What the folk…and other minstrel puns

My my my. What an odd, fascinating, overwhelming, unusual, educational journey this has been so far. And let’s not forget racist. Here’s lookin’ at you, 1947.

I kept re-reading the first mandatory requirement for my Minstrel badge over and over again, not quite knowing where to start. When I thought I was beginning to make some headway and that this would be easy, I started feeling incredibly overwhelmed and behind at the same time. After all, it’s quite the undertaking for one measly requirement out of 8 (out of 14 options).

Here it is again: 1. Learn and sing with others the following songs, and be able to give sources for them; (a), three American folk songs of different types; (b), three folk songs from other countries; (c), two art songs; (d), two rounds or descants.

My head was spinning. Do I go for the boring ‘popular’ songs that we already know in these categories or is that too easy? Do I dig deeper into the archives of all folk music throughout time? Where do I even start? Do I pick a Native American folk song? If so, which tribe? Or maybe a song old Dutch ladies picking tulips used to sing? Or a prison song? What countries do I choose? Where am I? What’s an art song? I’m still not sure. So far I know it involves piano and voice. Every time I’d look up one song or type of song it would take me down the rabbithole for hours digging up a plethora of information, ranging from…

Boring: I just can’t get into Medieval songs in French or German. I tried looking up minnesingers and troubadours and…zzzzz.

To mildly interesting: I had no idea that ‘Camptown Races‘ was a ‘minstrel song’ specifically written by Stephen Foster for traveling minstrel shows and debuted by ‘Christy’s Minstrels‘ (see below). This badge is starting to make more sense. As a kid we just thought this song was about a racetrack and ladies. The original lyrics are quite a thing to behold (more like ‘Camptown Racists’ ba-dum ching). I sang a horrible rendition of this the Al Jolson way for my ‘troop’ as part of #1, but I guess I have to remember it was a relic of the time.

To more interesting: (Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, and a host of other actors performed in blackface back in the day. Note the YouTube comments on Camptown Races vs. Judy Garland. Everyone praises the former, and lashes out at Judy for being racist? They’re doing the exact same thing. I’m confused.

To plum fascinating: I didn’t know what playing the bones was, but during three-act minstrel shows there would be someone with a tambourine on one side and the other would play the bones! Thanks to this adorable man named Dom Flemons in the Carolina Chocolate Drops I now know what that is. I want to meet this man.

Anyway, this is what I’ve accomplished so far with my ‘troop,’ which was a group of ladies at Shawnte’s birthdaysplosion sleepover spectacular. The perfect environment for my debut:

4. Teach a folk song, an art song, or a round to your troop.

I led a group of lovely ladies in two rounds. ‘Frère Jacques’ and ‘Row Row Row Your Boat.’ Easy choices perhaps, but after attempting to learn ‘London’s Burning’ for a brief time, I decided I had enough on my plate. I also taught Shawnté part of a Danish folk/children’s song ‘Der sad to katte på et bord,’ which is about indecisive cats on a table (see #8). I chose this jam because a.) I like cats, b.) it’s short, c.) it’s got nonsense words in it and d.) I’ve married into Denmark. So hey, if I remember, maybe I can sing it with my half-Dane kids one day (or to someone else’s kids, or all children anywhere).

5. Tell some interesting facts about the background of a song you learn to sing or lead.

I talked about ‘Frère Jacques.’ I obviously didn’t know French as a kid, so learning this song in my head I remember it like this:

Frère Jacques Frère Jacques Dom Ray Vu Dom Ray Vu Sonne Lematina Sonne Lematina Ding Ding Dong Ding Ding Dong

I also thought it was about someone’s brother John, not a ‘brother’ monk. The theories about this round is that it was either designed to taunt (?) Jews, Protestants, or Martin Luther, OR that it was making fun of the Dominican monks for being lazy and not getting up in time to pray when they heard the prayer bells. Hooray! People have been jerks since the beginning of time. Who knew right? I might as well have been a zombie kid reciting grand fairytales about the Holocaust and not knowing it. I did remember learning a few years back that ‘Ring A Round the Rosie’ was about the plague or The Black Death (hence we all fall down). Weird to think we were all smiling children playing and singing songs about terrible death and not knowing it. This is the stuff horror movies are made of, but here we go again…rabbithole #98253.

6. Tell a folk tale or local legend of the type around which folk songs are sometimes built.

Look at that! I just did. Shawnté please e-high 5 me so I know you approve.

8. Help produce a folk ballad in dramatized form with action and suitable costuming and staging.

Speaking of ‘Der sad to katte på et bord,’ (which I learned from Politikens Børne sangbog below) I designed some highly spectacular cat ears and fastened them to headbands for Shawnté and I, and we acted/sang out the song, which is about cats asking each other if they want to get up and down off a table. For the rather tacky ‘Danish Island Jam’ version see this link.

I could devote much more time to the subject of blackface in American (and British) entertainment and what I’ve learned so far, but that might be for another day. I might not have the strength.

I still have to sing ‘Oh Susanna’ and ‘Little Brown Jug’ (and play it on the piano), learn two art songs, two more international folk songs, and more to finally be able to cross off this first requirement (!!), as well as throw my now-happening Japanese-themed party. Woohoo!


  1. “Shawnté please e-high 5 me so I know you approve.” – I approve, mightily and enthusiastically. I bet you’re foaming at the mouth for when I have to “tell [my] troop about the qualifications and opportunities in the field of journalism as a vocation.” Foaming.

    Also – this is AMAZING. You inspire and entertain me, all at once, while also adding a liberal dose of “Man, folk songs were really screwed up” to the party mix.

  2. […] my three songs from other countries, I had already learned the Danish song, ‘Der sat to katte på et bord,’ and Shawnté allowed me to double dip, including my round of ‘Frere Jacques’ as […]

  3. Jo Ann Black · ·

    Wow – I found this extremely interesting. I totally agreed with you when you first mentioned the subject matter in regards to sounding boring, but after you discovered the things you did, it blew me away. Great experience for you I’m sure.

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