Sunday, August 2, 2020

Folksongs term 1, 2020-2021

My usual pleadings: Folksongs are for singing. Please sing.
 Folksongs, by their nature and definition shift, change, are reshaped by time and the process of being passed down. They sometimes seem to reshape themselves. Lyrics vary. If you find a version you want to listen to and the lyrics are different from those posted below, it does not matter. If you need to fix that, just fix it. Print out the lyrics and take a pen to them, cross out what you don't want, ink in the words you prefer. Or just sing your version alongside t'other one. It's okay if you sing Spanish enemy while the recording artists are singing Turkish enemy.

Suggestion: Learn just the first verse and the chorus using a recording of somebody else's performance.  Add the subsequent verses one by one, without using a recording.
Play the folksongs as background music while doing chores and see if reluctant singers don't find themselves singing along.

Scientifically- music has always been a part of human culture.  Literacy has not. To Be verbs are not part of every language. Every culture sings. Singing increases happy hormones and regulates heart rhythms and breathing. Singing together increases a sense of cooperation and bonding. Let that work for you.  Sing together and let the bonding begin. It will grease the gears of your homelife.

 Term One:
 Follow the Drinking Gourd
The Golden Vanity
Down by the Bay

 Playlist on youtube will be announced .

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting 
for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd

 When the sun comes up [or back]
And the first quail calls
 Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting
For to carry you to freedom
 Follow the drinking gourd


The riverbed makes a mighty fine road
Dead trees to show you the way
And it's left foot, peg foot travelling on
Follow the drinking gourd

The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There's another river on the other side

Follow the drinking gourd


collected by H. B. Parks, an entomologist and amateur folklorist, in the 1910s, unpublished until 1928
 Whether this specific song was truly sung by enslaved black Americans in the 19th century is debated. Parks is the only one to have heard it and he claims to have heard it two different places.  What is not debated is that many did escape by taking the drinking gourd, the Big Dipper, the North Star as a guide. More here.

Taj Mahal sings it here (an Amazon song you can download)
Kim and Reggie Harris sing it here (.99 to download)

  The Golden Vanity

 This is a very sad sea song with a charming tune.  It is a charming tune that has vast sticking power and you won't be able to stop humming 'on the lowland, lowland low, as she sailed upon the lowland sea' at odd times for the rest of the school year, maybe longer.  I share it because I love you all so much and it makes me so happy when you write to tell me stories of your children singing it 2,000 times a day and you catch yourself humming it and cannot stop.  It is at least as old as the time of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Drake. Imagine! You are subjected to an ear-worm that has been around since at least 1685! Doesn't it give you goosebumps?

 In some versions the enemy ship is Spanish, in some she's Turkish, because of course, it's quite adaptable to whatever enemy you happen to be at war with, including your brother in the swimming pool.

  Burl Ives version- free for Prime members, .99 for others. It's a Spanish ship here.
  Peter, Paul, and Mary version for 1.29

  The Golden Vanity
 Oh there was a lofty ship and a lofty ship was she
And the name of that ship it was the Golden Vanity
And she feared she would be taken by the Turkish Enemy
As she sailed on the lowland, lowland low
As she sailed on the lowland sea.

 Up stepped a little cabin boy, and boldly outspoke he.
And he said to the Captain, "what will you give to me
If I sneak alongside of the Turkish Enemy
And I sink her in the lowland, lowland low
And I sink her in the lowland sea?"

 "Oh, I will give you silver, and I will give you gold,
 And the hand of my daughter your bonnie bride will be,
If you'll sneak alongside of the Turkish Enemy
 And you'll sink her in the lowland, lowland, low
 And you'll sink her in the lowland sea.

 So he jumped overboard, and overboard jumped he
 And he swam alongside of the Turkish Enemy,
And with a little drilling tool he boar-ed holes three,
And he sank her in the lowland, lowland, low
He sank her in the lowland sea.

 Then quickly he swam back to the cheering of the crew
But the captain did not heed him for his promise he did rue
And he spurned his poor entreatings when loudly he did sue
And he left him in the lowland, lowland, low- He left him in the lowland sea.

Then quickly he swam around to the port side
and up unto his messmates full bitterly he cried.
Oh messmates draw me up, for I'm drifting with the tide
and I'm sinking in the lowland, lowland low,
I'm sinking in the lowland sea.

 Well, his shipmates brought him out, but on the deck he died,
And they stitched him in hammock that was so soft and wide,
And they lowered him overboard and he drifted with the tide,
And he sank into the lowland, lowland, low
He sank into the lowland sea.

 And he sank beneath the lowland, lowland, low... He sank beneath the lowland sea.

 A few versions add a couple of verses where the Captain also drowns, often haunted by the memory of the dirty trick he played on the cabin boy,  but they come from a later time period, one where we as a people felt the need to tack a moral on to the end of every song, tale, and ditty, rather spoiling the effect, in my opinion.

Or perhaps what altered was the view of a person's place in the world, an issue of democracy vs hierarchy- and the moral of the first few centuries of singing the song was that cabin boys ought to do the right thing because it is their duty, and not seek to rise above their station by receiving gold, silver, and the captain's daughter for merely performing their duty. Most sailors, btw, did not learn to swim. It was something of a superstition. So a cabin boy who could swim is rather remarkable.

 This song was also part of one of the collections used by Mason's PNEU schools, and I think I recall seeing this specific title listed in one of the Programmes. We are a bit more squeamish about these things in our own day, are we not? And yet, David had Uriah killed in an act as unjust as this one, and those in power break their promises to their underlings and see them die for it throughout history. And honestly, sometimes a tuneful, sad song is just what the heart needs to sing, even if it makes you cry.

  Down by the Bay This silly song is a palate cleanser after the tragedy of the cabin boy.

Raffi, of course (for purchase): has a kid version, and here's a version free for streaming to prime members or .99 for others.
You can sing the song straight through all together in unison.  You can also sing it as echo song, where every line is sung by one person, then echoed by the others, until you get to "Did you ever see a ....". Everybody sings that line together.

 Down by the Bay
 Where the watermelons grow
 Back to my home,
 I dare not go.
 For if I do
 My mother will say
 Did you ever see...
A goose, riding a caboose
Down by the bay?

There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of variations on the second to the last line, and you can have fun creating your own.  Samples:
  the moon holding a balloon?
a whale with a polka-dot tale?
 a pig wearing a wig?
 a goose kissing a moose?
 a bear combing his hair?
a llama wearing pink pajamas?
mouse building a house?
bee sipping green tea?
Rook reading a book?
frog dancing on a log?
 Did you ever have a time when you couldn't rhyme?

 This is a song to play with. You can sing it fast or slow. You can sing it so that one person sings and the others sing an echo line. You can play with harmonizing. You can, of course, make up your own rhyming questions. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't need to mean anything. It's silly fun.  Some of your kids will find it comes naturally to drag out and really ham up the last expression of Downnnn byyyyyyyy theeeeeeeeeeeeee Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. (Guess how I know).

Based on my reading, it's probably a song soldiers made up around WWI and they used part of a Greek folk song for the tune, which is catchy, fast, easy to learn, quickly picked up.  The infinite possibility of goofy verses makes it a good song for a group on a bus or car trip to sing. It's just clean goofy fun.

If you want to hear the older Greek folk song-you can hear it here, starting at the 29 second mark:  Or here starting at 1:27: 

From what I can grasp from comments, the Greek version is a folk song about being down by the seashore and longing for the singer's true love.

My youtube playlist for the year


  1. I've been doing AO for 7 years and am finally dipping my toe into folksongs... thank you, Wendi, for making it so user friendly.

  2. We love making folk songs part of our life! It's always fun when there are songs that are new to me also that my kids and I can learn together. Thank you for the background information and your work in the well thought out selection process to help us enrich our lives with music!

  3. This is a huge help. I'm so excited. Ty so much for putting these together.

  4. Wendi, thank you so much for this work! I listened to The Drinking Gourd exactly one time yesterday. Having never heard it before, I was quite shocked at how quickly and thoroughly it has wiggled into my brain. In fact, I'm almost looking forward to listening to the Golden Vanity, despite your "warning", as it will give my brain a second tune to whisper to me at night. :)

  5. This is our first year using Ambleside and we are loving the folk song! We found a version of The Drinking Gourd by singers Joe Gilbert & Eddie Brown. It's a fantastic rendition of the song. It's such a soulful version! Check it out if you can.

  6. Re: Golden Vanity, do you mean since 1585?

  7. When my firstborn was a cranky baby who HATED to ride in the car my mother, sister, and I would sing DBTB in 3-part harmony (with me taking the melody because that’s all I can do) for entire car rides. My sister learned it in her middle school chorus class and we’ve loved it ever since. My dad gets credit for the very best made-up line ever. “Did you ever see a camel skate like Dorothy Hamill?” 🤣🤣🤣

  8. We are in AO year 1 and my 2 year old is tagging along (he turns 3 in December). I can not tell you how much joy I have had in just these past 2 months sharing these folksongs with them. We found the Pete Seeger version of Golden Vanity and my 2 year old LOVES it! One of my most favorite memories so far has been their desire to go outside at night and find the Drinking Gourd. Thank you so much for the work yall do!!!