Old Tunes, Troublesome Titles
Recently I was at a music camp in New Hampshire, playing Appalachian old-time tunes on a porch with a few other musicians. Someone suggested a tune called “Indian Ate the Woodchuck,” which is one of my favorites, but I was distracted as we played it – the tune’s title was nagging me the whole time.
Though I’ve been playing various traditional music styles my whole life, it was a long time before I became aware of the many old-time fiddle tunes with racist titles (not to mention folk songs with racist lyrics). In recent years many musicians have changed these tunes’ titles or simply stopped playing them altogether, and issues of race in roots music were not on my radar growing up in a racially homogeneous music community in the Northeast. Since then I have been making an effort to educate myself on these issues, and trying to find my role in confronting them, as a white non-Southern person playing this music.
Most of the discussion of racism in American traditional music – and in America, more generally – focuses on racism against African-Americans. This is with good reason, of course. It’s unfortunately a part of our country’s history, and the horrific legacy of slavery continues to this day. There was an excellent piece in Mother Jones recently that explored this topic, quoting many musicians more informed on this than myself. (I was naively shocked when I learned years ago that many fiddle tunes’ titles traditionally contained the N-word.) However, I’ve heard much less discussion about racism against indigenous nations in old-time music, which I think speaks to the general lack of public awareness about indigenous issues.
At this point I should acknowledge that I learned much of what I know about indigenous issues from my bandmate Mali Obomsawin, who is Abenaki. A quick word on terminology: indigenous people are not a monolith, so opinions vary on terms like “Indian,” “Native American,” and “American Indian.” One definite truth is that whenever possible, you should refer to an indigenous person by the name of their specific nation – Abenaki, Cherokee, etc. When speaking more generally, words like “indigenous” and “Native” are often used, to avoid any problematic connotations of national affiliation with America (which was imposed forcibly) or the mistaken term “Indian” which has somehow survived since 1492. Canada, on the other hand, has adopted the phrase First Nations, which seems both accurate and respectful.
So, back to fiddle tunes. Is a title like “Indian Ate the Woodchuck” really racist? Maybe not overtly, but it still gives me pause. The word “Indian” is complicated for obvious reasons, and the tone of that title could easily be seen as mocking and othering, saying “look at that weirdo over there eating a woodchuck.” There are other tunes whose titles are more overtly offensive, using words like “squaw,” and those have largely disappeared or been altered. Other titles are more innocuous, like “Cherokee Shuffle,” but still the tunes are mostly played by white people who are often not even aware that indigenous sovereign nations still exist here, or that they influenced the development of American folk music, and that context complicates things.
On the general topic of offensive tune titles, there has been a great deal of discussion in settings both formal and informal: academia, journalism, Facebook posts, conversations in jams and at festivals. One question that comes up frequently is whether it’s best to avoid these tunes altogether, to preserve the tradition in all its complexity and ugliness, or to change the tunes’ names in order to keep the things that still resonate and discard the ones that we’ve progressed beyond. It’s a difficult question to answer. Generally, though, the only reason for naming an instrumental fiddle tune is to differentiate it from other tunes, so there’s no reason to keep an offensive title or stop playing the tune. I think it’s important, though, to talk about how and why a title or a song lyric was changed. We shouldn’t just gloss over the racist history of the music we love as if it never existed – that’s harmful in a different way.
After we finished playing “Indian Ate the Woodchuck,” I mentioned that I wasn’t sure what to think about that tune’s title. We discussed what we might call the tune instead. Someone suggested “Hillbilly Ate the Woodchuck,” but that felt wrong too: there are, unfortunately, many Northern musicians who love Southern music but look down on Southern people, believing the stereotype they’re all uninformed, racist hillbillies. I was once guilty of that attitude myself, and that further complicates this issue for me – I want to help this music move past its racist history without painting its musicians with a too-broad brush. Anyway, we settled on “Johnny Ate the Woodchuck.”
I’ve seen musicians introduce tunes by saying things like “I call this tune ‘Girl Down the Road,’ but the original title was offensive.” That, to me, seems like the best compromise, and changing lyrics and titles has always been an integral part of the folk process anyway. It’s social, communal music, designed to reflect the lived experience of real people, so it should continue evolving today to reflect our (hopefully) more progressive sensibilities. I’m all for preserving folk traditions, but any “tradition” that harms marginalized people does not need to be preserved outside of a museum or archive.
I would encourage readers to seek out other resources if they’re interested in learning more about these topics. This is a quick and moving primer on issues facing indigenous folks today, and this is an interesting article on the role of Native people in the development of American roots and blues music. I’m certainly not an expert on traditional music, much less on issues of racism, but I am a lover of traditional music who wants to be the best ally I can to anyone around me who is suffering. Often, the best we can do is to learn and listen.