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Fine Arts Friday: Folk Songs

The idea of teaching fine arts to our children can be intimidating.  The term calls to mind images of well-lit studios, beautiful (and expensive) instruments, and advanced knowledge and skills that require an expert to teach.  (That’s not actually true, as I’ll demonstrate with my exquisite in-expertise in coming posts, but we’ll save that for later.)  Needless to say, when we talk about teaching fine arts to our kids, the average homeschooling mom can be slightly intimidated.

That’s why my favorite of all the “fine arts” subjects Miss Mason recommends is folk songs.  It best demonstrates the idea that the arts are accessible. I’m not blessed with a great voice. I’m not what the world would think of as a singer. Nonetheless, I am a singer. That is God has given me the ability to sing (not particularly well, mind you), and I exercise that ability.

Our culture has redefined the word “singer” to mean not “one who sings” but rather “one who sings well” or “one who sings professionally.” (Note the former apparently isn’t necessary for the latter to be true, more’s the pity.) This is just another example of the tyranny of the expert that has infested our culture. Only certain people can sing, the rest of you will sit back and be bask in the reflected glory of your musical betters.


One of the most powerful images to come from the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing is this scene from a hockey game.

Our national anthem is notoriously difficult to sing “properly,” but you don’t notice that here, do you?  Which do you prefer? Which is more exhilarating, unifying, and moving: the professional singer who begins, or the crowd who joins in and takes over?

Note what I am not saying: I’m not saying there is never a place for excellence or “professionalism” in music. I’m not saying that every song must be a gather-round-the-campfire experience. But I do think music is not only to be received, it is to be created and to be done.  We’ve gone all lopsided where we listen to music 95% of the time and only sing 5% of the time. That should be a lot closer to 50/50 and maybe 30/70.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost not only the tradition of singing in our culture but even more so the tradition of communal singing.  Unless you’re a little kid, you most likely don’t sing much at all. Maybe you sing in the car or the shower. If you catch yourself singing with other people nearby, you almost certainly stop. If you’re a church goer, you probably sing for 20 to 30 minutes at church, but more than likely the volume from the stage drowns out all but those in the immediate vicinity, and often those, too.  Many — perhaps most — churches have moved to a performance centered pattern of worship. The performance of the professionals is what’s critical, and the extent to which the parishioner in the pews joins in must be limited by how it affects the performance.

Giving our children the gift of folk song helps to overcome this “expert” bias. By learning folk songs, we are teaching our children to reject the professional bias model of music. We teach them that they are singers because God created them to sing. We teach them to appreciate music, not in a purely aesthetic sense, or even in an “entertain me!” sense, but as something they can create and enjoy. We also teach them another way to learn and share stories and to connect with our shared history. Folk songs tell stories of true love and true love thwarted; they tell stories of noble heroes and rapacious highwaymen.  When we fill our lives and the lives of our children with story and song, we make our lives richer and more vibrant.  And it’s fun!

The sources of country music
The Sources of Country Music by Thomas Hart Benton

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This is what I recommend: Go online and find a performance and the lyrics of a folk song you want to learn, print out the lyrics and sing along with the folk song. When you’ve got the tune down and the words well enough not to be completely surprised at what comes next, go joyously and tell your kids you have a fun song for them to learn. Because singing folk songs is fun! It’s what our grandparents and great-grandparents and on and on back to Noah did. “The Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody, floody.’”  See? (You’re welcome for that earworm.)

Folk songs tend to have simple, catchy tunes and lyrics that tell stories. They are generally pretty easy to learn because they have traditionally transmitted through oral communication. You’ll also have a good deal of variation in the lyrics of a particular folk song, and there will often be a lot of “I didn’t learn it like that, I learned it like this.” But it all works out in the end.

Lynn Bruce has an excellent article on folk songs at Ambleside Online and she talks about the whys and wherefores of  “Folk songs unplugged.” This is the guiding principle she sets forth (along with a lot of other good stuff, so go read it.): “Our objective is participation, not perfection.”

You can sing along to recorded music; in fact, the co-ops I’ve been involved in did just this. But I don’t recommend it unless you keep the volume low and use it for the tune only. Adults (that would be you) and older kids will be reluctant to sing over the “professional” and will mumble their way through it. I do recommend playing folk song CDs in your home while you’re doing other things (cleaning, building Legos, etc.) and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll soak in.

Which songs do you choose? I grew up singing songs with my grandparents. “The Green Grass Grew All Around,”  “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” and “Mares Eat Oats” are all songs I learned as a child and am teaching my children. I’m not sure all of those count as folk songs, but they instill a love for music and for singing, and they’re fun. So it works for me. In addition, I use the Ambleside Online rotation. The folk song for May is “Wild Colonial Boy”


American Folk Songs for Children is recommended by The Deputy Headmistress from The Common Room, and we’ve found it fun and singable (which is the point.) Her post on folk songs is also helpful, as is the blog in general.

Ambleside Online recommends The Homestead Picker’s “Homeschooler’s Folksong Collection” and use it for their rotation.

But your best resource is the voice God gave you. Now go sing!

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