Life After "Oh! Susanna"

james' two cents Jun 26, 2020

Black lives matter.

On June 7th, 2020 I marched alongside friends and strangers through Truro, Nova Scotia, my 4-year-old son on my shoulders. We listened, we cheered, we cried and we vowed to do better. We promised to learn. We promised to take action.

So, what does "taking action" mean once the banners and bullhorns are put away? It means making a difference in your workplace, home and circle of influence. I am a white, middle-class man who fell in love with a Hawaiian instrument of European descent. That's my story. That's my community. That's a place where I can make a difference.

Systemic racism is real and [minstrel] songs have served for generations as instruments of racial oppression.

It's time for each of us to exert the influence that we have, large or small, to bring about positive change. That's why Ukulele in the Classroom (starting in the new edition coming out July 1st, 2020) will no longer include "Oh! Susanna," "Johnny on the Woodpile," "Shortnin' Bread" or "Buffalo Gals." Catchy and familiar as they may be, these songs are direct descendants of blackface minstrelsy and do not have a place in the music we teach in schools. Systemic racism is real and these songs have served for generations (often unwittingly) as instruments of racial oppression.

I'm learning. Slowly. Humbly. During the heyday of blackface performance, these songs and many others portrayed stereotyped black characters who were buffoonish and child-like. Maybe that's why these child-like melodies filtered so seamlessly into children's repertoire. Simple, memorable songs with pentatonic and diatonic melodies were useful in the classroom. As attitudes changed, we dropped a verse here or changed a word there but the racist roots of the repertoire remained.

Teaching ukulele isn't about frets and fingerings but, rather, about learning to do right.

It's time to do better. I can live without "Eenie Meenie Miney Moe." I can live without "Buffalo Gals." I can live without "Johnny on the Woodpile." Black lives matter more than any number of familiar songs to which I might be attached. There are millions of great songs to choose from when selecting classroom repertoire. Let's dig deeper and find new musical pathways that everyone can walk with pride. This is not a time for silence. It's a time for action. It's a time for music.

Like you, I believe the ukulele has the power to bring positive change. I have seen it.  Teaching ukulele isn't about frets and fingerings but, rather, about learning to do right. Making music together hinges on empathy, humility and expression. At a jam session, I contribute what I can. I listen and try to support others when it's their turn. I find ways to express how I feel through the music. Sometimes it sounds good, sometimes it doesn't. But it's always a chance to harmonize.

James Hill is the founder of Uketropolis and author of several ukulele learning methods including Ready, Steady, Ukulele!BOOSTER UKE and The Ukulele Way. He is co-author, with J. Chalmers Doane, of Ukulele in the Classroom.

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