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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
SharonA Singing a song in first person- racial issue (99* d) RE: Singing a song in first person- racial issue 13 Jul 11


MorwenEdhelwen1, I admire your tenacity with respect to your attempts to keep this thread conversation on topic! However, I'm sure you've noticed that Mudcatters are fond of "thread drift" and of working multiple sub-topics into a thread, just as people would do in a face-to-face conversation, so please don't be disgruntled when folks take the conversation in new directions!

With that said, let's get back to your topic. Your original questions (in your first post) were: "Has anyone ever sung a song in first person where the narrator was of a different race? How did you handle it?" Since then, you've made it clear that you are concerned specifically with discomfort when singing lyrics that are denigrating to people of a different race, and with the possibility of giving offense to those people as you are singing these lyrics.

So, how do you handle it? Well, my answer, as an American of Western European Descent, or European-American, or Anglo-American, or Caucasian, or any term but "white" (which I think is just as divisive and objectifying a term as "high yeller" in identifying one's race by referring to the color of one's skin), is: It all depends on the venue in which you are singing the song.

Here's an anecdote, as an example...

The local folk song society of which I am a member (and current President) is located in a part of suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that is semi-rural -- you have to drive past the farms to get to the McMansions, and vice versa -- and we have monthly meetings that often include a song circle where each person sings one song based (however loosely) on the theme of the month. Usually it is a song that that person has chosen beforehand and rehearsed. Virtually all of the members, with few exceptions, are Americans of European Descent (some Jewish, some Protestant, a Quaker or two, etc.). We feel comfortable singing songs in which the narrator is of a different race or gender or religious orientation, and we have some members who sing sea chanties, etc., that include offensive references to people of a different race or gender. We all understand that we would never walk up to someone on the street and say such offensive words to that person but, in the meetings, we create a "safe" environment in which we can keep traditional songs from being forgotten forever by singing them as they were written. Nobody from that group would think of going to North Philadelphia or West Philadelphia and announce that they were about to play "Coonie in the Holler" while busking on the street -- it would be a good way to get yourself beaten up or shot, because those places are not safe environments in which to say anything with "coon" in it, whether it's about a raccoon or not. (Segue: On the other hand, "Oh dem golden slippers" is the unofficial theme song of the Mummers bands who parade through "bad" sections of Philly every New Year's Day, and audiences of all races cheer them on loudly when the song is played.)

One month, a couple of our folk song society members brought a guest to the meeting who is of African descent (African-American, I think, though he may have been a citizen of another country). He had been visiting this couple, and he was at the meeting specifically to hear the song they would sing in the circle. While the circle was in progress, another member sang what is commonly called a "coon song" (this one was about how a woman's dancing on stage was exciting to men). Let me emphasize that the woman chose this song several days before the meeting and had rehearsed it (and I should mention that she is Jewish), so she wasn't singing it with the intention of offending our guest... and I'm sure she never thought there might be a "person of color" at the meeting when she chose the song! Our guest never said a word or even looked angry or upset; he just listened politely, as everyone else did. I think he understood that when one goes to a folk song society meeting, one is going to hear folk songs, and I think he understood that the lyrics of any folk song sung at such a meeting do not automatically reflect the sentiments of the singer.

The Planning Committee of the club did receive one email of complaint afterward, from an elderly man who said he was horrified, but no one else thought the situation was that terrible. Still, we had a long conversation about which was more offensive, authentic lyrics or censorship, and this resulted in an article we put in the club's newsletter about using "good taste" when choosing songs for the circle. Here is an excerpt of that article:

"[Name of the Society] as an organization, and the Society's Planning Committee, decidedly do not want to censor anybody, and we will not tell people what they can and cannot sing. Still, we are a family-friendly group, and we want to make people of all ages and backgrounds feel welcome in our community. So, in general, it is wise to refrain from sharing songs that are overtly sexual in nature, or that denigrate any particular social classifications of people. Of course, we all enjoy a little innuendo, and we all like satire, which is bound to insult somebody. So, it requires some consideration to decide what is 'in bounds' and what is not, and sometimes we will disagree among ourselves about levels of offensiveness. Please use good judgment and at least make certain that YOU think your song is appropriate.

"Despite all these suggestions, if you, personally, are offended by someone else's song, please draw that individual aside after the meeting and discuss the song with him/her one-on-one. We trust that each person in such a discussion will be respectful of the opinion of the other.

"The Circle is a fabulous time of sharing and enjoying an astounding variety of music. Each Circle is a unique experience that enlivens our meeting, and keeps us coming back time after time. Let's all nurture it as best we can. Thanks."


Personally, I felt that such a capitulation made our "safe" environment a little less safe a place to sing the folk song of one's choice. I would have preferred that we simply ask people to preface their chosen song with a comment such as: "This song has a lyric you might find offensive, but the lyric is authentic to the song and to the time in which it was written." This could be followed by a thank-goodness-those-times-have-changed sort of disclaimer, if necessary. That, to answer your question, is how I would handle it.


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