Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Folk Songs

The theatre students take music classes as part of their curriculum. I’ve been attending them, because as an “apostate musician” (BA in music, 17-odd years piano lessons, former piano teacher and choral accompanist), they fascinate me.

The music teacher is currently working on rhythm. Only about half of the students have any kind of sense of rhythm; some students have trouble marching to a steady beat.

In my past history as a piano teacher, I might have done something like the whole… um, hard to explain without the visuals, but there’s this technique where you clap your hands for each quarter note, and then clap your hands and clasp them together and do this circle thing for a half note (so it takes twice as long), etc.

But the Hyderabadi music teacher had a different approach. He asked the students to sing a folk song.

Immediately one student launched into this fast-paced Telugu song, with all kinds of syncopated rhythms, and the entire class joined in. They had no trouble with the rhythms when they were singing, and the song clipped by at a very steady pace.

So the teacher stopped them, and started them clapping again in quarter notes (crotchets, if we want to be particular). Then he asked them to start the song again and keep clapping. It fell apart.

The teacher continued this exercise, asking the students in turn to march to the song, to dance to the song, etc. and by the end of the two-hour session they were beginning to see how the steady beat fit with what they were singing.

The teacher said that every day they would continue this practice, using different folk songs. Everyone, including me, was requested to bring a folk song to class.

Of course I was swarmed by the students afterwards and asked to sing “a U.S. folk song.” And, despite all my music training, my mind went blank. Finally I remembered that old Dan Tucker had once been too late to get his supper, and I dug up the chorus to sing to them, although I couldn’t for the life of me remember any of the verses.

But I am still puzzled by what constitutes a U.S. folk song. The problem, I think, is that the United States is both too stratified and too amnesiac. That is, the U.S. has so many cultural influences and diverse groups that there is no one category of “folk” songs that an entire population might know; and, of course, that the U.S. rarely bothers hanging on to memories of old songs, as we are always trying to sell new ones.

Yes, there is a category of European-American “folk music” which includes songs like Old Dan Tucker and Polly Wolly Doodle, but nobody ever sings those songs. If I were sitting in a classroom full of American college students and asked to sing something that everyone would know and could join in on, I would have to go with something like “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

And that’s just sad.

So… what will I sing for these students, when it is my turn? I thought about a spiritual, since that is an authentically American musical form, but I don’t want to bring religion into the mix. It has to be something simple, with very few lyrics, that is easy to pick up and easy to clap to.

And then I had an inspiration, from what is perhaps another sub-genre of American “folk music:” camp songs.

I’m going to teach them “The Song That Doesn’t End.”

Yes, I’m evil. ^__^


Daniel said...

What about Yankee Doodle, On top of Old Smokey, Greensleeves, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Clementine (Oh my Darlin'!), or the Yellow Rose of Texas for old-time American style tunes?

The Kingston Trio, the Everly Brothers, Peter, Paul and Mary, and singers of their ilk sang folk songs of the 60s too.

They Called the Wind Mariah! I love that song. Or, Where Have All the Flowers Gone!

I'm just bursting w/ Folk Tunes!

Anonymous said...

Daniel, you beat me to this comment.

Most of what I would have said is already here (though I would have added “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” – and as a good Ohioan, the one about the mule named Sal who worked on the Erie Canal. Does that song have a title?). As for these songs being European-American, we also have a wealth of African-American work songs and spirituals, as you pointed out. And I think the songs we’ve mentioned are alive and well, if mostly on children’s singalong CDs. (Maybe a sign of the education value we assign to them?)

But the bigger question, and it’s implicit in Daniel’s comment, is what do you mean by folk? Is it the things that find their way into Reader’s Digest Songbooks? Do folk songs need to have cultural meaning, or do silly / fun songs like “Polly Wolly Doodle” count? If the author is known, is it still “folk”? Does folk rock count? Is it anyone with an acoustic guitar and an untrained voice?

I would be really curious to know more about the song you heard in that class, and what made it a folk song – in particular, how old was it, and what is the historical context? If it was in Telugu, the chances are slim that someone from one of the other 20+ other language communities would have known it too. Is that different from the US not having songs that an entire population might know? (Yes, I know the US is diverse. Diversity is on the Miami Plan, and that’s evidence enough, right? But don’t forget how diverse India is too.)

True, more of us know the lyrics to current songs – the majority can’t even sing the national anthem. But I suspect that young Indians would be just as likely to find common ground in a blockbuster film tune as we do in Britney Spears. Which is all just a long-winded way to say that if folk songs are dying (which I don’t believe they are), I don’t think they’re worse off in the US than anywhere else.

*Full disclosure – Dover has several collections of American folk songs which I’ve coveted for a while, along with the rest of their catalog. I won’t try posting the whole link again – go to, then Subject Directory, then Music, then Popular. This is what I think of when I hear “folk” – is that what you had in mind too?


Blue said...

You two totally pwned me in terms of naming folk songs.

And the comment about the Miami Plan was great.

Susan, you remember from your trip how many people you would meet who were singing while they were working/walking/eating/whatever? I'm curious to know what kind of songs those are. Singing in public is a cultural norm that the U.S. does not share, and so that may be another reason why we collectively know fewer songs.

I should ask the music teacher here exactly what songs the students are singing, and how old they are, and why they constitute "folk."

(He has, btw, forbidden the students to sing filmi songs. ^__^)

Daniel said...

There's a bunch of Jewish folksy tunes--you could teach'em some of those...

Every culture's got'em--why not share your European-American ones w/ them??