Revisiting Songs of Childhood: Blackface Legacies of Children’s Folk Music in America

About this project:

This project is an attempt to trace how certain songs that we have come to consider to be a part of the United States folk and children’s music canon have roots within the tradition of blackface minstrelsy.

Emerging in the 1820s, reaching its peak between 1850-1870, and continuing to thrive well into the 20th century, blackface minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment originating in the United States. Performers, typically white men, would blacken their skin with burnt cork and imitate the song, dance, and dialect of enslaved peoples of African descent. The songs they would perform in these minstrel shows were referred to as “negro” or “Ethiopian” songs. These songs would frequently make use of racist depictions of Black folks– relying on tropes of Black people as lazy, unintelligent, indulgent, ungrateful, and greedy.

It is no coincidence that the peak in blackface minstrelsy’s popularity coincides with the end of the Civil War (1861-1865.) Due to fears of a “rising Negro” after the war, white folks desired to create an imagined past in which Black folks were carefree, happy, and submissive while enslaved. Blackface minstrelsy aided in creating, selling, and exporting this grossly false narrative.

After blackface minstrelsy and its inherent racism became socially taboo (for some), the minstrel tunes began to be more or less  sanitized. For example, there was a sweeping removal of general references to slavery, the “negro dialect” was done away with and rebranding as “Southern”, and the overt racist imagery and lyrics were cleaned up…a bit. The sanitized versions of minstrel tunes eventually found their way into K-12 music classrooms and were taught to children without any historical context. I myself, someone with a degree in music education, have been taught many of these sanitized songs and have only recently discovered their connections to blackface upon entering graduate school.

Unfortunately because these songs have long been divorced from their origins with a simple sweep under the rug as opposed to any real reckoning with the implications of their shared history, many educators continue to unwittingly teach these songs to children and consider them essential to their musical development.

The following list in its current iteration attempts to trace the histories of the following songs: “Jump Jim Joe,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” “Camptown Races,” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” After a short synopsis of the song’s history before each particular tune, I try to create a timeline from the earliest versions of the blackface tune to the sanitized version of the song we have come to know today. I include music recordings, YouTube video clips, sheet music, and lyrics to demonstrate how these songs are inseparable from their minstrel origins.

Although I do not think these songs have any place in the general music classroom, I do agree with Katya Ermolaeva in that these tunes “belong where their historical role can be explored in depth — in museums and history classrooms of higher education. Or they belong reclaimed by African American artists like Rhiannon Giddens.”

This list is by no means exhaustive or complete; however, this ongoing project will hopefully serve as but one redress to that glaringly intentional gap in the children’s music archive of the United States.

Note: as this project is concerned with recounting the histories of children’s songs with ties to blackface, the list below will contain racist/anti-Black lyrics and imagery.


    “Jump Jim Joe”

    “Jump Jim Joe” is a somewhat popular children’s “social dance” in which children stand in a circle, dance, and sing some variation of the following lyrics: “Jump, jump, jump Jim Joe!/ Nod your head and shake your head and tap your toe/ ‘Round and ’round and ’round you’ll go/ Then you find another partner and/ You Jump Jim Joe!”

    This children’s song is a diluted version of the 1828 blackface minstrelsy tune “Jump Jim Crow”– a song/dance made popular by the so-called father of blackface minstrelsy, Thomas Dartmouth Rice.

    Rice performed the song as the character “Jim Crow.” Jim Crow was depicted an old, crippled slave dressed in rags. Rice’s character and song were so popular that the eventual “Jim Crow Laws” were named after them.

    Sheet music of the original 1828 tune

    A recreation of what a Daddy Rice performance of the tune may have looked/sounded like.
    Part 1 of a 1917 variation of “Jump Jim Crow”– a version that more closely resembles the children’s tune “Jump Jim Joe”
    Part 2 of a 1917 variation of “Jump Jim Crow”– a version that more closely resembles the children’s tune “Jump Jim Joe”

    In addition to that variation, there is also a fiddle tune named after “Jump Jim Crow.” This transcription was taken from the Alan Jabbour collection found in the Library of Congress. The transcription and recording below are from performer Henry Reed.

    You can find a recording of Henry Reed’s performance here: https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000120/?

    Variations of this children’s song can be found on a number of CDs and billed for children and music educator websites/blogs.

    “Do Your Ears Hang Low”

    “Do Your Ears Hang Low” is another popular children’s song, one that I used to sing myself as a child.

    Here are the lyrics of one variant of the song:

    “Do your ears hang low?
    Do they wobble to and fro?
    Can you tie ’em in a knot?
    Can you tie ’em in a bow?
    Can you throw ’em o’er your shoulder
    Like a continental soldier
    Do your ears hang low?

    Do your ears stick out?
    Can you waggle them about?
    Can you flap them up and down
    As you fly around the town?
    Can you shut them up for sure
    When you hear an awful bore?
    Do your ears stick out?

    Do your ears flip-flop?
    Can you use them as a mop?
    Are they stringy at the bottom?
    Are they curly at the top?
    Can you use them for a swatter?
    Can you use them for a blotter?
    Do your ears flip-flop?

    Do your ears stand high?
    Do they reach up to the sky?
    Do they droop when they are wet?
    Do they stiffen when they’re dry?
    Can you summon o’er your neighbor
    With a minimum of labor?
    Do your ears stand high?”

    This song is most often sung to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”– a song that is based on the blackface minstrelsy tune “Zip Coon.”

    “Zip Coon” was made popular by blackface performer and composer George Washington Dixon in the 1830s. Another version of the song was published by Thomas Birch prior to Dixon in 1834. As you may know, the term “coon” is an anti-Black term meant to be insulting and derogatory towards a Black person.

    Although “Turkey in the Straw” originally began as a popular fiddle tune in the 1820s and can be connected to the traditional British song “The Old Rose Tree”, it was later appropriated by blackface performers and sung to the tune of “Zip Coon” in the late 19th century.

    “Turkey in the Straw” was then further appropriated by Harry C. Browne after he recorded “Ni**er Love a Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha!” (asterisks mine.)

    The tune, derived from “Zip Coon” and heard in all of these above iterations, is also known as the “Ice Cream Truck Song”– the melody that alerts us to when the truck is pulling into the neighborhood.

    Thomas Birch’s “Zip Coon” sheet music (1/3)

    The image for this sheet music is a depiction of the blackface minstrelsy character Zip Coon– a racist depiction of an “uppity,” typically Northern, African American.
    Thomas Birch’s “Zip Coon” sheet music (2/3)
    Thomas Birch’s “Zip Coon” sheet music (3/3)
    Recording of “Zip Coon”
    George Washington Dixon’s version (1/3)
    George Washington Dixon’s version (2/3)
    George Washington Dixon’s version (3/3)

    Henry Reed’s performance of “Turkey in the Straw” on fiddle. Transcribed by Alan Jabbour.

    You can find Reed’s performance here: https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000091/?

    The sheet music and lyrics of one version of “Turkey in the Straw”
    A recording of “Turkey in the Straw” from the 1995 Disney album “Goin’ Quackers!”

    A photograph of the banjo player and actor Harry C. Browne (1878-1954).

    He is the performer and writer of the 1916 song “Ni**er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” (asterisks are mine.)

    A recording of “Ni**er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!”
    Theodore R. Johnson III argues in his 2014 NPR article “Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News For You” that the song we associate with ice cream trucks–the song that shares the same melody with “Turkey in the Straw,” “Zip Coon,” and “Ni**er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!”– is inextricably linked to blackface minstrelsy.

    Listen to a version of the “Ice Cream Truck Song” above.

    NPR article link: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/05/11/310708342/recall-that-ice-cream-truck-song-we-have-unpleasant-news-for-you
    A current version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low”
    A recording of a version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low”

    The Father of American Music

    Stephen Foster circa 1860

    Before continuing with children’s songs that have roots in blackface minstrelsy, it is important to highlight the so-called “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster. Known for works such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Jennie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Camptown Races,” Foster began writing songs for the minstrel stage around 1845. He frequently collaborated with the minstrel troupe Christy’s Minstrels. Foster’s tunes were also frequently performed by the “King of Blackface,” Al Jolson, throughout the first half of the 20th century.

    Although some Foster apologists tend to point to how after meeting abolitionist Charles Shiras, Foster’s songs seem to have more “sympathetic” portrayals of African Americans, we should remember that these songs were still written for the purposes of being performed in blackface on the minstrel stage– an inherently anti-Black performance practice.


    “Camptown Races”

    Written by Stephen Foster in 1850 and originally published with the title “Gwine to Run All Night, or De Camptown Races,” “Camptown Races” is another popular children’s song and folk song in the United States that has its origins in blackface minstrelsy. It was written for and made popular by the blackface minstrel troupe Christy’s Minstrels. Although the use of “negro dialect” has been largely eradicated in this song to give us the children’s song we might hear today, the melody and lyrics of “Camptown Races” have remained largely unchanged since its publication in 1850.

    Here is one version of the original lyrics:

    “De Camptown ladies sing dis song—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    De Camp-town race-track five miles long—Oh! doo-dah day!
    I come down dah wid my hat caved in—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    I go back home wid a pocket full of tin—Oh! doo-dah day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.

    De long tail filly and de big black hoss—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    Dey fly de track and dey both cut across—Oh! doo-dah-day!
    De blind hoss sticken in a big mud hole—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    Can’t touch bottom wid a ten foot pole—Oh! doo-dah-day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.

    Old muley cow come on to de track—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    De bob-tail fling her ober his back—Oh! doo-dah-day!
    Den fly along like a rail-road car—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    Runnin’ a race wid a shootin’ star—Oh! doo-dah-day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.

    See dem flyin’ on a ten mile heat—Doo-dah doo-dah!
    Round de race track, den repeat—Oh! doo-dah-day!
    I win my money on de bob-tail nag—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    I keep my money in an old tow-bag—Oh! doo-dah-day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.”

    The song has been performed by artists such as Dave Brubeck, Bing Crosby, and Kenny Rogers.

    Sheet music for the original version of the tune (1/2)

    Found in the book Negro Minstrel Melodies: a Collection of Twenty-One Songs with Piano Accompaniment by Stephen Foster and Others/Edited by H. T. Burleigh
    Sheet music for the original version of the tune (2/2)

    Found in the book Negro Minstrel Melodies: a Collection of Twenty-One Songs with Piano Accompaniment by Stephen Foster and Others/Edited by H. T. Burleigh

    A promotional poster of Christy’s Minstrels– the group who introduced the song “Camptown Races” to the masses.

    1852 arrangement for for voice and guitar (1/2)
    1852 arrangement for for voice and guitar (2/2)
    Al Jolson’s performance of “Camptown Races” in the 1939 film Swanee River
    In the 1942 cartoon short Fresh Hare, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sing “Camptown Races” in blackface.
    “Camptown Races” from Disney’s album Children’s Favorite Songs
    As mentioned previously, the lyrics and the melody have not shifted or changed too radically for this tune.

    “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

    The general public has only recently been made aware of the beloved folk song’s “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” connections to minstrelsy. Although it was first published as the “Levee Song” in the Princeton book of songs Carmina Princetonia in 1894, the minstrel song caricatures African American railroad workers. Additionally, the character “Dinah” mentioned in the song is a direct nod to yet another minstrel tune “Old Joe or Somebody in de House wid Dinah.” It should also be noted that this character, Dinah, is a “mammy” figure– a caricature of a Black mother often found in minstrel shows and songs. The name Dinah was most likely chosen due to the mammy-like character Old Aunt Dinah– a cook in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    According to April C. Armstrong, Princeton students held on to the tradition of singing the “Levee Song” as a source of nostalgia long into the mid-20th century.

    The chorus became a favorite among college choruses and the tune was eventually sanitized–leaving many unaware of its connection to blackface.

    Music educator and musicologist Dr. Katya Ermolaeva explores the racist origins of this song and makes the case for the removal of such songs from the music classroom in “Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.”

    Here are the lyrics to today’s version:

    “I’ve been working on the railroad
    All the live long day
    I’ve been working on the railroad
    Just to pass the time away
    Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
    Rise up so early in the morn
    Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
    Dinah, blow your horn

    Dinah won’t you blow
    Dinah won’t you blow
    Dinah, won’t you blow your horn
    Dinah, won’t you blow,
    Dinah, won’t you blow,
    Dinah, won’t you blow your horn

    Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
    Someone’s in the kitchen I know
    Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
    Strumming on the old banjo

    Fee fie fiddle eell o
    Fee fie fiddle eell o
    Fee fie fiddle eell o
    Strumming on the old banjo”

    “Levee Song” from Carmina Princetonia, 1894. Princeton Music Collection (AC056), Box 2.
    “Levee Song; I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” by Sandhills Sixteen with a solo by E. Ellsworth Giles (1927)
    Sheet music to a present day version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
    “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” recording

    Works Cited

    Armstrong, April. “Ask Mr. Mudd: ‘Levee Song’ and Princeton’s Minstrel Shows.” Mudd Manuscript Library Blog.” Posted January 18, 2017. Accessed December 7, 2020. https://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/2017/01/ask-mr-mudd-levee-song-and-princetons-minstrel-shows/

    Boni, Margaret Bradford, Norman Lloyd, Aurelius Battaglia, Anne Brooks, and Carl Van Doren. The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

    Burleigh, H. T., Stephen Collins Foster, and W. J Henderson. Negro Minstrel Melodies: A Collection of Twenty-One Songs, with Piano Accompaniment, by Stephen C. Foster and Others.. New York: G. Schirmer, 1909.

    Dixon, George Washington, “Zip Coon.” Historic Sheet Music Collection. (1830) https://digitalcommons.conncoll.edu/sheetmusic/1312

    Ermolaeva, Katya. “Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.” Medium, October 30, 2019. https://gen.medium.com/dinah-put-down-your-horn-154b8d8db12a

    Foster, Stephen Collins. Camptown Races. Baltimore: F. D. Benteen, 1852.

    Jabbour, Alan. Turkey in the Straw music transcription. [Between 1966 and 1968, 1966] Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000035/.

    Jabbour, Alan,  Karen Singer Jabbour, and Henry Reed. Turkey in the Straw. Reed family home, Glen Lyn, Giles County, Virginia, 1966. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000091/.

    Jabbour, Alan,  Tom Rice, and Henry Reed. Jump Jim Crow. Reed family home, Glen Lyn, Giles County, Virginia, 1966. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000120/.

    Jabbour, Alan, and Tom Rice. Jump Jim Crow music transcription. [Between 1966 and 1968, 1966] Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000054/.

    Saunders, Steven. “The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster’s Plantation Melodies.” American Music 30, no. 3 (2012): 275-89.

    Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

    Young, Rida, and Sigmund Romberg. “‘Jump, Jim Crow’ Sheet Music .” Jump, Jim Crow; Maytime [Historic American Sheet Music], library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/sheetmusic/b/b07/b0775/b0775-4-150dpi.html.

    Zip Coon. Thos. Birch, New York, monographic, 1834. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1834.360780/.

    Suggested Texts and Resources

    Benedict, Cathy, Patrick K. Schmidt, Gary Spruce, and Paul Woodford. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice In Music Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Brown, Danielle. “An Open Letter on Racism in Music Studies.” Decolonizing the Music Room: In Practice. June 2020. https://decolonizingthemusicroom.com/in-practice/f/an-open-letter-on-racism-in-music-studies

    Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K Maultsby. African American Music: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Decolonizing the Music Classroom: an online resource for educators to help create a more just, equitable classroom.

    hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Floyd, Samuel A., The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Maultsby, Portia K., and Mellonee V Burnim. Issues In African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

    Morrison, Matthew D. 2017. “The Sound(s) of Subjection: Constructing American Popular Music and Racial Identity through Blacksound.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 27 (1): 13–24.

    Songs with a Questionable Past: an expansive list of songs, chants, and rhymes with ties to racism, sexism, appropriation, and more compiled by Lauren McDougle, the director of the American Kodály Institute at Loyola University Maryland,

    Thompson, Katrina Dyonne. Ring Shout, Wheel about: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance In North American Slavery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

    Note of thanks: thank you to Dr. Julianne Graper who allowed me to work on this as a part of my Sound Studies seminar final project, thanks to friends and my mom for proofreading, thanks for those who have looked at and shared this resource, and thanks to Micah Joy Ling for workshopping a better fitting title with me!

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