Folk songs in the classroom offer numerous ways to build a strong and engaging music curriculum.
Recent surveys by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) show that its members are in near-unanimity in favor of teaching American heritage folk songs as a major part of the music curriculum.
Zoltán Kodály, an early 20th-century Hungarian musicologist and music educator, held folk songs in the highest esteem as musical teaching tools. Today, teachers around the world make use of folk songs either through lessons based on the Kodály method or informally, as a means of enhancing the music curriculum and the study of other subjects.
At the heart of the Kodály method is instruction in singing, movement, and playing musical instruments, with folk songs as the core content. This helps children to learn the traditional songs of their own cultures, and develop an appreciation for the richness of other cultures as well.
Read on for some more interesting ways to use folk music in the classroom and beyond.
Simple examples to inform music lessons
Folk songs, with their simple, repetitive musical phrasing, can serve as excellent means for teaching the basics of musical notation, harmony, tempo, rhythm, pitch, and artistic expressiveness.
A wealth of classroom uses
Folk songs also afford an opportunity to enrich STEM- and STEAM-focused learning. They can be used in physics classes to illustrate the science of sound, in art programs in conjunction with an activity involving making musical instruments, or as examples of various points in American and world history.
With their catchy, easy-to-remember lyrics and rhythms, folk songs have become key components of popular repertoires for school bands, choral groups, and dance troupes.
A springboard for creativity
Because they’re highly adaptable, folk songs can accompany any number of games or playground activities. They encourage movement and the physical joy inherent in music.
Children can enhance the experience themselves by creating their own dances and games to accompany the songs. They can write pastiches that employ similar themes, or update the songs’ historical themes in amusing ways.
A way to strengthen memory and memorization skills
Their easy-to-recall rhythms and refrains make folk songs excellent tools for training the memory, as well as helping with recall. For instance, in adults with dementia and other cognitive disorders, the simple, familiar lyrics and melodies of traditional folk songs can bring about pleasant and soothing associations with their childhood.
Refining children’s ear for language
Folk songs can help children to expand their vocabulary through the use of rare and unusual words. Students may not immediately understand some of the dated language in a song, but once they learn the new words, they will have added to their store of language, as well as to their ability to express themselves and communicate within a new framework of ideas.
A number of researchers have drawn a strong connection between learning folk songs and learning the finer points of English grammar and syntax. Thanks to the memorable patterns of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition found in folk songs, this learning technique can be especially useful and meaningful for English language learners.
Additionally, folk songs can help listeners to mirror and model correct word pronunciation and accent, while repeated singing or listening to a folk song will continue to reinforce the grammar and articulation of that particular song.
A web of historical connections
Through folk songs, students learn not only about their musical heritage, but about the historical events that have shaped this heritage—and their own lives. These songs connect children to generations of people—in their culture and in others—who have come before them, and whose lives made the world what it is today.
On its website, NAfME lists a number of American folk song genres that have developed over time, each deserving a closer look from teachers and students. These include African-American spirituals, Shaker tunes, songs of the Civil War, and work songs sung by railroad workers, seamen, and cowboys. Each can provide an intimate insight into what the lives of a wide range of Americans were like.
A few historical examples
Teachers who devote time to teaching some of the history behind folk songs have found that it often piques their students’ interest in learning more about the historical topics addressed. Children often enjoy hearing about the origin of a song and its history as played, sung, and danced to by various peoples over time.
Some teachers find that folk songs are a good fit with material geared to meeting state core educational standards. For example, many states’ official state songs are folk songs comprising multiple historical references, and as such are culturally, musically, and historically a part of every American child’s history.
For example, “Yankee Doodle,” sung during the American Revolution by British and Colonial soldiers alike, is the state song of Connecticut. The official state gospel song of Oklahoma is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to the former slave Wallace Willis, who, upon seeing Oklahoma’s Red River, is said to have been reminded of the Jordan River and the Bible story of the prophet Elijah being lifted into heaven in a chariot.
The song “Shenandoah,” also known as “‘Cross the Wide Missouri,” is said to have originated with the French adventurers and fur traders, called voyageurs, who traveled along the Missouri River in the early days of the European push westward in North America. The song references a voyageur who fell in love with a Native American woman. It later was widely adopted by American sailors. Its mysterious references and simple, haunting melody have kept it at the center of the American folk song corpus for generations.
Recordings of songs like “Shenandoah” can additionally serve to acquaint children with great singers in the American popular canon, such as Paul Robeson. In the 1930s, Robeson recorded a number of versions of the “Shenandoah” tune. Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits have also recorded their own versions. Comparison of the various versions of the song could be particularly instructive for older students studying vocal interpretation.