folk singer

Singing Tradition – Idea File

Students learn folk songs and the stories behind them, then research folk songs that are a part of their own family or culture.
Grades: 3-5

“FooBoo Woo Boo John” performed by Mike Seeger

Teaching Concepts:

  • Traditional folk music is music of common people and is handed down from one generation to the next.
  • Immigrants bring their music with them when they move.
  • Studying folk music helps students understand and appreciate the people who sing and perform it.

Academic Content

  • Music: purposes of music
  • Music and Social Studies: cultures (American, Appalachian, African-American, etc.)

Lesson Idea
Additional Resources: Feel free to include other performances from Old Music for New Ears, such as “Shady Grove” by Jean Ritchie, “So Go Rabbit” by the Reel World String Band, or “Bushy Tail” by Malcolm Dalglish.

Open: Write on the board:

“Folk music is not owned by anyone. It belongs to all of us.”
—folksinger John McCutcheon

View: Any or all of the selections from Old Music for New Ears. Mike Seeger sings several traditional songs that have been passed down for many generations. Versions of the song “Foo Boo Woo Boo John,” for instance, are also known in England and come from the oldest traditions. As with most of the oldest English songs, it was originally sung without any instrumental accompaniment, but Seeger says he added the trump, or jaw harp, interlude when he learned the song. The other songs also have stories behind them (see the teacher’s guide for details). Talk about where each of the songs came from and how the songs often get altered as they are passed down. Ask whether any of the students know one of the songs performed. Do they sing it the same way, with the same lyrics, or do they know a different version?

Find Out: Ask students whether there are songs they learned from their parents, grandparents, sisters or brothers, other relatives, or close friends of the family. Did they sing “Skip to My Lou” or “Oh Susannah”? Have students brainstorm a list of folk songs.

Family Songs: Have each student talk to an older family member or family friend about songs they remember from their childhood. Ask students to “collect” the song; that is, to learn the song and the family member’s or friend’s story about how he or she learned the song, when/where it was sung, and where it came from. Have each child present his/her song and teach it to the class.

Extend: Make a class list of things students learn about one another from the songs they have collected (e.g., where people came from, occasions when they sang songs, how similar songs are different, etc.).

Author: Sara O’Keefe

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K-12The Arts