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Four Public Domain Songs You Didn’t Know Were Racist
Meet Stephen Collins Foster: Legendary songwriter and racist.
Public domain songs are songs to which no one holds the copyright, which means anyone can use them in any medium for free. They’re ubiquitous in cartoons, movies, and TV shows, especially sitcoms. You hear their melodies in the background or hear characters sing variations of their lyrics in almost everything. But have you ever stopped to think about who wrote them?
Four extremely popular public domain songs, “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home (aka Swanee River),” “Gwine to Run All Night (aka De Camptown Races),” and “Oh! Susanna,” actually have racist origins. They were all written by the same man: Stephen Collins Foster.
Stephen Collins Foster
Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) in 1826 and died of an unspecified illness in New York City in 1864. He has been hailed as “The father of American songwriting,” and he’s been inducted into multiple halls of fame. He wrote over 200 songs in his short life, versions of which are used as the official state songs of Kentucky and Florida.
Besides the four songs I just mentioned, Foster penned many other popular songs used in movies and TV shows, including “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Old Black Joe,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and “Old Dog Tray.” His IMDb page includes over 1,000 productions, all uncredited. Among them are some of my favorite sitcoms: Arrested Development, NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show, Perfect Strangers, Head of the Class, Mork & Mindy, Get Smart, My Favorite Martian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Patty Duke Show, and Mr. Ed, to name a few. And his songs are still used today, hundreds of years after his death. As recently as 2022, “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh! Susanna” were used in two movies, two miniseries, and three episodes of a TV series.
At a glance, it sure seems like Stephen Foster was a successful songwriter; however, he made very little money from his prolific career because copyright laws were rarely enforced in his time. He died penniless in a charity hospital after his career dried up and his wife left him (again). It sounds like a sad story, but I don’t feel the slightest bit sorry for him. Why? Because he was a racist.
Foster got his start in the songwriting business selling songs to traveling minstrel shows. These were incredibly racist, offensive performances where white men donned blackface and acted like exaggerated caricatures of black people. They were mostly popular in the south, and while many of Foster’s lyrics contained southern themes, he only went down south once in his whole life for his honeymoon.
The most successful minstrel troupe of all time was Christy’s Minstrels, founded by E.P. Christy in Buffalo, New York. In 1847, Christy’s Minstrels played a benefit show for Stephen Foster, and from then on they specialized in performing only his work. Foster sold the songs “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Gwine to Run All Night,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “Old Folks at Home” to E.P. Christy for his minstrel troupe to perform. “Old Folks at Home” was even licensed exclusively for Christy’s use (Christy even put his own name on it, the egomaniac).
You may think you know the lyrics to these popular tunes, but trust me, you don’t. They’ve been altered and re-written many times over the years, and some verses have been dropped completely. The versions we know today are unrecognizable.
The original lyrics will turn your stomach. They were written in a made-up dialect designed to mock the way black Americans spoke at the time, and they frequently used racist epithets. Below are a few excerpts that will give you an idea of how abhorrent they really are. If you want to read more (and I have no idea why you would), you can view the original scores on the International Music Score Library Project’s website.
CONTENT WARNING: The lyrics below contain offensive, racist content. Read at your own risk.
My Old Kentucky Home
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home.
’Tis summer, the darkeys are gay…
…The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, good-night!
The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darkey may go.
A few more days and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar canes grow.
Gwine to Run All Night (aka De Camptown Races)
De Camptown ladies sing dis song.
De Camptown race track five miles long.
Oh! Doo-dah day!
I come down dah wid my hat caved in.
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…
Old Folks at Home (aka Swanee River)
Way down upon de Swanee ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere’s what my heart is turning ebber,
Dere’s wha de old folks say.
All up and down de whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.
All de world am sad and dreary
Ebry where I roam.
Oh! Darkeys how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home…
…I jumped aboard de telegraph and trabbled down de riber,
De lectric fluid magnified and killed five hundred n****rs…
…I soon will be in New Orleans and den I’ll look all round,
And when I find Susanna I will fall upon de ground,
And if I do not find her, dis darkie’l surely die,
And when I’m dead and buried, Susanna don’t you cry…
Here’s another disgusting tidbit from the song “Oh! Lemuel!”
Oh! Lemuel my lark.
Oh Lemuel my beau.
I’s guine to gib a ball tonight,
I’d hab you for to know;
But if you want to dance,
Just dance outside de door
Becayse your feet so berry large
Dey’ll cover all de floor…
…Go down to de cotton field!
Go down, I say!
Go down and call de n***a boys all,
We’ll work no more today…
Can’t you just picture some asshole in blackface singing that? I can’t read anymore of these lyrics because I’ll have to throw up.
While some of his other songs may not contain any racist content (“Beautiful Dreamer,” for instance), personally I don’t feel good about hearing them now knowing who wrote them and who originally performed them, and I think it’s time we acknowledge what Stephen Collins Foster really was: a racist. Hey, media, stop using these songs!