Top 10 Children's Songs With Racist Origins



Top 10 Children's Songs With Racist Origins

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes WRITTEN BY: Sarah O'Sullivan
You'll think twice before singing these songs again after watching this video. For this list, we'll be looking at some popular songs taught to young people that are hiding some dark prejudices. Our countdown includes “I've Been Working on the Railroad”, “Camptown Races”, “Jingle Bells”, and more!

Top Ten Children’s Songs That Are Secretly Racist

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Children’s Songs That Are Secretly Racist.

For this list, we’ll be looking at some popular songs taught to young people that are hiding some dark prejudices.

Are there any other questionable children’s songs that should be on our list? Let us know about them in the comments!

#10: “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

There’s a good chance you haven't heard this 1984 song with the original lyrics. Because when modern listeners pay close attention, they might be confused by a seemingly unrelated series of words. The song talks about working on the railroad, going into a kitchen with Dinah and strumming on the banjo. But it turns out that the words were originally meant to mimic the dialect of enslaved people. And the person “in the kitchen” with Dinah was...doing something very adult. It gets even darker when you learn that the name “Dinah” used to be a way to refer to enslaved women. So, if you’re going to go working on the railroad, you might not want to sing this tune.

#9: “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”

How can an Australian song full of silly rhymes that’s been performed by bands like the Wiggles possibly cross the line? Well, the original version by Rolf Harris included a verse that raised objections and was pretty quickly cut out of live performances. The verse in question has the song’s narrator telling his friends to do questionable things to aboriginal Australians. Not only is he encouraging bad actions against historically oppressed people, but he even uses a derogatory slur. Harris would later apologize for the bad verse. But was it ever necessary to have these awful lyrics in the first place?

#8: “Jim Along Josie”

This seemingly fun, upbeat children’s song was written by a man who appeared in American minstrel shows. These offensive performances often featured white actors wearing dark makeup to caricature African-Americans. Like most minstrel show songs, “Jim Along Josie” used slurs, made fun of the way enslaved people talked and portrayed Black people as intellectually inferior. Over time, the lyrics have been changed and softened. Most current versions of the song include the title line and little else from the original. The necessary updates to this song is why few people, even music teachers, know of the song’s unpleasant history.

#7: “Pick a Bale of Cotton”

Jaunty lyrics and a catchy tune cannot cover up the sinister history of this song. While the origins of the song are hard to track down, its content is unquestionably rooted in terrible events. The song describes presumably enslaved people picking cotton in a field. Its light tone doesn’t begin to match the horrible conditions that they would’ve faced while doing this task. And to make matters worse, the original song was filled with derogatory words for African-Americans. It’s hard to accept that multiple artists have covered this song over the years. But the fact that it was introduced to children is unbelievable. As recently as 2019, the song was removed from a junior high school concert in Iowa for obvious reasons.

#6: “Camptown Races”

“Camptown Races” was written by a well-known minstrel song writer named Stephen Foster. While some of the silly words and phrases like “doo-dahs” and “oh-doo-dah-days” survived, the stereotypical dialect from the original has been really toned down. However, that’s not the only offensive part of the song. “Camp towns'' were places where poor migrant workers lived. People in these less than ideal conditions would often bet on horse races to try and make some money. When used in minstrel shows, this song was meant to portray African Americans as lazy and immoral. But once it's taken out of historical context, it’s hard to catch how offensive it was meant to be.

#5: “Ten Little Indians”

When this song is broken down, it’s a pretty horrifying children’s song. The “Indians” in the title is an incorrect and offensive way of referring to Native Americans. It eventually turned up as a kid’s song presumably to teach counting. At its start, there were ten Native Americans. Over the course of the song, the numbers slowly dwindle. The original intent of the lyrics was that the subtracted people ended up dead. There are rhymes about the horrible methods in which they would lose their lives. Hopefully, there will be a day where no child is introduced to this terrible tune.

#4: “Oh, Susanna”

Minstrel show writer Stephen Foster also wrote “Oh, Susanna”. The lyrics of this song follow an enslaved man from Alabama traveling toward his beloved in New Orleans. It features absurd, contradictory and offensive statements that are meant to portray him as hopelessly ignorant. And it’s all written in highly stereotypical dialect. Back in the 1800s, this song became Foster’s first big hit. And its lyrics about going on a journey made it popular with people heading west to find gold. These expeditioners definitely missed the irony of singing this derogatory song during their journey.

#3: “Shortnin’ Bread” & “Five Little Monkeys”

Although the lyrics differ, the melody and storyline of these two songs are so similar that they’re both worth talking about in the same entry. In the original, two enslaved people are lying sick in bed. The doctor prescribes “shortnin’ bread,” which is a fried bread made with flour, lard, and sugar. What isn’t explicitly mentioned in the song is that the two sick people were probably starving since enslaved people didn’t always get adequate food resources. This is the reason they are “cured” by food. When it comes to “Five Little Monkeys”, the song also talks about bad incidents happening in bed. But as you may have already guessed, the original was talking about enslaved people. Both songs make light of grim suffering.

#2: “Turkey in the Straw” [aka “The Ice Cream Truck Song”]

Most people have probably heard the tune to this song because it’s played frequently in movies, cartoons, and of course, ice cream trucks. However, the lyrics are much less well known. There’s a pretty good reason for that. Featuring a melody based on an older British song, this tune didn’t become popular in the US until it was sung in minstrel shows under a title we are not going to say. While some of these tunes on our list were made more palatable by taking out the most troubling words, this original version is beyond all hope. The song’s unfortunate history led the Good Humor ice cream company to remove it from its trucks in 2020.

#1: “Jingle Bells”

You may be surprised to see this holiday favorite on our list. In 2017, a Boston University professor was trying to settle a longstanding debate about where the song was written. While researching this topic, she found a horrible truth. White composer James Pierpont had written the song to be performed in minstrel shows. It was meant to mock African Americans who tried to join in traditional winter activities. Over the centuries, its insulting origins had been obscured and forgotten. When Professor Hamill published an academic paper on the subject, she was attacked by critics who claimed she was “ruining Christmas.” Someone should really let the critics know that this song was ruined a long time ago.