Folk Songs, Unplugged

by Lynn Bruce
on behalf of the AmblesideOnline Advisory

Last night, my family and forty-thousand strangers rocked a Rangers game with a hearty round of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." As the jumbotron quickly scanned hundreds of faces around the stadium, it struck me: everyone here knows this song. In less than a minute, a simple folk song made a momentary village of a diverse horde of strangers.

This is why folks songs endure: they help us get to the good parts of our shared humanness.

If we could travel through time we would find, in any country and every age, people lovingly teaching children the folk songs of their native lands. These songs are bright, easy doorways to many living connections--to cultures, to history, to stories, to our fellow citizens, to older generations, and more. And every now and then, even to forty-thousand fellow baseball fans!

Perhaps more importantly, though, folk songs have always been the doorway through which children find their own voices. Through these simple songs, children learn to bring themselves to a tune, to sing comfortably with others, to know the merry uplift of fellow-mirth in song, to take their part in the quintessentially human act of making music.

We are all heirs of this tradition, but we are also the first generation to raise children in a digital age. This is significant, and it changes things. Unlike any generation prior, professionally produced music is now instantly accessible to us everywhere, all the time. In this new environment, it's not surprising that people begin to apprehend music, even folk music, as something experts do for us, not something ordinary folk make for themselves. This is surely the weirdest irony in the long history of folk music.

We can enjoy all the benefits of digital music and yet still preserve this essential element of childhood. Like every generation before us, we simply have to be intentional about it--and maybe a little moreso.

Do your children sing more tentatively than your grandparents did? Do they think singing is something best done by people with microphones and video crews? Much of the singing our children hear today is essentially post-human sound. Their ears--and ours--have grown accustomed to singing that is technologically altered, over-dubbed, looped, and pitch-corrected into an eery, mechanical perfection. Children are all-too-aware that they cannot reproduce the slick, unnatural singing styles which they consider normal.

In reality, your children sound like human folk have always sounded. They sound natural.

Thankfully, we have Charlotte Mason's timeless principles to remind us that children are born persons--not digital data files. This is why our objective for AO folk music study is absolutely separate from the objectives of professional musicianship. Our objective is participation, not perfection.

You will find your child's happiest experience with these folk songs will be more closely aligned in spirit with the process of learning to play a game than with entertainment. Therefore, we encourage teachers to avoid over-emphasizing the use of professional productions of folk music as teaching aids. If your children half-heartedly sing along in a muttery, muddy, self-conscious manner, try unplugging. Our consistent experience in teaching these songs to groups of children over many years has been that children are much more attentive and enthused participants when we fade out the CDs and YouTube videos and simply leave it to the real, live humans in the room to provide all the energy for the songs.

Videos and recordings, therefore, are primarily your teacher's manual for folk song study.

Optimally, the goal is for your children to become people who can enjoy singing these songs spontaneously, without technical aids. As your children gain the confidence and joy that comes from that, we are sure you will begin to appreciate more and more that this is a beautiful skill to have, a delightful cultivator of spontaneity which will make these songs easily accessible in everyday life.

If you simply feel more comfortable playing recorded versions of these songs for your children to learn the tunes and lyrics, do try to choose videos and recordings which incarnate your teaching objective as much as possible. What do we mean by this? The recordings you choose should communicate an overall sense that singing folk songs is something ordinary people can do in their backyards, their kitchens, on road trips, camping--and not something you shouldn't try unless you have a road crew and a backup band.

This does not mean we are categorically grumpy about professional recordings of folk music. Actually, there are many that we positively adore and play in our own homes. You will see in our video suggestions a smattering of world-class artists such as Maddy Prior, Bonnie Rideout, Waterson Carthy, and Nickel Creek, because there is value in respecting that many of these enduring tunes are worthy of beautiful musicianship.

However, many of the versions which we prefer to listen to are not at all conducive to helping our children learn the song--maybe the pitch is too high, or the words are not clear, or the interpretation takes too much artistic license with the song. Maybe it's just too slick and intimidating! In such cases, you will be much better off choosing a recording that it is less agreeable to your taste but more accessible for you and your children to sing along with.

We encourage you to give preference to videos of real live families, kids, community gatherings, grandmas and grandpas having a really good time with these tunes. That is what best incarnates the spirit of how AO families--and all people, actually--learn to love folk songs.

Folk music has always been passed down this way--in the context of relationships. (For the CM teacher, this is an invigorating thought, as it fits folk music squarely into CM's living idea of the science of relations.) Ideally, your family members will simply sing these songs with and to one another, learning and enjoying them in the warm, lively atmosphere of your relationships.

Remember: participation, not perfection.

But, you may still ask, isn't it better for children to hear beautifully produced music? Won't all this flawed amateur singing impede our high standards for music appreciation?

Our experience is that it actually does the opposite. Folk music provides the unique playground where music can be about process, not about product. This is a profoundly important distinction. This process is a vitally essential element of well-rounded music education. Does a Kathleen Battle or a Josh Groban discover they have a voice by listening to Callas or Pavarotti singing Puccini? No, rather by playing around roughshod with accessible tunes with their wobbly, childish voices. (And Battle has said that she learned how her little voice could soar by singing hymns in the spirited gospel choir of her childhood church. Thankfully for all of us, her church body embraced the imperfect efforts of immature voices!)

Secondly, through our composer studies, your AO students are continually steeped in near-flawless performances of the most beautiful music ever produced on this planet. For that, yes, we want gorgeous production and top-notch musicianship. The salient point is that we are not asking the children to reproduce that--and they know this.

Folk songs help us to be more fully human. We love knowing these songs. It makes us ready and able to join in the fun, to take our part in the cultural tradition to which we belong, to reach across generations with ease, to just get some merry air in our stale lungs now and then. We hope your children will have all of that, too.

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