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Why I’m Not Whistlin’ “Dixie” (Or, Cultural Sensitivity in Song Choice)

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:


Kat Fulton practices in San Diego but studied music therapy in Florida:


Ginny Driscoll lives in Iowa now but is from North Carolina:


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:


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?

7 comments… add one
  • soundscapemusictherapy

    That’s a great example, Rachel – it seems like official state songs should be okay, but “Old Folks at Home” is definitely another song that has a negative reputation. Thank you for your comment!

  • Anita L. Gadberry, Ph.D., MT-BC

    Thanks for starting this discussion. There are many songs that fall into this category. Deciding whether or not to do a song definitely depends on a group vs. individual setting and whether a client has requested that specific song or not.

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Hi Anita! Yes, whether it is a group or individual setting is so important. Responding to a song requested in a group might lead a music therapist unwittingly to ignore the needs of a quieter group member. Excellent point!

  • I am a practicum student and I worked with residents in an assisted living facility last semester. One of these clients repeatedly sang the theme song for “Mickey Mouse” – which I noted, but on advice of my supervisor did not use because it was not age appropriate. I did not want to offend any of the other clients with a children’s song.

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      That’s a great example, Elizabeth! I usually avoid children’s songs with this population, too, unless I can frame them in an age-appropriate way. I might include “Mickey Mouse” as part of a session including TV themes songs. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

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