Monday, July 29, 2019

Folk Songs, some back-story

  Here is some of the backstory and supplemental information on AO and our use of folk songs for those who like that sort of thing.

Back when we first added folksongs to the AO curriculum, we only had one song per term. Although it had been done before, folksongs as part of the school curriculum was a new idea to many homeschoolers, and folksongs as part of a CM curriculum was a startling idea to others. They had not realized Miss Mason did this.

Although a Charlotte Mason education is not utilitarian by principle, still, many people wanted a utilitarian justification for including folk songs in their school day- what good will this do, why do they need to know this, and what is the purpose, that sort of thing.  The benefits of singing folk song are not utilitarian, and I personally find them so delightful that I find myself feeling inarticulate and dumb when I try to explain.  I also feel that the best way to learn the justification for singing folk songs is, well, , . just to start singing them and see what happens.  That's the hardest step for the reluctant parents who want convincing, but it's the most effective.

So we started with one folk song per term. Over time, many of our people, mostly those who tried them, quickly began to enjoy the folk songs and see the value in singing them.  They wanted more.So
we were able to add more than one song per term, which makes me very happy.

Btw, iust in case you have tried the folksongs in AO's line up and didn't find they resonated with you, don't give up.  There are thousands and thousands of folk songs from just as many traditions, cultures, and peoples.  There must be one that works for you and your family, because this singing of folk songs is a deeply human endeavor. There are illiterate cultures.  There are no cultures I have heard of with no music.  So look around and find some older, music of the people tradition that *does* speak to your children.  One more bit of freeby advice- don't decide too quickly *for* your children.  Unless there is a serious, well informed moral reason to object to a song, keep your opinions in check, engage cheerfully, and let the children develop their own tastes without relying on you to be their only curator for their relationship to folksongs.

 We originally started by relying on midi files, but in my defense, youtube didn't really start until a couple of years later.  Along the way as we improve and broaden our folksong selections, we hear more and more from families who are amazed at how much they add to their school days and family life in general.  Of course, there continue to be those  who don't see the benefit and aren't interested in just trying it out, and I remain inarticulate enough in this baffling (to me) recalitrance that I am unable to persuade those families that they are truly missing something special, a playful, happy part of the day as practical as a baby's laugh, but nearly as much of a blessing.  And so they continue to miss out, and I feel guilty about my inadequacies and a bit sad.

 There were once more than a few who liked the songs  well enough but were not convinced that Mason thought folk songs were of much importance (You might be surprised if I named names!) or doubted that she even used them in her schools.

 There is some evidence within the six volumes if you know what to look for, and more in her programmes and schedules. But the clearest evidence of all is found in a little journal nicknamed 'the plant' by those who edited, published, and subscribed to it.

 Charlotte Mason started a little college where she trained young women in her principles, equipping them to become teachers and governesses- and mothers! The school was called The House of Education.
 "In 1895, the House of Education Old Students' Association was formed to provide current and "old" students who were scattered abroad, opportunities to keep in touch and provide mutual support. In 1896 they began publishing the magazine, L'Umile Pianta, named after a plant growing near Ambleside, which Charlotte Mason admired for its ability to bend without breaking. This plant was also pictured on the House of Education's medal, with the motto "For the Children's Sake." The motto was used as the subtitle for the magazine. From 1896 to 1900 it was published twice each year; from 1901-1906 it came out three times per year and from 1907 onwards it was a quarterly. Issues were bound without covers or title pages." 
From the   Charlotte Mason Digital Archives at

 In  the September, 1911 edition of 'the plant', there is an article on folk music for children, where we read:
 "Some Excellent collections [of folk songs] are now published, but quite the best is a book by Rev. Baring Gould, who has collected the words of the songs in going through the country and getting the old people to sing to him the songs passed down from father to son. The music to these has been composed by M. Cecil Sharp, who has harmonised the exact melodies used by the people."

 That book is Folk Songs for Children or Schools, by Baring Gould, online here.
I have a playlist on youtube where I have been collecting recordings of the songs from this book, although I cannot guarantee that each of these is using precisely the same lyrics as Baring Gould did. He and Sharp sometimes tidied up their lyrics.

 There are several other L'Umile Pianta volumes that mention the use of folk songs and even suggest resources. I particularly like this one because the author not only recommends the Baring Gold volume and a handful of other folk song anthologies, she also recommends a few specific individual folk-songs, such as The Three Tailors (said by the author to be 'a charming song'), Strawberry Fair, The Three Wagoneers, the Three Sons, and Oh, No John.  I like looking at specific practices and recommendations because it helps me extrapolate some principles, but we do have to be careful not to mistake practice for principles.

 Since the author referred to the Three Tailors as a charming song, I especially wanted to know more about it. I found that Eugene Field worked it into a poem of his own. You can read it here. There is an old version sung here.

 The gist of the ballad is that three wine loving tailors try to trick a landlord into giving them free wine in exchange for magic tricks they do with a needle, but they aren't real tricks, and he sees through them and rewards them with a thimble full of wine and tells them to get drunk on that. Put out at their trick being used against them, they nail his ears to the door and ride away. (!)

 We're not doing that song in AO.
I personally wouldn't mind it so much.  I have a warped sense of humour and I like the macabre but I don't create the Folk Song line up for my own gratification and pleasure.  I try to keep in mind that we have thousands of others using our playlist. every year I think I've cleared the songs enough to suit everybody and every year I discover I missed something or somebody else has misunderstood something, or I am just am reminded anew that we can't please everybody all the time, and we each have to make decisions for our own families. But I try to consider how others might see these songs when making decisions.  It didn't take any thinking about it at all to recognize that a song about  3 rascals nailing the landlord's ears to the door because he won't let them get drunk for free and then stealing his wine and  riding off scot-free doesn't seem like a song the majority of our families would prefer to have their little ones sing.  Yet, remember, this is a song the author of the L'umile Pianta article described as a charming song!

 It's entirely possible that the version the L'umile Pianta author recommended as a charming song is different in some way. Or, since readership of L'Umile Pianta was a small and close-knit group, perhaps everybody knew the lyrics already, and they also knew the author of the article and it was an inside joke and she was being facetious. We can only know so much from merely reading these old archives, and must speculate to fill in the gaps.  Nothing wrong with a little bit of speculative filling in of gaps, so long as we speculate with humility and honestly and do not ever impose our speculations on others as authoritative statements of How Things Are You Silly Women Who Do Not Do As I Say.  (please giggle, just a little?)

 Another specific song recommend is Strawberry Fair, and the Baring Gold version is quite sweet:

 1 As I was going to Strawberry Fair,
Singing, singing, buttercups and daisies, I met a maiden taking her ware,
Fol-de-dee! Her eyes were blue and golden her hair, As she went on to Strawberry Fair, Ri-fol, Ri-fol, Tol-de-riddle-li-do, Ri-fol, Ri-fol, Tol-de-riddle-dee.
2   "Kind sir, pray pick of my basket!" she said,
Singing, singing, buttercups and daisies, "My cherries ripe, or my roses red,
Fol-de-dee ! My strawberries sweet, I can of them spare, As I go on to Strawberry Fair." Ri-fol, &c.
3   Your cherries soon will be wasted away,
Singing, singing, buttercups and daisies, Your roses wither and never stay,
Fol-de-dee! 'Tis not to seek such perishing ware, That I am tramping to Strawberry Fair. Ri-fol, &c.
4   I want to purchase a generous heart,
Singing, singing, buttercups and daisies, A tongue that is neither nimble nor tart.
Fol-de-dee! An honest mind, but such trifles are rare, I doubt if they're found at Strawberry Fair. Ri-fol, &c.
5   The price I offer, my sweet pretty maid,
Singing, singing, buttercups and daisies, A ring of g. old on your finger displayed,
Fol-de-dee! So come, make over to me your ware In church to-day at Strawberry Fair. Ri-fol, Ri-fol, Tol-de-riddle-li-do, Ri-fol, Ri-fol, Tol-de-riddle-dee.

However, this version is sanitized. The original is more risque (you can read the lyrics and listen to it here), and I can find only one example of the prettily sanitized Baring-Gold version on youtube.  That doesn't mean there aren't others, I just could not find them. So I could not really include this one, either.  Perhaps later somebody else will add some other renditions we could use.  Meanwhile.... You can listen to the one I found here and see what you think about why I didn't include it.

 Of course, there's no reason you can't use any folk song you like for your own family!  Please do!  The folk songs AO suggests are there to help you, not to restrict you.  If you are not a part of one of the English speaking nations with origins in England or one of its English speaking colonies, you should definitely be looking for folk songs in your own culture and language.  I can't really help you do this because that would be arrogant and ridiculous, since I have not the background knowledge necessary for that.  Ask your grandparents, your great aunts and uncles, the elderly relatives of friends and acquaintances, see if anybody has made a study of your culture's folk music (ask the music departments of your country's universities, check libraries if you have access to them, look for buskers in your town and ask them if they know any old songs.)Your elderly relatives would probably be thrilled to share what they know.

  I was deeply blessed and encouraged at our camp in TN this past summer when a lovely Brazilian mother living in America  told me that singing the native folk music of her home country had been a beautiful, rich way for her kids to connect with their grandparents back home, and improve their accents and vocabulary at the same time.  Singing folk songs connects generations, she told me, and it gave me goosebumps of delight to think about it, it really did, right then and there.  Singing folk songs connects generations. 

 Sing.  Sing together. Sing the  happy songs, the sad songs, the tragic songs, the silly songs, the work songs, the love songs, the ballads and the nonsensical songs.   Sing.

In my opinion, the primary principle for folksongs in a Charlotte Mason education is just that: sing them.  Sing them. This is about participatory, active, personal involvement, not a consumer or spectator activity.  It doesn't matter if you don't like how you sound. Sing anyway.  It doesn't matter if you've never done this before. Sing anyway. There are sound physiological reasons for this- singing increases happy hormones, reduces stress, regulates your breathing.  Research shows that singing together is an activity that improves bonding, strengthens relationships, and just makes people feel more connected to each other- and couldn't we all use more of that in a family? It doesn't take more time, it saves you time, as by taking time to sing fun folk songs together you not only get the benefits that come from the act of singing, you lighten your day, increasing the sense of cooperative, unified spirit as folk singing does will repay you by making the rest of your day go more smoothly.

Hymns also do this, but hymns are not usually pitched in the easy, suitable for children way that folk songs are. They aren't about silly situations, they don't have the seemingly meaningless but rhythmic fol de rol refrains that give children mouth music and play with sounds and syllables and rhyme scheme.  You can play around with folk songs, singing them together as you do chores, go on road trips, sit in the dark during a power outage,  playfully messing about with the lyrics to make them funny, to make them match what you are doing or things that are happening in your lives in ways that might feel irreverent should you try them with hymns. 

I know I've said all this before, but we also have new families who are hearing this for the first time.

Please, give them a fair trial if you haven't already and sing folk songs together.


  1. This is a lovely post Wendi, thank you. I was one of those who for many years wasn't sure what the point of doing folk songs was. I finally added them into our schedule only about 3 years ago (I've been homeschooling about 12 years) - and I must say, it is possibly our favourite part of school now! Some of the songs my kids have just adored. Just this morning my 8 year old daughter, while we were doing chores, was going around the house singing The Outlandish Knight. Learning folk songs has definitely added enjoyment to our education!

  2. Thank YOU for your encouraging words, and thanks for sharing your story with us. I am so glad your family has enjoyed them!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to articulate this, Wendi- and for all the time and research you put into introducing us to folk songs! We fully stepped into AO last year but I hadn’t done much with folk songs... honestly singing Happy Wanderer at camp meeting was what made the lightbulb turn on for me. It runs through my head quite frequently. Looking forward to being more deliberate with folk songs this year!

  4. Excellent post. My favorite line is “I have a warped sense of humour and I like the macabre...” me too! Carry on.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post! We have completed year 1, and while I did not question or resist the use of folksongs, I was surprised at how much we enjoyed them. Thank you for all your research and dedication.