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Monday, November 19, 2018

Why Folksongs: Mechanics and Morals

 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.'  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 definitely been tried, 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- One of my grand-daughters noticed this when she was quite young.  When she was four she asked me to sing her a song and read her a book.  Grandpa and I were visiting and getting ready to leave and drive home, so there wasn't time- and that might just 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."   I went with Billy Barlow and she was quite pleased.

A surprising number of folksongs 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.  There are bawdy, crass folk songs that I didn't do with my children.  There are topics or lyrics to some songs that may not be your choice for your children.  However, in making your selections, remember that there is value to children seeing examples of good and evil in literature, poetry, and song, and those examples are actually not more powerful if the moral is shouted at them.  Mason said that learning about human beings and their doings was part of the study we call 'citizenship.'  We can't really learn about humans and their doings without facing the issue of good and evil.

In volume VI she says: 
"Many earnest-minded teachers will sympathise with one of their number who said,––
"Why give children the tale of Circe, in which there is such an offensive display of greediness, why not bring them up exclusively on heroic tales which offer them something to live up to? Time is short. Why not use it all in giving examples of good life and instruction in good manners?"
"Why should they read any part of Childe Harold, and so become familiar with a poet whose works do not make for edification?"
Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen whether of the City of God or of his own immediate city, as to know what is good and how to perform the same. Children recognise with incipient weariness the doctored tale as soon as it is begun to be told, but the human story with its evil and its good never flags in interest. Jacob does not pall upon us though he was the elect of God. We recognise the justice of his own verdict on himself, "few and evil have been the days of my life." We recognise the finer integrity of the foreign kings and rulers that he is brought in contact with, just as in the New Testament the Roman Centurion is in every case a finer person than the religious Jew. Perhaps we are so made that the heroic which is all heroic, the good which is all virtuous, palls upon us, whereas we preach little sermons to ourselves on the text of the failings and weaknesses of those great ones with whom we become acquainted in our reading. Children like ourselves must see life whole if they are to profit. "

It is not necessary to label every action in fiction, song, poetry, and history as good or evil. It is actually more helpful to the children if those things are not so-labeled as they will do the work of thinking about it and figuring it out for themselves.  It *is* compatible with Mason's philosophy  to ask children a few Socratic questions for the purposes of moral teaching.  You do want to guard against turning this into a long, boring oral test or almost a grilling.  A very little goes a long way here.  

To return specifically to the characteristics and qualities typical to most folksongs, the rhythm, range and so on are some of 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.  You can try different songs, different genres, different cultures- but do not 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 born of ignorance of the long history of folksongs, 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 had five or six children, including a 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...)  She returned to help the family out a couple of years later when another child was born- and the first thing the children asked her to do was sing Gypsy Rover with her.  They bonded over the easily memorized, catchy tune and phrasing of folk songs. 

Sing on.  Then sing some more.



For sale, proceeds support my family's work.  When creating these things,  my constant thought was 'What might readers like to know or think about? What will help our Charlotte Mason parents and families?  What will give them something to think about, something to love, something to grow on?'  I hope you can tell. 

$5.00- Education for All, vol 2- the Imagination (and more) issue!- transcript of the imagination talk from the AO Camp meeting, with additional material I had to cut to save time.  
 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal,   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science. See sidebar for purchasing options if you are in the Philippines.

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.

  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

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