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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Folksongs: A loose history

This is a not at all scholarly romp through a kind of a timeline of folksong in England which led up to Charlotte Mason including folksongs in the P.N.E.U. schools.  If the history stuff is not your thing, scroll down for a  TL:DR summary of what might be your best take-aways.

For centuries, of course,  folk songs were just that- sung by the folk, by bards and traveling troubadours and entertainers, sung by every day people as a natural, normal and very common part of every day life.  Let me add here a response to a complaint about folk songs I have heard from time to time-  that they were not the domain of women, or rather, not only women. Had somebody said, “My child won’t sing because he is a boy,” that person might have been locked away as utterly mad.  It is a statement that would have made no sense to anybody.  Singing was not ‘woman’s work,’ it was something people did.  I know some of us are fighting an uphill battle, but the battle is not with your child’s gender, but with a culture that has, for some reason, convinced us boys don’t sing unless they are rock stars.
In the very late 1600s they hadn’t died out, but they were perhaps just a bit less common, enough so that there were two or three people who made a hobby of collecting them, and the same for the 1700s. In the 19th century we had the industrial revolution and this actually kind of causes an explosion in the folkmusic scene- there were suddenly new commonly shared songs, work songs mostly, and some forms of protest music.
The 19th and 20th century is a time of what we hear called folk music revivals.  Partly, I think, this was just a large part of the growing anti-industrial movement, the arts and crafts, return to our roots, movements going on mostly in the middle and upper classes.  Regular folk were still singing, and the folksong collectors took up their notebooks and roamed the countryside looking for people who were still singing so they could note their songs and share them with everybody.
Towards the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, there were a number of people setting out to  collect and compile folk music – and it is these collectors who are largely responsible for the rich vein of music that exists today. Those included:
*Francis J. Child, whose five volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) is still considered the essential canon of English folksong, and scholars still refer to folksongs by the numbers Child assigned them.  If you have seen the Contemplator website, you’ll see the ‘Child Ballads’ as one of your options.  Click through to learn more about him and his collection, which was immediately extremely popular.
Other well known folksong collectors around this time were:
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924),
Frank Kidson (1855–1926),
Lucy Broadwood (1858–1939), and Anne Gilchrist (1863–1954)
Percy Dearming
Cecil Sharp
John Hornby
and around this time in England the Folk-Song Society was established
(timeline information borrowed from here)
In 1886, four years after Child’s volumes were released,  Miss Mason published volume 1 of her six volume series. In it she said that:
“if the children can ‘give voice’ musically, and more rhythmically to the sound of their own voices, so much the better. In this respect French children are better off than English; they dance and sing through a hundred roundelays––just such games, no doubt, mimic marryings and buryings, as the children played at long ago in the market place of Jerusalem.
‘Rondes.’––Before Puritan innovations made us a staid and circumspect people, English lads and lasses of all ages danced out little dramas on the village green, accompanying themselves with the words and airs of just such rondes as the French children sing to-day. We have a few of them left still––to be heard at Sunday-school treats and other gatherings of the children,––and they are well worth preserving: ‘There came three dukes a-riding, a-riding, a-riding’: ‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s’; ‘Here we come gathering nuts in May’; ‘What has my poor prisoner done?’ and many more, all set to delightful sing-song airs that little feet trip to merrily, the more so for the pleasant titillation of the words––dukes, nuts, oranges,––who could not go to the tune of such ideas?
The promoters of the kindergarten system have done much to introduce games of this, or rather of a more educational kind; but is it not a fact that the singing games of the kindergarten are apt to be somewhat inane? Also, it is doubtful how far the prettiest plays, learnt at school and from a teacher, will take hold of the children as do the games which have been passed on from hand to hand through an endless chain of children, and are not be found in the print-books at all.”
Roundes, roundelays, these are traditional children’s songs.  While the term first referred to what we call ’rounds’ it was also commonly used for what we call folksongs- simple, traditional songs passed down by tradition, rather than contemporary songs written specifically for children to sing.
The publishing of folksong collections was still in the early days when Charlotte Mason wrote this, so most of them weren’t to be found in the printed pages of books at all- you had to learn them from others who knew them.
I have always been a little tickled by her complaints that the singing games of the kindergarten are apt to be somewhat inane. Kindergarten was practically a cult sweeping the land, and it really wasn’t much like our kindergartens today. Singing games were part of the kindergarten, but they weren’t traditional songs, they were generally written by the ‘Kindergarteners,’ which at that time meant the women who taught in them and promoted them. I’ve looked at a few of them and they are rather insipid, especially when contrasted to the more full blooded, robust folk songs which have survived the centuries.  If you don’t believe me, look again at the list of songs Mason mentioned by name.
Oranges and Lemons– pretty raw stuff at the end, right?
What Has My Prisoner Done– is a verse from London Bridge, as best I can tell. Once you have the prisoner captured, you sing ‘what has my poor prisoner done?’  Some versions answer that he robbed my house and stole my watch, and some say that he robbed a house and killed a man.
Gathering Nuts and May is still sung, but originally it was a game that I have never seen played.  Two lines of players faced each other, and the song asks who is to gather, and who is to take away. The two named players, one from each side, stand with toes on a handkerchief and play a rather vigorous game of tug-of-war, trying to pull the other player over to their side.
There are all kinds of versions of There Came Three Dukes a Riding, but nearly all of them have the dukes asking for brides and turning them down as not to their taste, and the potential brides saucing the dukes back.
Of course, it is not necessary that we sing precisely and only the folksongs used by Miss Mason, but I do find it helpful to see the specifics of what she had in mind, and what she had in mind was not sappy or inane.
But let’s return to our timeline of folkmusic to give some context to Mason’s use of folksongs.  We fast forward a little bit- and find that at least by 1901 and possibly earlier the British board of education recommended that folk singing be included in school studies:
“To store children’s memories with patriotic national and folk songs, the words of which are suitable for school use. Such an aim does not necessarily exclude or condemn the use of other music found useful and interesting for school entertainments and other purposes.”
I don’t think this was precisely new, but at any rate, in 1905 they were offering a full list of suggested folk songs in the appendices along with this caveat:
“The attention of teachers is invited to the following lists of songs, the use of which is not obligatory. The Board of Education consider that it may be useful, both as offering suggestions and as setting a standard. Some of the national airs had originally words unsuited to school use ; but in the case of the tunes in this list editions exist with all objectionable features removed. “
“The practice of preparing five songs for inspection in the past has given rise in many quarters to the idea that it was intended to set this limit to the number learned. This is not the case. Five songs denoted the minimum, not the maximum, number to be prepared ; and provided always that the music is of a high class, the more songs learned by the children the better.”
That same year a couple other collections of folksongs were published, one of them containing all the songs that the Board of Education recommended. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford edited and arranged The National Songbook, one of the books Charlotte Mason used for folksongs in the PNEU (found here:
She did not limit herself to one book.  Here are some of the resources she used for folksongs and other singing for her schools, and if you have a good memory, you will recognize some of these names from the previously given list of folk song collectors:
Programme 90, form 1:
Everybody used Sonnez Les Matines OR Rounds and Nursery Rhymes
Form 1A used ten minutes in sight singing lesons, and worked on two English songs from The National songbook by Stanford
Form 1B used The Joyous Book of Singing Games (Hornby)
Programme 100, Form 2 (II)
(See programmes of music, September P.R.)
Two English songs from The National Song Book (Stanford), also 2 Christmas carols, 3 French songs (Voyez Comme On Sanse may be used). Fifty Steps in Sight Singing, Exercises for Pupils, and teachers use 4 lessons from ten minutes lessons in sight singing.
98, form 1
A and B: sonez les matines or Rounds and Nursery Rhymes
Form A. Ten minutes Lessons in Sight Singing
Two English Songs from The New Songbook (Stanford)
B. Joyous Book of Singing Games (Hornby) or Songtime (Songtime, I think, was edited by Percy Dearmer)
A and B: The Joyous Book of Singing games by Hornby (see Rhythmic Games and Dances or British Marches for School children)
Programme 94, Form III:
3 French Songs, with music. Three German songs
Three English Songs from The National Song Book, edited by Stanford Words and vocal parts
Ten minutes lessons in sight singing
Drill- ball games and breathing exercises music for use in Mrs. Wordsworth’s classes
Peasant Dances and Songs of Many Lands (by Mrs. C. W. Kimmins, founder of the Guild of Play, as well as various organizations and projects to help children with disabilities).
“Musical Drill Book for use in Mrs. Wordsworth’s Classes, 1918
Charlotte Mason’s students who had graduated from her Teacher’s College published a magazine or journal called L’Umile Pianta.  I have enjoyed reading through it in bits and pieces over the last few years since it became available on the Redeemer website.  I would issue a small caution, however- it’s not Charlotte Mason.  It’s her students.   Charlotte herself did not *always* approve of what her students had to say, based on a letter she wrote to a friend who had commented on how unhappy the friend was with something they had said.  Charlotte agreed, and asked, ‘but love them anyway.’  That little tidbit is a freeby.
So, for some further context on Folksongs and Charlotte Mason, I share that in the Sept. 1911 publication of L’Umile Pianta, there is a recommendation for the book English Folk-songs for Schools / collected and arranged by S. Baring-Gould and Cecil J. Sharp.  We saw those names in the list of names shared above.
That L’Umile Pianta note specifically names and recommends the folksongs Oh no, John, The three Waggoners, and Strawberry fair (which I think most of us would find somewhat suggestive).  I offer that information not by way of being a strait-jacket. I am, again, not saying we can only sing folksongs Mason or her students recommended.  I am sharing them as examples, from which we can draw some principles for our own application.  Namely, what I get out of these specifics is that the folksongs she uses are real, authentic, and not namby-pamby.  A made-up song for kindergarten class about Pumpkin Pie might be fun, but it is not a replacement for songs like Oranges and Lemons and Gathering Nuts in May.

TL: DR summary
Folksongs are for everybody, not just girls.  They are just as much for boys and men as anybody else.  Sing them.
CM was part of her culture and part of a tradition which looked both to the past and to the future, and her inclusion of folksongs was part of that.  Sing them.
Her students sang English folksongs as well as folksongs from other lands. Sing the folksongs of your tradition and home, as well as folksongs of other lands.
We do not need to sing only those folksongs that she sang, but we should be using authentic folksongs, the sort that have been passed on from person to person.
Include traditional singing games in your folksong collections.
Don’t be overly prissy about the folksongs you sing.  I don’t mean you must sing something you find smutty or grotesque, but be sure you aren’t being a little too sanitized and prissy about it.  Don't sing inane things made up specifically for 5 year olds.   Just sing real songs.
You do not have to sing only the songs Miss Mason and her schools used, or the songs AO lists. You can discard other people's lists (including AO's) and choose your own. But you still should really be singing some folksongs.
What’s your take-away?
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