'Insensitive' folk song 'Pick a Bale of Cotton' cut from school concert amid racism claims

Kristine Solomon
“Pick a Bale of Cotton” is widely regarded as a plantation song that glorifies slavery, and at least one parent felt it was not appropriate for a junior high school concert. (Photo: Getty Images)
“Pick a Bale of Cotton” is widely regarded as a plantation song that glorifies slavery, and at least one parent felt it was not appropriate for a junior high school concert. (Photo: Getty Images)

Junior high school students in Des Moines, Iowa who had been practicing to perform a song about picking cotton were told last week that the song would be removed from the program amid criticism from the community.

Parent Bernice Thompson, whose daughter Taishon is black and attends Indian Hills Junior High, told the Des Moines Register that the child came home one day recently and told her she did not want to sing the song her class was learning at school for the upcoming spring concert: an American folk song called “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”

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The song, most famously performed by the late folk and blues legend Lead Belly, has been criticized n the past as a racist glorification of American slavery, includes mentions of the N-word and lyrics including “Gonna jump down, spin around, pick a bale of cotton, gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.”

Taishon told the Des Moines Register that the song “made me feel sad because you want to sing happy songs at a spring concert, not songs about picking cotton.”

She pulled it up on the internet so I could see all the lyrics, and I couldn’t believe it,” Thompson told the publication. “To have them sing that song, I just thought it was very insensitive, and I thought it was wrong.”

Thompson decided to complain to Indian Hills’s vice principal and then to the West Des Moines Community Schools District. Shortly after, Aaron Young, a communications specialist with the school district, confirmed the song had been pulled from the production.

“The Indian Hills principal contacted the choir director, and they made a decision to pull the song,” Young said.

Young noted that the spring concert was to include songs that represented different periods throughout history, and that the choir director had picked the song to represent the pre-civil rights era.

Kameron Middlebrooks, president of the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP, told the publication he was “almost speechless” at the song choice.

“I’m glad that they decided to change it, but sad that it took a parent to force that decision upon them,” Middlebrooks said.

If the school was looking for a song for the children to sing representing black American heritage, Middlebrooks said, there were plenty of others to choose from, such as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which is regarded as the Black National Anthem.

“Pick a Bale of Cotton” has been the subject of school controversy several times before, including once in 2005, when a black parent and a civil rights organization complained about the song being performed at a Detroit middle school, according to CBS News.

This isn’t the first time Thompson has had to go to bat for her daughter after a racially insensitive experience at school, she said. Last year, her daughter’s sixth-grade social studies class at Crossroads Park Elementary used a game, “Mission US: Flight to Freedom,” as part of a lesson about the history of the South. The choose-your-own-adventure game prompts children to play the part of a slave who is trying to escape.

The game was later pulled from the school’s curriculum following complaints to the district from Thompson. The mom said her goal was “to see the school acknowledge its mistake and be more cautious in the future.”

“There’s a better approach to teaching black music and black history,” Thompson said. “There needs to be more oversight. I don’t know at what level, but something has to change.”

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