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

History of an American Folk Song

Close-Up Of Person Playing Guitar
 Erik Witsoe / EyeEm/Getty Images

"Camptown Races" is a catchy tune and one that you probably remember from childhood. You may even have taught your own children how to sing it. Written by preeminent American songwriter Stephen Foster (1826–1864) in the mid-1800s, the song has long been a favorite among American folk songs, and the first verse is a definite earworm:

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

Camptown in Pennsylvania, near Foster's hometown, is thought by some to be the inspiration for the song, though the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission cannot say for certain whether there was a racetrack in or near the city or its length. Other sources say that there were horse races from the city to Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, about five miles between each city center. Others believe the song refers to "camp towns," established by transient workers near railroads. Or it could be all of the above.  

"Camptown Races" and the Minstrel Tradition

The song reflects an important transition time in American history, as the tune was popular in the decade leading up to the Civil War. Migrant workers were common in this time period, as were their camp towns. Establishment of these camps made it easier for the workers to hop trains as they went from job to job and town to town, and they were often populated by African-Americans.

One cannot overlook the comical song's relevance to the minstrel shows that often parodied the African-American population. 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. Being that betting on horses was considered immoral, the "Camptown ladies" may also have been shady.

"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 minstrel tradition, which featured performers painting their faces black to mock African-Americans, is now considered incredibly racist, but this and other songs written during that period have managed to stick around in our national repertory as standards. 

Who Wrote It?

"Camptown Races" (purchase/download) was written and first published in 1850 by Foster, who is often called "America's first composer" or "father of American music" 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. He wrote about 200 songs, penning the music as well as the lyrics.

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.

Current Literal Camptown Races

The Camptown Races run today are run by people rather than horses. It's an annual 10K race that has almost three miles of trail, including a stream crossing.