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.
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.