Sarah J. Graham, DMA
Systemic racism and racial injustice are undeniable elements of American culture. Music is not exempt from this. It is impossible to study American music and entertainment culture without exploring minstrelsy and the role that ethnic and racial stereotypes have played in American culture. Over the last ten years of teaching general music courses in higher education, I have encountered few students who have heard of minstrelsy or knew anything about the history of black face. I am no longer surprised when only one or two hands go up in response to this question although I am hopeful that will change. Every few months the news seems to break a new story about a company, celebrity, public figure, or sometimes students wearing black face. Many of them claim ignorance, and I believe them; they are largely a product of an educational system where it was covered up, omitted, or euphemized, thus supporting movements for historical accuracy in education.
If minstrelsy and the history of blackface are unfamiliar, I recommend doing some investigation, especially considering that minstrelsy was the most popular form of American entertainment for nearly a century. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I learned the songs of Stephen Foster (1826-1864) and Dan Emmett (1859-1908) with altered lyrics under the euphemism “American Folk Songs.” Songs like “Oh, Susanna!,” “Camptown Races,” “Dixie,” “The Boatmen’s Dance,” “Old Dan Tucker,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and James Bland’s (1854-1911) “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” have been sung in their sanitized forms by Americans of all ages for the last century. I am often asked, “Can we still sing these songs?” In my response, I usually recommend doing some research, including an examination of the original texts to understand the intent and the implications, and then making an informed decision—prepared to explain the choice with something other than personal preference or tradition.
As a white, cisgendered woman in education, I believe it is important to actively work at understanding the world through the eyes of others because whether I am aware of it or not, my pedagogy and curriculum as a teacher reflects this. In my youth, my family made regular trips to southern California to visit relatives and we usually made a visit to Disneyland. I have fond memories of Disneyland from my childhood. However, when I took my eleven-year old daughter to Disneyland two years ago, it was a different experience.
Gliding through the murky water of Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” our very animated ‘boat captain’ narrated the ride as we cruised past various animatronic scenes featuring hippos, elephants, snakes, African savages, grass huts. . .wait. . .African savages? Yes, Black humans scantily dressed, represented as savages holding shrunken heads and charging the boat, to which my eleven-year old Ghanaian daughter disgustingly said, “So, basically they are saying we are a bunch of killers?” It’s a fair assessment. When this ride opened in 1955,  this was how Black people and Africans tended to be represented and understood. Upon disembarking from the ride, my daughter declared, “Well, that was the most racist ride I’ve ever been on!” I couldn’t disagree. I began to see things through her eyes that day and I noticed how much of the park is set up to resemble what some refer to as ‘the good old days,’ everything from the Mark Twain riverboat, Main Street U.S.A., and Dixieland musicians, to the characters— particularly the princesses— most of whom are white.
While writing this, Disney announced that they are giving their “Splash Mountain” ride an overhaul to finally rid it of the association with their 1946 film, The Song of the South, which Disney did not re-release in the United States after its release in theatres in 1986, though it remained available in other countries until 2001. The story takes place on a plantation in the southern United States during the Reconstruction era and features the main character, Uncle Remus, based on the ‘Uncle’ stereotype made popular by minstrel shows dating back to the 19th century. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” the most famous song from the film won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1947. It is a joyful song with a positive message on the surface, but the commonalities between this song and minstrelsy are rather obvious when considered in the context of the film and the implications therein, which give it a much darker affect.
Early minstrel shows featured two main characters: Zip Coon and Jim Crow. Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice (1808-1860) was a white performer who introduced Jim Crow to the minstrel world when he went on stage with a blackened face imitating an enslaved African doing a dance to the song “Jump Jim Crow,” in an overly exaggerated manner. Jim Crow represented a stereotype of enslaved African men on southern plantations, serving to confirm the belief that enslaved Africans in the south were not very bright and were content in their enslavement.
His counterpart, Zip Coon, is born out of the belief they were unable to function in society as freed men, socially or professionally.
Central to minstrelsy was the theme that slavery was good and enslaved Africans lacked intelligence, were happy, and had much affection and gratitude for those who enslaved them. This false narrative about slavery was communicated to audiences through minstrel shows throughout the country for nearly 100 years and served to reinforce the institution of slavery.
The tune of “Ol’ Zip Coon” is more commonly known in the song “Turkey in the Straw,” which used the tune of “Ol’ Zip Coon,” with different lyrics. The text describes Zip Coon as a buffoon who was fallibly intelligent and is painted as a silly and lackadaisical womanizer. The refrain appears somewhat nonsensical and is notably similar to that in “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”:
“O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.”
Another similar instance is the use of the “Doo-da” figure in Stephen Foster’s popular minstrel song “Camptown Races,” featured in the film Swanee River, starring famous black face performer, Al Jolson.
“De Camptown ladies sing this song,
De Camptown racetrack’s five miles long,
Oh, doo-da day.”
A quote attributed to Maya Angelou reads “I knew then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Should we continue singing this music? The answer to that should be determined only after considering the facts about the music and the surrounding circumstances. My personal recommendation, based on my developing research is in the title of this piece: “Zip-a-dee-doo-DON’T.”
 Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/tt_hard_history_american_slavery.pdf. Accessed 2 July 2020.
 “Stephen Collins Foster, 1826-1864.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035701. Accessed 16 June 2020.
 “Daniel D. Emmett Collection (1859-1908).” University of Michigan Clements Library, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clementsead/umich-wcl-M-2443emm?id=navbarbrowselink;view=text. Accessed 16 June 2020.
 “James A. Bland (1854-1911).” Blackpast, 27 June 2008, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/bland-james-1854-1911/#:~:text=Public%20domain%20image-,James%20A.,1854%20to%20educated%2C%20free%20parents.&text=Bland%20used%20the%20minstrel%20show,for%20introducing%20his%20composed%20work.
 “Jungle Cruise.” Disneyland. https://disneyland.disney.go.com/attractions/disneyland/jungle-cruise/?CMP=OKC-353363_GM_DLR_attraction_junglecruise_NA. Accessed 2 July 2020.
 “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Songofthesouth.net. www.songofthesouth.net/movie/lyrics/zip-a-dee-doo-dah.html. Accessed 16 June 2020.
 “1947 (20th).” Oscar Awards Database. http://awardsdatabase.oscars.org/Search/Nominations?awardShowFrom=20&view=3-Award%20Category-Chron
Accessed 16 June 2020.
 The Origins of Jim Crow, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/origins.htm
 “Ethnic Notions.” Films On Demand, Films Media Group, 1987, fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=103545&xtid=49775. Accessed 2 July 2020.
 “History of Blackface” Black Face!. https://black-face.com. Accessed 2 July 2020.
 “Ethnic Notions.” Films On Demand, Films Media Group, 1987, fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=103545&xtid=49775. Accessed 2 July 2020
 Hughes, Franklin. “Old Zip Coon/Turkey in the Straw.” Ferris State University: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2018/may.htm. Accessed 16 June 2020.
 “Old Zip Coon- 1834- Performed by Tom Rousch.” YouTube, uploaded by Tom Rousch, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDbfJDTiuJw. Accessed 16 June 2020.
 “’Camptown Races’ sung by Al Jolson.” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tuu5YtkPIo. Accessed 2 June 2020.
 Ruehl, Kim. “The ‘Doo Dah’ Song: “Camptown Races” by Stephen Foster.” liveaboutdotcom. www.liveabout.com/camptown-races-stephen-foster-1322494. Accessed 16 June 2020.
 “When you know better, you Do Better- The life impacting lesson Oprah learnt from Maya Angelou.” Nobel Thoughts. 4 March 2017. http://www.nobelthoughts.com/2017/03/04/when-you-know-better-you-do-better-the-life-impacting-lesson-oprah-learnt-from-maya-angelou/