The 'Doo Dah' Song: "Camptown Races" by Stephen Foster

History of an American Folk Song

 

It's a catchy tune and one that you probably remember from childhood. You may even have taught your own children how to sing "Camptown Races." Written by Stephen Foster in the mid-1800s, the song has long been a favorite among American folk songs and the first verse is unforgettable.

De Camptown ladies sing this song,
Doo-da, Doo-da
De Camptown racetrack's five miles long
Oh, doo-da day

The song is familiar and it is a testament to an important transition in American history.

"Camptown Races" was popular in the decade leading up to the Civil War. This was a time when transient workers were common as were their "camp towns" that sprung up along the railroads. 

Though it's a comical song, one cannot overlook its relevance to the minstrel shows that often parodied the African-American population.

Who Wrote "Camptown Races"?

"Camptown Races" (purchase/download) was written and first published in 1850 by preeminent American songwriter Stephen Foster (1826-1864). Foster is often thought of as "America's First Composer" and is well-known for many catchy tunes including "Oh! Susanna." Every year before the Kentucky Derby, Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" is sung with great fervor as well.

The first recording of "Camptown Races" was made by Christy's Minstrels. The mid-1850s were a popular time for minstrel shows and Edwin P. Christy's group was among the best known. Their success stemmed from their relationship with Foster as they often sang his latest songs.

Where is Camptown?

Camptown is in Pennsylvania, near Foster's hometown. The phrase "camp town" also loosely refers loosely to the "towns" that transients would set up around train tracks. These camps made it easier to hop trains as the men tried to get from job to job and town to town.

Camp towns were also called jungle camps.

They were often populated by African-Americans and other migrant workers.

"Camptown Races" and the Minstrel Tradition

The original title of the song, "Gwine to Run All Night," referenced the African-American stereotype dialect in which the song was written. The lyrics talk about a group of transients in a camp town, who bet on horses to try to make some money.

Gwine to run all night,
Gwine to run all day,
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag,
Somebody bet on the gray.

The song was intended to be humorous and was written in the minstrel tradition, which had performers painting their faces black to mock African-Americans. While the minstrel tradition is now considered incredibly racist, this and other songs written during that period managed to stick around in our national repertory.