The Depiction of Ethnic Groups
The depiction of African-Americans wasn't limited to songs about slavery. Songwriters also examined the interaction between ethnic groups in pieces such as "Nigger vs. Chinese." Asian immigrants were frequently targeted as outsiders because of the language barrier, the way they maintained their native dress and customs, and the belief that they were taking jobs of hard-working people who had come to America first. Songs representing the popular anti-Asian sentiment that often manifested itself as violent physical attacks against Asian immigrants include "The Coolie Chinee" and the far more direct "The Chinamen Must Go". Students working with such songs need to know about the cultural biases of the past in order to appropriately understand sensitive language.
While these songs were popular, depictions of Asian immigrants were not as common as songs about African-Americans and other European immigrants. In fact, ethnic groups were primarily represented in song by comic and romantic pieces about Irish and German immigrants who entered America prior to the 1870s. Laments for the nations immigrants left behind are described in songs such as "German immigrants' song of home" and "I'll take you home again, Kathleen" (an audio clip is available in the section, "In Performance--Choral Works from the Collection").
Comic and patriotic national songs about various ethnicities are available by searching on Irish, German, Italy, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, Scotland, Russia, Wales, and Chinese while a search on Indian reveals only two instrumentals referring to Native Americans: "An Indian Tale" and "Indian corn dance." The depiction of ethnicity in these songs is discussed in greater detail in the "Ethnic Groups and Popular Songs" section of "A Decade of Music in America, 1870-79". Some possible questions for students include:
- How are ethnic groups depicted in these songs?
- What characteristics and events do songwriters focus on?
- Why might immigrants be most often represented in comic and romantic songs?
- Why are German and Irish immigrants discussed most often?