It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style

A while back, in response to a post about my torturous childhood piano performances, a good friend* e-mailed me this account of her own second grade recital: I played my piece (the very boring “Largo” … one of the other kids snagged “From a Wigwam”), resumed my place on the bleachers, then ran off to get sick.

I could completely relate to her experience, but what really grabbed me was her mention of “From a Wigwam.” What a blast from the past.

When I started taking piano lessons at age seven, my beginner’s book was Teaching Little Fingers to Play from “John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano.” I still have my copy, with its orangey-red cover and fun little pieces like “The Juggler,” featuring quick hand crossings, and “The Bee,” which introduced a black key so that I could create chromatic buzzing.

The grand finale in the Teaching Little Fingers book was “From a Wigwam.” This piece offered the chance to play THREE notes together (a chord!) and a pounding, “tom-tom” bass line. I remember feeling rather accomplished when I played with both hands at once. It was very satisfying to produce that big sound.

From a wigwam Teaching Little Fingers to Play remains in print. The format and illustrations have been updated, but “From a Wigwam” is still there on the final page. And judging from the number of YouTube videos parents post of their children playing it, it’s as popular as ever.

It’s obvious to me now that “From a Wigwam” promotes—as my friend with the bad case of second-grade recital nerves so aptly describes it—”a Disney-esque racial stereotype.” The rhythm evokes images of kids “playing Indians,” wearing feathered headbands while they dance and war-whoop, patting their hands on their mouths. It makes me cringe, the same way that Stephen Foster songs sometimes do. In Foster’s case, the issue is the lyrics.

I have no problem with “Beautiful Dreamer” or “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” As a matter of fact, I play them quite often. Even “Oh! Susannah” turns up among the old American folksongs I bring out once in a while. But Foster wrote primarily minstrel music, and plenty of his songs—”Camptown Races” for instance—are simply not appropriate today.

Some people give songs of this ilk a full pardon, claiming they merely reflect America in the mid-1800s. That might be fine for a history lesson, not for a performance.

Sometimes Foster’s lyrics are changed to make a song more acceptable, but it can take a while. He wrote “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River”) in 1851, and sold it for $15 to E.P. Christy for use with his Christy’s Minstrels, a blackface group. The words romanticize life on the plantation. In 2008, those words were cleansed of dialect and racist vocabulary to allow “Old Folks at Home” to become one of two state songs in Florida. (There’s certainly irony in that, given the Florida retiree stereotype.)

For me, it comes down to this: With so much wonderful music from the Great American songbook at my disposal, why play songs that promote racial stereotypes? As Cole Porter said, it’s the wrong time, and the wrong place.

And let’s retire “From a Wigwam” while we’re at it.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

* My good friend is also a budding poet. Read one of her recently published poems in the April 2014 issue of the online journal Verse Wisconsin [here]. It’s National Poetry Month, after all.

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This entry was posted in Music history, Piano performance, Reminiscences, Songwriters, Volunteering and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style

  1. Roger Wise says:

    Oh my, that brings back childhood memories. “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” was my first piano instruction book too. I no longer have my copy but if it’s the one I’m thinking of, my teacher wanted us to color the black and white picture above the music on each page we were assigned. After the little fingers got through that book, they graduated up to the John W Schuam (sp?) series.

    At the age of three or four I was allowed to play records from a stack of old 78s my folks kept in a bookcase in the living room. My favorite of all was a recording of “Camptown Races” by Bing Crosby. I’d play it over and over until my folks couldn’t stand it any longer and I was ordered to play something else or turn off the phonograph. When they tried to hide it by burying it at the bottom of the stack, I searched through the pile until I found the only two records with the blue Decca label. Then I could tell which one was Camptown Races because it was so much more worn than the other. I’d put it on the turntable and turn up the volume and announce “I found it – Doo Dah.”

    • I, too, was allowed to color the simple line drawings on each page of that old piano book. After I mastered “Teaching Little Fingers,” I worked my way through the rest of the John Thompson piano books, grades 1 through 4, over the next couple of years. I still have them all! The John W. Schaum course was another popular series at the time.

      Loved your “Camptown Races” story!

  2. Sandy Shores says:

    That’s really funny, Roger! “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” was also MY first piano instruction book. And I can certainly identify with your friend, Paulette, who was so nervous at her recital that she got sick! Been there, done that! Probably one of the reasons I gave up piano lessons at the age of 19.

    • If you lasted until age 19 with lessons, you certainly didn’t give up easily! Fun to hear that “Teaching Little Fingers” was your first piano book, too. I’ve heard from several others who also remember learning from it.

  3. Linda Triemer says:

    I echo it all – yes “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” and I loved Wigwam!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    We also had that book at home, but when I started lessons, the teacher used a book called “Technic Tales” that featured a character called Knicks who leaped up off the rests. Lifting the hand for a rest was called ‘Knicks’ in his honor. Later there were recital pieces by William Gillock.

  5. Thanks for your reminiscence, Liz. I have my aunt’s old copies of “Technic Tales” — very fun and imaginative pieces. I like the child-friendly markings, like “red stop light” for a fermata!

  6. Aunt Evie Kimball says:

    Boy, you all have good memories–maybe just younger than me. I don’t even remember my first piano lesson books. Maybe Paulette was referring to me when she said she still has her aunt’s “Technic Tales.” I DO remember vividly, however, the terror of performing in recitals!

  7. Nyal Williams, Musicologist says:

    Only the boys were given this piece in my town. I didn’t start lessons till my senior year but I could play it from memory from having heard it so much.
    Let’s not castigate the teachers and composers too much they worked within their culture and could not escape it. Write some better teaching pieces instead — or give titles that fit today’s culture better..

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