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Run Nigger Run*

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Run Nigger Run

CONTENT ADVISORY: This song contains derogatory language. It first appeared as an African American folk tune in the antebellum South, sometime after Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831) but before the American Civil War (1861-65). The lyrics describe an enslaved person who emancipates himself by running to freedom. The song also warns of “pattyroller” slave patrols that existed at the time, which would catch and punish runaways. As an African American folk song, the lyrics were often interpreted as empowering enslaved peoples to exercise their agency by fleeing their confines and spread knowledge about the dangers that may lie ahead if they try to escape slavery.

In the late 1800s, the song began to appear on the American minstrelsy circuit, where it was re-interpreted by Euro-American performers. New lyrics occasionally cast the African American protagonist as criminal and incorporated the perspective of plantation owners. With the advent of recording technology, these versions soon reached mass audiences through radio play. Despite these developments, the original versions were simultaneously maintained among African American folk performers.

Throughout the twentieth century, musicians performed multiple versions of this song. As time progressed, pressure mounted to change the title and lyrics so that the N-word was eliminated. At Smithsonian Folkways, we have many examples of these versions in our collection, including “Run, Johnny, Run” (Bruce Hutton), “Run...Run / Mama Your Son Done Gone” (Elizabeth Cotten), “Run, Jimmy, Run” (Clarence Ashley), and “Run, Boy, Run” (Jim Smoak & The Louisiana Honeydrippers). The version featured here, performed by the Virginia Mountain Boys, is the only version in our collection that retains the N-word in the title and lyrics. While we have no knowledge of the views or intentions of the musicians on this recording, we feel that the word—even considering this historical context—continues to contribute to discrimination and violence against black communities in the United States. Thus, while we leave it on our website so as not to erase this history, we have made it impossible to listen to it out of context by buying the track or streaming it alone.

For our policy on controversial recordings, please see our Frequently Asked Questions page

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