In the music classroom we regularly ban songs. If there is a single swearword we ban it. Sometimes we will change a word and get away with it, like a couple of years ago when we sang Radiohead’s “Creep” but making sure we used the radio edit version. Some secular schools ban religious songs and some religious schools ban secular songs. You won’t get many church schools singing “Imagine” by John Lennon and you won’t get many secular schools singing “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb”. Gameplan has banned a whole load of songs with racist connections recently and there are websites and Facebook groups telling you which songs are racist and which ones aren’t. Even if a song doesn’t have any words it can be controversial like the BBC’s decision not to sing the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” at “Last Night of the Proms”. So the first thing I will say is that if any school or institution is being blamed for “banning songs”, this is regular and normal. It’s not weird or woke – it’s standard practice.
So we go onto the argument from authority – who decides which songs get chosen and which get banned? Normally you would say it is the person who chooses the music. This is not always the case. Sometimes it is the class teacher, the headteacher, a director, parents, sometimes children themselves. Sometimes it does not have to be someone who is alive! We had an annual “Last Night of the Proms” concert at my old school in Thailand where the mainly Thai children sang the chorus of “Rule Britannia”, whilst waving Thai and British flags. It did seem a little bit weird to be doing this in Thailand but the authority in this regard is tradition. Tradition can be an authority that transcends living leadership. We can forgo our own authority and defer to that of what has been done before because it has always been done. As soon as the decision to put on “Last Night of the Proms” is enacted then you are faced with tradition as authority because in many people’s eyes if we did not sing those two songs then it would no longer be what it says on the tin. Without “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” you don’t really have “Last Night of the Proms” because the songs and the event are one in the eyes of the majority of the public. If you decide to question this and ban the songs you will be chastised for being a kill-joy or a party pooper and setting yourself up as a higher authority. Sometimes you will be deemed guilty of arrogance because you have dared to question the authority of a hundred years of tradition. This is often an argument on why we shouldn’t ban songs that have been in the musical canon for centuries – why should we end this tradition, what gives us the right to be the final arbiter?
In almost every school I have worked in the issue of song censorship issue has reared its head. Class teachers are constantly asking music teachers to teach songs which aren’t appropriate that they have heard on Youtube. What a music teacher, a class teacher, headteacher, parent or child think are appropriate can be very different. Song choice is so controversial because our relationship to songs is emotional, can be passionate and because good songs come from the heart. I’ve nearly resigned from one school over Christmas song choice in the past and I have been criticised for certain song inclusion by Agnostics, Atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is not just about that divisive Christmas festival, should we sing songs for Diwali? Should we not sing at all during Ramadan? I’ve even been criticised for my Bonfire Night song by angry Catholics. (It’s a great song by the way – you can find it here.)
Personally I am just as likely to be uncomfortable and wishing to ban songs as the next person. I was very unhappy about teaching the song “Cell Block Tango” from the musical “Chicago” because it is about murdering men and feeling justified in the endeavour. “Blooming insensitive idea” goes through my brain. None of my female colleagues had any concerns about this song and actually told me that I was a misogynist for worrying about performing it in a secondary school. They used the “see the song in context” to justify its inclusion and I was won over with that explanation. We did “Chicago” and we did it very well and my female colleagues did a great job of changing the script to be a little more appropriate for secondary-aged children. Do I think we should have taught the children this song? I am still unsure – I’m not even sure we should have put the musical on in the first place!
However, my blood starts to boil when it’s the other way round and schools say they will ban “Joseph” because of its religious story. “How can you ban a story that is basically all about dreams and doesn’t mention God?” My head is now pink and my voice has started to go to eleven. “Because you can find it in an ancient religious book” is the reply. “Blooming woke kill-joys” is the murmuring comment of my indignant brain. The reality is that we are all guilty of censorship and our censorship differs because we are different. Some things affect us more than others. For me, it’s when song censorship appears in Early Years that I get most annoyed. Some schools have honestly banned “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (my daughter’s favourite song). She loves changing the colour to “green” or “pink” sheep, and as far as she is concerned it is the funniest and best song ever written. I think it even beats “Baby Shark”. Well I tell you now song-banners, the Black Sheep stays in the repertoire and if you disagree you have my three-year old daughter to deal with. And she’s cute with curly hair.
The list of racist songs that has been circulated recently is pretty incredible and long and you start thinking that every song must be racist as some are so standard in our repertoire. I shook my fist when seeing “Land of the Silver Birch” is now the musical version of “Tintin in the Congo”. Boo hiss. I hung my head at the realisation that “Do your ears hang low” is now the “Mein Kampf” of music education. Noooooooo. Sometimes I think some of these choices are justified – I personally don’t think we should be singing “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo” – I heard the racist version in the 80’s and now when a child sings it to choose someone in the playground my heart always skips a beat until I can breath easier when they use the word “chicken”. Why do I have a problem with this even though the words are changed? It’s simply because I know the racism concerning this song – I wouldn’t teach it even with changed words because in my mind it is too soon. Perhaps when I’m retired they can bring it back.
But I am a total hypocrite. Two of my favourite songs in the school music repertoire have changed lyrics – “John Kanackanacka” and “Jump Jim Joe”. Both of these are now on the banned list because they used to be racist. That is what I think has changed in the last few years. What is new is the idea that because a song used to be racist, in today’s world that makes them racist now even if the lyrics have been changed. However, in yesteryear a song was racist if it had racist lyrics. And despite my uncomfortable reaction to “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo” I think we had it right before – a racist song is simply a song with racist lyrics. I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t play “Jump Jim Joe” but I also don’t want to live in a world where our hearts skip beats with “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo”. Most the time I will just avoid controversial songs or seek out an alternative but I’m still not happy because I simply don’t like banning songs. Banning songs feels extreme and it feels illiberal. I know some people will disagree with me here but I think we have to make a distinction. For me if a song has 100% of people not knowing it was originally racist and it doesn’t have racist lyrics now we can sing it. Let’s call it “Dan’s Law” after me – I’ve always wanted a law named after myself!
In all this politicking we lose the focus of what we should be doing – teaching children to sing well. Let’s not stop children from enjoying songs that may have been racist in the distant past but no longer are. Just like a racist person can change and be rehabilitated into society, a racist song can too.