Songs suggested for early grades by Alberta curriculum advisers have racist roots, teachers say

Recommended lists of songs that could form part of Alberta’s new elementary school music curriculum include tunes with racist, sexist and violent lyrics and histories, say some music teachers.

Some well-known tunes first performed at blackface minstrel shows

Music teacher Stephanie Schuurman-Olson, who is doing her PhD in music education at the University of Alberta, researched 80 songs recommended for inclusion in Alberta's new music curriculum and found many had troubling lyrics, nuances or histories. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Recommended lists of songs that could form part of Alberta's new elementary school music curriculum include tunes with racist, sexist and violent lyrics and histories, say some music teachers.

The most recent draft of a new kindergarten-to-Grade 2 music curriculum, a portion of which the Alberta government provided to the CBC, lists about 90 songs curriculum writers recommend elementary school teachers use to teach children how ideas and stories are expressed musically.

An elementary school music teacher from Camrose, Alta., and PhD student, Stephanie Schuurman-Olson has researched the history behind most of those songs.

She found some of the ditties have troubling roots in racist minstrel shows of the 1800s that mocked Black people.

"Can you still teach the song with full conviction this is the right thing to do after knowing this history?" she said.

In October, CBC published drafts of leaked fine arts and social studies curriculum documents that critics panned as disconnected from current research and favouring white, European perspectives.

At the time, Schuurman-Olson was taking a class with University of Alberta music education professor Kathy Robinson.

As music teachers become increasingly cognisant of the messages in the songs they teach, Robinson had assigned her graduate students to look into the history and meaning of songs they would use in an elementary school music class.

1 in 5 songs has 'racially-charged content'

When Schuurman-Olson looked at the leaked drafts, she found the government's hand-picked curriculum adviser for fine arts had included a list of 80 songs young children should learn.

The list came from resources published by the Core Knowledge Foundation, an American organization that publishes a standard set of curriculum schools can use.

Schuurman-Olson knew some of the songs had controversial origins. And so, she volunteered to research the history of all 80.

She found almost all the tunes had British or American origins, and nearly one in five of them had "racially-charged content."

The most modern song was from 1959, she said.

Just as troubling to her as the songs on the list, was the music that was missing, such as songs in other languages, from Indigenous traditions or that originated in different parts of the world.

Robinson said prioritizing a narrow selection of music originating from few cultures can be harmful to kids.

"When you go through years of schooling and don't see yourself reflected or get the message that you aren't good enough, that is lasting damage," she said.

Song list evolving

When approached for this story, the office of Alberta's education minister provided CBC with a more recent version of a portion of the K-2 music curriculum drafts.

The latest iteration included 69 of the 80 originally suggested songs, removing U.S. content such as America the Beautiful and The Star Spangled Banner and replacing them with O Canada, Farewell to Nova Scotia, Log Driver's Waltz and four additional songs in French, including Alouette.

Also removed was the song, Dixie, known as an anthem of Confederacy, and the sexually suggestive song, Buffalo Gals.

The ministry "rightly removed these songs" in drafting, said Nicole Sparrow, acting press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

"The final curriculum will contain a wide collection of song options, taking into account the broad history and diversity of Canada," she said in an email.

List still problematic, researcher says

But Schuurman-Olson said many of the songs she considers problematic remain. 

"It still prioritizes a western classical European view as the music worth teaching," she said.

Among the songs remaining are Billy Boy, which tells the story of a man who wants to marry a girl too young to leave her mother.

Suggested learning in Grade 1, Billy Boy asks if the girl has qualities that would make her "fit to be a wife," such as whether she can cook and spin, milk a heifer calf and whether she is "often seen at church."

Remaining also is Oh! Susanna, a song Schuurman-Olson said pokes fun of an enslaved person as unintelligent and was performed as part of blackface minstrel shows.

Clementine, recommended for Grade 2, tells the story of a large-footed woman who stubs her foot, falls in the water and drowns in front of her partner.

Some of the songs are too musically challenging for small children to sing, she said. Alberta would be better off keeping its current music curriculum, written in 1989, she said.

Innocent-sounding songs have dark meanings

Lyrics of some songs have evolved over time — earlier versions of some included the N-word. Schuurman-Olson said students may eventually learn the dark meanings behind innocent-sounding songs.

"What does it do to a child when they realize, at any point in their life, that the songs that they learned and were the foundation for their musical education were created to marginalize groups of people?"

Schuurman-Olson plays the song America the Beautiful, which was initially proposed as a song all young Alberta children should learn in school. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Robinson said the cultural background of the suggested songs look nothing like the diverse makeup of Alberta classrooms. Part of keeping students engaged and inspired is allowing them to see themselves and their culture in curriculum, she said.

Although the lists of songs are suggestions, not mandated, Robinson said newer teachers or those without as much music experience may rely on those suggestions.

Alberta curriculum has never prescribed lists of songs before, she said.

"A curriculum document is a powerful document," she said. "I feel like some teachers may feel like this is exactly what they must be doing."

Sparrow, the minister's press secretary, said the suggestions are "generally songs well-known to generations of Albertans."

The drafts are far from final, she said, and are currently under review by working groups of teachers and academics.

"I realize that there are some academic 'experts' that seemingly exist to be perpetually offended, but this government does not share that preoccupation," Sparrow said.

Drafts of Alberta's new elementary school curriculum, in both English and French in all subjects, are expected to be released for public consultation in the spring.

Classroom testing of the elementary curriculum is scheduled to begin in September 2021 and be mandated provincewide in fall 2022.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.