people

  • G*psy Rover - derogatory term(s) for Romani (Roma) people

  • “G*psy Turn” (dance figure) - derogatory term(s) for Romani (Roma) people

  • I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (Levee Song) - includes derogatory term(s) for African Americans  

  • Jim Along, Josie - derogatory towards African Americans

  • Johnny on the Woodpile - adult themes: slavery and human trafficking; contains derogatory term(s) for African Americans
  • Waller-Pace, B. (2019, May 27). Johnny on the woodpile.

  • John Kanaka - includes derogatory term(s) for Pacific Islanders

  • Jump Jim Joe - derogatory towards African Americans

  • My Old Kentucky Home by Stephen Foster - derogatory term(s) for African Americans; once viewed as influential abolitionist song

  • My Yallow (Yellow) Gal - derogatory term(s) for African Americans

  • Oh! Susanna by Stephen Foster  - derogatory towards African Americans         

  • Old Dan Tucker - some variants derogatory towards African Americans; some variants contain adult themes: sexual

  • Old Folks at Home (Swanee River) by Stephen Foster - derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

  • Pick a Bale of Cotton - derogatory towards African Americans         

 

  • Polly Wolly Doodle - derogatory towards African Americans                 
  • Brown, H.C. (1917). Polly wolly doodle [Recorded by Harry C. Browne]. From Polly-wolly-doodle and chase dem clouds away [Shellac]. Columbia Graphophone Company.
  • Kuntz, A. and Pelliccioni, V.M.(2019, May 6).  Polly wolly doodle: annotation.  Traditional Tune Archive.

  • Sandy Land - derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

Note: This is the only text containing derogatory term(s) thus far. The song also appears in Johnston, R. (1984). Folk Songs North America Sings. Toronto: E.C. Kerby Ltd. citing American Ballads and Folk Songs as the source, with the derogatory term(s) omitted.

  • Shoo, Fly! - derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

  • Shortenin’ (Shortnin’) Bread - derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

Note: Research is ongoing regarding the authenticity of the melody. In the event the original melody and text is found, considerations should be made regarding the ethical collection and publication of this song (ie; was permission granted by the culture bearer(s)). The word, “papoose” comes from Algonquin language, whereas Lakȟótiyapi is spoken by the Lakota people. The term, “Sioux,” is considered by some to be derogatory.

  • Skip to My Lou -  some variants/verses contain derogatory term(s) for African Americans

Thank you to Sierra Ray for information regarding the idiom, “flies in the buttermilk.” (22 June, 2020).

  • Rabbit and the Possum - derogatory term(s) for African Americans

Thank you to Vangie Gardner for sharing the Bessie Jones account (30 July, 2020).

Note: This song is found in both African American and Anglo American communities. In both instances, the story is an allegory or commentary on the societal constructs, stereotypes, and norms of the time. The Anglo American versions contain the derogatory terms.

  • Run, Children, Run! - derogatory term(s) for African Americans         
  • Johnston, R. (1984). Folk Songs North America Sings. Toronto: E.C. Kerby Ltd.
  • Lomax, A. (1942). [Liner notes] Run, N*****r, run. Afro-American blues and games. [Vinyl] The Library of Congress. (access July 30, 2020)
  • Perrow, E. (1915). Songs and Rhymes from the South. The Journal of American Folklore, 28(108), 129-190. doi:10.2307/534506
  • Talley, T.W. (1922). Negro folk rhymes: wise and otherwise. MacMillan Company.  (Accessed 30 July, 2020)
  • Tanner, G. (1927).  Run, n****r, run [Performed by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers]. Columbia Records.

Note: This is an African American song about running away from patrollers, or night guards. There is a field yell and octavo arrangement that is not the same song.

  • Hatfield, S. Run children, run. [performed by Chicago Children’s Choir]. Boosey & Hawkes.

Additional Information:

  • Ten Little Indians - derogatory towards Indigenous people; variant derogatory towards African Americans          

  • Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport - derogatory term(s) for Aboriginal people        

More Information:

  • Topsy and Sambo - derogatory towards African Americans         
  • Johnston, R. (1984). Folk Songs North America Sings. Toronto: E.C. Kerby Ltd.
  • Pilgrim, D. (2012, October). The picaninny caricature.

  • Turkey in the Straw - derogatory towards African Americans         

  • What Makes the Red Man Red? (Disney) - stereotype(s) of Indigenous people         

  • Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (Disney) - context of film, Song of the South,  is derogatory towards African Americans         

Songs with Questionable Origins, Meaning, or Authenticity

A song listed in this section may indeed be acceptable to perform with your community, but perhaps more cultural, historical, and contextual information should also be shared. Other songs may not be acceptable to share. Continue to research, listen, and learn - let me know if you have any questions or information to share or add.

Songs with a questionable origin have notations or publications that for one reason or another, have not included enough cultural, historical, or contextual information. Songs with questionable origin may also be misattributed to a culture, region, or historical reference. In addition, due to limitations in early recording technologies, songs often changed due to oral transmission. This impacted pronunciations and translations, as well as creating lyrical, melodic, and rhythmic variation that may or may not have then become “the standard” of the tune shared in publications and recordings.

Songs with a questionable meaning may have an inaccurate translation, a misunderstanding of lyrics or missing lyrics, or the song has contextual and historical context that would impact the meaning. In some instances, the children’s versions of the songs are innocuous, whereas their adult versions are problematic. In other instances, the song or text's beginnings were harmless, and over time were parodied within the culture or appropriated. This appropriation and erasure is most evident (on this list) in minstrel traditions or songs like Juba, which is an African American music and artform. Finally, because culture changes, a song may have questionable meaning because the content was more socially acceptable in the 19th and 20th centuries, but is no longer acceptable in the 21st century.

Songs with questionable authenticity may have been composed in the style of a particular culture and shared as authentic, but have been found to be inauthentic. It can also mean that perhaps the song was shared without permission of the culture bearers, the song has been drastically modified due to oral/notational sharing, or that the culture bearers that are living today no longer wish for it to be shared.

  • Apache Chant (Melody),  (Hey Ya Na) - concerns regarding authenticity         

Note: In a discussion board on Facebook, it was mentioned that Music Together no longer includes this song in their collection due to a lack of verifiable authenticity.

Additional Information: Pace, B., Batislaong, L., McCauley, M. (2020)  Making Good Choices: How Can Teachers Better Research Repertoire for the Classroom? The NAfME Online Professional Learning Community.;  Rice, B. (2015). Resources for teaching the music of native american peoples. Pass It On! Journal of The Children’s Music Network.

Note: Many of the octavos have a composed 3rd canonic phrase that was not included in the original recording.

  • Bowl of Cherries (tune of Pick a Bale of Cotton) - based on tune that is derogatory towards African Americans         

Note: In June, July, and August of 2020, the city of Portland protested for 59+ days to support Black Lives Matter. Raffi released Portland Moms in support of the protests after many individuals were injured or arrested. (added August 6, 2020)

  • Dixieland (Dixie) - questions regarding origins and composer; rooted in minstrelry; former anthem of the Confederacy during the US Civil War
  • Gilpin Faust, D. (1994, January 9). What they say about 'dixie. The New York Times.
  • Mechanic, M. (2018, January/February).  The music I love is a racial minefield. Mother Jones.
  • Kumanyika, C. and Hitt, J. (2017, November 15). The Song. Uncivil.

  • Down the River (Down the Ohio) - rooted in minstrelry

Note: The text of the play party is derived from the minstrel song of the same name. Oral transmission is the most likely reason for the play party melody emerging distinct from the minstrel tune. None of the play party variants contain derogatory terms, phrases, or intent.  

Additional Information:

  • Modes, W.(n.d.) Shantyboat. A secret history of American river people: the lost narratives of river people, river communities, and the river itself.

  • Earth is Our Mother, the - appropriated  Indigenous song         

Thank you to Steph Schuurman-Olson for emailing the title (August 15, 2019) and the Music Together video resource.

  • Fire in/on the Mountain - concerns regarding origins

Thank you to Allison Lewis for her collaboration on this research (June, July, August, 2020).

Note: Fire on the Mountain is a “floating title” and can be found in the US, Scotland, and England.  It appears in a) a nursery rhyme, b) fiddle tunes using the nursery rhyme fragments as a title (one  fiddle tune does have a “Shortnin’ Bread” fragment), c)minstrel songs borrowing text from the nursery rhyme, d)a play party and e)a children’s game and chant/song. Like many other songs, Fire on the Mountain has a variety of adult interpretations containing “floating” and regional verses, a few of which contain references to alcohol or derogatory references to Indigenious people. It appears the children’s version of Fire on the Mountain from 1910 (p 477) is the version most frequently referenced in music education compilations, but that game was only a chant without a melody. The most common children’s version and  melody is from American Methodology, and that tune is from the 1912 Devonian (English) notation of the song. Like the US children’s verse, this children’s verse also mentions “red coats'' and “guns.” In addition, American Methodology references a fiddle tune from the Harrod collections in the notation, however, these tunes are not the same.

  • Good King Leopold -  concerns regarding links to colonization and enslavement (?)

Thank you to Ashley Garcia for sharing this title.

There are several music education blogs that share this resource.  More information is desired regarding this song/rhyme.

  • Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime) - religious themes; potentially problematic history with composer and translations

Thank you to Steph Schuurman-Olson for emailing the title (2019, August 15). Thank you to David Rankine for sending the Leclair article (2019, September 23).

  • Iroquois Lullaby- concerns regarding authenticity         

Note: At this time, there is no documentation regarding inauthenticity. Considerations should be made regarding the ethical collection and publication of this song (ie; was permission granted by the culture bearer(s)).

Additional Information:

Note: Reading the Hamill article thoroughly is recommended.

Note: Juba songs were eventually appropriated and performed on minstrel stages.  However, juba songs and patting juba are a part of culture from the African diaspora.

  • Land of the Silver Birch - appropriated Indigenous song

Thank you to Steph Schuurman-Olson for emailing the title (August 15, 2019).

Note: The Liza Jane tune that is most commonly used in elementary music classrooms and instrument method books was published as a minstrel song. It is attributed to the African American composer Countess Ada De Lachau. A fiddle tune emerged in Kentucky in the 1830s and 40s, and tunes were also documented in Tennessee and North Carolina, but the only commonality appears to be the title. Lucy Thurston, a formerly enslaved African American woman,  recalled sharing and singing Liza Jane in Covington, Louisiana in the 1840s-50s. Lastly, this song has a performance tradition with brass and jazz ensembles in New Orleans, as well as the Mardi Gras Indians.  Update 4 August, 2020: There are verses of Liza Jane that do reference prostitution (brussels carpet on the floor). Those verses were not in the version shared by Lucy Thurston in the 1840s, nor are they in the popular tune by Countess Ada De Lachau. According to Botkin, “Liza Jane” as a title and phrase was noted and shared in a wide range of lyrics and tunes.

Note: The first recorded version of this song (listed as text only in sourcing) from 1949 contains sexual innuendo, as does Fahnbullah’s 1979 recording. The earliest US publication of this song (Anderson, W, 1958) does contain the text with innuendo, while the later children’s versions of the song only utilize the onamonapia, “kokolioko,” which is the sound a rooster makes. The later children’s song version is often notated and performed a 3rd higher (sol-mi vs. mi-do).

  • My Paddle (Canoe Song) - by Margaret Embers McGee - composed, appropriated Indigenous song        

Thank you to Steph Schuurman-Olson for emailing the title (August 15, 2019).

Note: The partner song, Land of the Silver Birch is problematic (listed above).

Note: Ernest Hogan, an African American composer and one of the first Black actors on the minstrel stage, wrote a song about the  character, and later starred in a show of the same name.

  • Sea Lion - concerns regarding meaning

Note: There appears to be nothing that links the adult themes in the Simone song to the Shipp sisters’ lyrics and version of the song. There is documentation that prostitution was common at ports and dockyards in the 18th and 19th century in the US and abroad. The historical information regarding the goings on at ports most likely inspired Schnabel to make a connection with the sexually suggestive Nina Simone rendition.

Note: The Brahma, or “Shanghai” chicken (due to where Americans believed it was imported from) was a popular chicken breed in the late 1800s. This song does not appear to be derogatory or offensive. This is an African American song. The song is not connected to the Stephen Foster song, “Don’t Bet Your Money on the Shanghai,” a minstrel song mocking gambling on chicken fights.

Note: One of the earliest published versions of this text is from a song titled Jim Crow, found in The Hodgson National Songster, which was published in England in 1832. However, American Negro Folk Songs by Newman White notes that “the song has been known in America since 1810 and quotes from a letter remarking upon it’s occurance in Washington Irving’s notebook for 1817.” (Added 5 August, 2020; Brown 1952)]   The text and song are rooted in the African American community, but it also appears in Anglo American communities. Elizabeth ``Libba” Cotten shared the children’s singing game version with the Seegers (which Ruth published and Peggy recorded). Cotten also shared this variant in a separate collection of songs.  And while hoecakes were part of cakewalks, it does not seem that there is a correlation between cakewalks and this particular singing game. Hoecakes, originally shared by Indigenous people with settlers in the 1700s, were most likely mentioned in the song because they were a common food in early America.

  • Stuttering Man, the - text could be viewed as mocking         
  • Lear, E.(1846/94).  A book of nonsense. Boston: Roberts Brothers.
  • LionSong (1979). Man from calcutta [Recorded by LionSong]. Homestead Records.

  • Ute Sundance - concerns regarding use of possibly sacred music and/or texts (?) IN PROGRESS

Thank you to Zachariah Joshua Smith for sharing this title.  

More information is desired regarding this song. Please share your knowledge - thank you in advance. 6.12.2020.

Songs with Adult Themes

A song listed in this section may indeed be acceptable to perform with your community, but other songs may not be acceptable to share. Continue to research, listen, and learn - let me know if you have any questions or information to share or add.

Songs with adult themes may reference alcohol, sex, violence, bullying, enslavement, and other topics that may or may not be suitable in a K-12 educational setting. In some instances, the children’s versions of the songs are innocuous, whereas their adult versions are problematic. In other instances, the song or text's beginnings were problematic, and over time were modified and sanitized for broader consumption in song collections and recordings. For some songs, only one or two problematic versions may have been found and were listed due to their availability on the internet, making them accessible to the families in our communities.

  • Black Joke (Hey Ho, Diddly Dum) - adult themes: sexual         

  • Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees - African American parody/variant includes derogatory term(s) for African Americans         

Update 5 August, 2020: This song was previously listed as having derogatory terms. The origins of the song are not problematic, but rather the African American (adult) parody appears to be social commentary.

Notes: (from Blue Grass Messenger)American folklorist Dorothy Scarborough (1878–1935) noted...that several people remember hearing the song before the [Civil] war and her sister, Mrs. George Scarborough, learned the song from a man who had known the song during his earliest childhood from slaves singing it on plantations in Louisiana. Both the dance and the song had as many variants as the old old folk song that it is. Update 5 August, 2020: This song was previously listed as having derogatory terms. The origins of the song are not problematic, but rather the African American (adult) version has violent connotations.

Note: The popular children’s variant, literature book resource, and audio recording does not contain problematic verses. However, the bawdy original does come up first or second in a Google search.

  • Down Came a Lady - adult themes: murder, infidelity

Thank you to Johnathan C. Rappaport for the analysis (June 10, 2020).          

Note from Johnathan C. Rappaport on Down Came a Lady and other children’s songs with adult themes (2020, June 10) : “Yes, they may have originated with adult ballads that dealt with death, adultery, rape, murder, suicide, war. Even some with venereal disease. However, children in bygone days before the advent of mass communication, TV, radio, and recordings, would listen to their elders singing these songs and take a snippet of it and turn it into a children's game song and that got passed down orally/aurally over generations if not centuries. "Down Came a Lady" is a case in point. The common modern source is Ruth Crawford Seeger's "American Folk Songs for Children," p. 51. It is a fragment of a long ballad which can be found in Francis James Child's "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads." It is probably from Child ballad 81 in volume II, Little Musgrave (or Matty Groves, Little Matthew Grew, or Lord Daniel's Wife). The point being that the children's version of such songs were developed as a fragment of an adult song and totally lost any relevant meaning to the original, nor would children have any understanding of that.”

  • Epo I Tai Tai E - adult themes: sexual         

  • Escravos de Jó, Zigy Zigy Za (Slaves of Job) - concerns regarding adult themes: enslavement, oppression, religion         

Note: The song and text appear to have no historical or religious significance or references.

Note: The most popular version published in music education books comes from Jane Hicks Gentry. She told stories and sang songs to children throughout her life. The text reflected in the song appears to have been a “snapshot” of the time.

Note:Ruth Crawford Seeger explained in 1953 that the first stanza of Little Hugh (also known as Sir Hugh, The Jew’s Daughter, or the Jew’s Garden) was used for It Rained a Mist.

  • Lucy Locket - adult themes: prostitution

  • K-K-K Katy (Katie) - text could be viewed as mocking
  • Murray, B. (1918) K-K-K Katy [vinyl]. Over There! Songs of the American Expeditionary Force 1917-18.
  • O’Hara, G. (1917). K-K-K Katy (sheet music). Leo Fist Publishing. New York.

  • Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary - adult themes: violence

Note: No definitive connection has been documented between the nursery rhyme and the historical violence.

  • My Rifle, My Pony, and Me (Purple Light) - concerns regarding adult themes: weapons (in some US schools and communities, this is no longer permitted)

  • Murder Ballads - adult themes: violence, murder

Note: There are a number of songs within this genre, such as Tom Dooley and Pretty Polly. Since nearly all murder ballads specifically discuss or describe murder and/or violence in the lyrics, those songs, unless meeting other qualifications, will not be included in this document.

  • Princess Pat - original text contains adult themes: alcohol, war, language
  • A battalion apart. Canadian Broadcast Channel.
  • Princess Pat. (n.d) Scouting in Canada.

Note: The children’s variant has no adult themes.

  • Stuttering Man, the - text could be viewed as mocking         

  • Wild Irish Rose - adult themes

Sources coming soon - 10/25/2021

Additional Resources and Information

Many thanks to the culture bearers, musicologists, historians, music educators, and musicians that shared their training and knowledge in research, discussions, articles, and blogs.  Thank you so much for helping educators create culturally-responsive, student-centered music in schools.

Songs with a Questionable Past                 compiled by Lauren McDougle - americankodalyinstitute@gmail.com                Go to Beginning