I was caught off-guard the other day when a client of mine requested the song “Dixie.” Although this is an iconic song of the U.S. South and doesn’t have any overtly negative lyrics in it, I had always thought it had been a song associated with racism and, especially, people favoring segregation of African Americans during the Civil Rights era. My client is African American though, and from the South to boot. We did sing the song as requested, but I felt confused. Was I mistaken about this song’s racist slant? I asked my music therapist colleagues on Twitter what they thought. First, JoAnn Jordan, who is a music therapist in western Kansas:
— JoAnn Jordan (@JordanEM) July 8, 2011
Kat Fulton practices in San Diego but studied music therapy in Florida:
@rachellenorman I never use Dixie. No way. BUT if a client or resident would like 2 sing it, then by all means. Too much south stuff 4 me.
— Kat Fulton (@katfulton) July 8, 2011
Ginny Driscoll lives in Iowa now but is from North Carolina:
@RachelleNorman Depends on the person. gma was in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. it would be appropriate for her. Not for everyone
— Ginny Driscoll (@CIMusicResearch) July 8, 2011
I have to agree with the wisdom shared by these three experienced music therapists. It is important to be aware of the cultural significance and potential offensive elements of the songs we use in music therapy, but the choice of whether to use a song ultimately comes down to considerations of the needs of the individual client or the requirements of a particular session. As always, music experiences are not one-size-fits-all, so perhaps no song is too far out-of-bounds to be helpful in a therapeutic context.
One caveat, though, is that you need to consider the culture of the place where your music-making occurs and the sensitivities of other people who are participants in or witnesses to the music experiences. This important point was made by another of my music therapy colleagues, Erin Bullard:
@RachelleNorman I had a complaint against me by staff in ltc facility for singing Shortnin' Bread. The residents loved it, maybe ask staff?
— Erin Bullard (@erinbullard) July 8, 2011
In her case, her group members were okay with the melody to “Shortenin’ Bread,” but the staff objected. Setting is important, and consideration should be given to the people supporting the music therapy process, including family members and caregivers.
What other songs do you think should be avoided in music therapy or other group music-making experiences because of cultural sensitivity concerns? Have you ever better surprised by the songs requested by participants in music sessions?