Rita Whitney signed up last fall to participate with her 18-month-old daughter in the Music Together program, which involves preschoolers and their parents singing, dancing, playing simple instruments and listening to CDs.
Founded by experts in what they call "research-based, developmentally appropriate early childhood music," Music Together has licensed its materials to be taught in thousands of U.S. communities as well as overseas.
Whitney felt disturbed in late September when she noticed the song "Shoo Fly" in the first songbook.
The song triggered painful memories for the 50-year-old software manager who grew up in a mixed-race household in New York City. The original "Shoo Fly" lyrics, often sung in blackface, refer repeatedly to a "nigger." (Those lyrics were not in the Music Together version, however.)
Though deciding to skip the "Shoo Fly" session, Whitney and her daughter Taylor continued with the Music Together program.
But Whitney got upset enough to call the company's Princeton, N.J., headquarters late last month after coming upon "Jimmy Crack Corn" in the next-level songbook. The song, historically sung in blackface, refers to a slave.
"This is a national program, with everybody using the same songbook and singing the songs at the same time," Whitney said.
"This is a program with an extremely good reputation, and they're teaching these songs to a whole new generation right now.
"I'm not saying they're doing it purposefully or maliciously, but with the educational background and the research facility that (Music Together) has, I would hope that they'd research the backgrounds of the music they choose."
Whitney said company managers declined when she asked them to omit the songs in future printings of their materials, and to direct licensees to skip the songs in the meantime.
"I just felt it was bad judgment on their part. Maybe they hadn't realized these were blackface minstrel songs, but now that they know they could take them out of future publications.
"I'm not bashing people on the head or anything, but now that they know I thought they could do something about it," she said.
Whitney said she finally called the "action, breaking news" number for the San Jose Mercury News and reported the issue to the newspaper.
Following the newspaper queries, the music company reversed its decision.
"We are sensitive to parents' concerns about negative associations to the original folk material," Music Together founder and director Kenneth K. Guilmartin said.
"We value and respect the opinions of our loyal Music Together families, and it was never our intention to offend anyone."
"I'm happy that I could effect the change," said Whitney, who manages the Stanford Fencing Association and is a board member of the Los Altos nonprofit Hidden Villa.
"I don't feel like I'm in your face or anything, but I'm just glad to be able to get this one little thing done."
Whitney and her daughter continue to participate in the Music Together program, located at the nonprofit Parents Place near their house.
"It's a wonderful group activity in an excellent facility," she said.