folksongs III


Part I– just dig in and start singing them.  How?  This post should help.

Part II– some historical context to Mason’s use of folksongs.

Just a small aside here but do please note the connection Mason made to the ancient Greeks there.

Now I’d like to share some ideas about why we would include singing, and specifically the singing of folk music, in our schooling.   While I was looking up one of those songbook s Miss Mason used (mentioned in a previous post) I stumbled across an article published in 1918 by a Mrs. Alston, about children and poetry.  You might be wondering what folksongs and poetry have to do with each other- unless you are already pretty familiar with folk music, and then you’ll know. Those of you who don’t know, keep reading.=)

Mrs. Alston was British, but seems to have lived much of her adult life at least in South Africa, where she cared for her family and wrote articles and books. I don’t, btw, agree with everything she had to say , and her attitude was generally thoroughly colonial and a product of her time. But I do like what she has to say about folksongs.

She wrote that we must have poetry and of the cultivation of the poetic spirit if we are to save our children ‘from the asphyxia of materialism.’  I agree. She also said that poetry teaches us to give things their true values, for the poetic spirit has learned to ‘consider the lilies of the field.’   So how do we get our children in touch with poetry?  Well, she then goes on to say that poetry and song are impossible to separate. Of course, in our day, I think the separation has been made, but none of us are the better for that.
She places folk songs very early in the chain of development toward a mature appreciation for and understanding of poetry. It’s the most reasonable thing in the world she says, right after Mother Goose, to introduce the child to singing. But not just any songs, she explains:

“do not let us weaken him by giving him milk and water when he requires strong meat. It is ridiculous to see, as I have done, boys of ten at a dancing-class doing a teddy-bear dance or skipping, and many of the songs one finds in children’s song-books are merely silly. I myself found my children took no pleasure in singing until, thanks to Mr. Cecil Sharp and Mr. Baring-Gould, I introduced them to a book of old English folk songs. The result was illuminating. Those songs immediately struck some responsive ancestral chord, and singing became a delight instead of a mere lesson; and now folk songs resound from morning till night.


That book by Sharp and Baring-Gould is one of the books used in Mason’s schools.  They published English Folksongs for Schools  in 1906. This is yet another illustration of the value of the real thing over the inane and silly little things written specifically and *just* for children.  Give them something they can sing as children and still happily sing as adults without sounding silly.

I find it instructive that she says her own children took no pleasure in singing, and yet,  her response was not to just give up, but to find another approach.

The easy intervals, the narrow compass, the rhythm of words and music, but, above all, the thin thread of a story, the action, which characterizes most of these songs, breaking out now and then spasmodically into sheer rhythmic nonsense — a ‘ kicking up of the heels’ — appeals to the elementary mind, as well as to the more cultivated.

Here we have a few of the reasons why folksongs, specifically, are important, especially in the early stages when children are learning to sing.

Easy Intervals: intervals are the spaces or distances between notes or pitch- basically, how far you have to stretch, or in some cases, leap, when going from one note to the next.  Folksongs develop out of every day life and are sung by the common people over time. Over time, if there are harder leaps, they get smoothed out, brought closer together. They don’t usually require vocal gymnastics (unlike, for instance, America’s national anthem).

Narrow Compass: similar to interval, this is also about range.  Whereas the interval is about the space or distance between two notes, the compass is about the general range of notes covered in the whole song.  The vast majority of folk songs won’t have you singing too high or too low.  Some performers may pitch them outside your comfortable range, but singing with your family at home, you can begin where you are comfortable and you probably will not find yourself squeaking or croaking because a note is too high or too low.

Rhythm: You can find a lot of technical information about the rhythm and meter of folksongs, but I’m just going to say here that folksongs tend to be easily learned and easy to repeat. The technical term I’ll use is ‘catchy.’

But most of all, that thin thread of a storyline– my four year old grand-daughter noticed this.  A few months ago she asked me to sing her a song and read her a book.  I was not going to be able to do both, I think we were trying to get ready to leave, which, now that I think on it, might be why she asked for both.  At any rate, I told her I could only do one, and asked her which she would prefer.  “Well,” she thought through it aloud, “Some songs are also stories, so sing a song that is a story.” A surprising number of them are stories, or have that thin thread of something like a story, with real things to think about and imagine and pretend- even the murder ballads, IMO.  But we don’t have to go there. There are plenty of folksongs to choose from if the subject matter of one bothers you.

The above qualities typical to most folksongs are the reasons why children need to be singing folksongs in addition to hymns.  Hymns are wonderful, of course, and necessary for Christian children.  But it’s hard to find hymns so easily suited to children’s voices, with those shorter intervals and narrow  vocal range.  Folksongs have something else, too:

There is an unaccountable fascination in the rhythmic repetition of such nonsense as: Hi diddle unkum tarum tantum Through the town of Ramsey, Hi diddle unkum over the lea, Hi diddle unkum feedle! Whipsee diddle dee dandy dee. (youtube version, this is a fun one! Or perhaps you have seen/heard the Pinky and the Brain version?)

The number folk songs also make a special appeal, such as: This old man he played one, He played knick knack on my drum, each verse ending with this delightful nonsense: Knick, knack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, This old man came rolling home….

Now I do not know what, if any,  knowledge of Charlotte Mason Mrs. Alton may have had*, but I find it interesting that if you look through Mason’s books, especially volume 1, and her programmes, you see a similar progression in her approach to music with children: singing to the child, practice listening, playing, singing games, folk music and so on.

Folksongs are early introductions to poetry, to rhyme, to metre- much like Mother Goose.  These seemingly silly refrains give children the freedom to play with sounds, to practice their listening and pronunciation skills, and all kinds of things we could file under a high falutin’ category name, but honestly, can we just not have fun with them?

Just sing.  Sing some more.  Keep on singing.  The more you sing, the easier it becomes.

Pick one.  Sing it one or two times a day for a week.  Sing it first with the youtube video or CD or whatever.  Then sing louder.  Drown out the electronic aid, and then turn it off. Then keep on singing.

And don’t give up.  Don’t quit because your kids said they didn’t like folk songs. Don’t quit because the songs don’t make sense to you. Don’t quit because you don’t like them.  Don’t quit because you have boys, after all.  Don’t quit because you don’t know them.

Don’t quit.
Children really take to this music in most cases, given time and exposure. And I must stress again that not liking folksongs is not inherently a male trait.  That is a cultural assumption, and it’s failing our kids.

Our oldest, shortly after her 21st birthday went to nanny some children for a family friend who was expecting quads and was on bedrest. She already five or six children, including all set of twins, and all but one of the children were boys, ten and under.   Our girl stayed there until shortly after the quads were born and at one point the mother had to be moved to the hospital, so my 21 year old was in complete charge of all six of the children. She wrote us often, as you can imagine, asking advice, sharing what had worked and what had not- and one of the most successful parts of her stay was singing a few folk and nursery songs to and then with the kids. Gypsy Rover was a favourite with all of the boys, largely because of the chorus (ha dee do ha dee do dah day…)

Sing on.  Then sing some more.



*Madeline Alston was familiar with Charlotte Mason and the work of the P.N.E.U.  She published an article in the magazine or journal, Child study.  The article is titled The Parents national educational union and its work.
In her book about Life on the Veld, she says, ” The books of Miss Charlotte Mason, the founder of the Parents National Educational Union, are invaluable for mothers,” and she decries the lack of imagination and the artificial style of Montessori.

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