16 Jul 2011

On singing folksongs

In Australia we have a real legacy to treasure in our wonderful repetoire of Australian folksong. Through their words we learn of our convict heritage (Van Diemen's Land and Ten Thousand Miles Away), our bushrangers (Bold Jack Donohoe and The Wild Colonial Boy), our swaggies (With my Swag all on my Shoulder, as well as Matilda, of course) and our shearers (Click Go the Shears and Flash Jack from Gundagai). We learn what it is to be Australian.

These are songs that have survived the ultimate test - that of time - to become folklore because they resonated in some way with the people who sang them and passed down on through the generations. As such, the songs become pointers of our cultural history and national identity.

Our own Australian identity, as distinct from that of our British forebears, was formed in the pioneering days of the 19th century. We were no longer convicts but free settlers. We fought bushfires, droughts, floods (ugh!), pestilence, and often the Crown. It is this pioneering spirit that makes us the people we are today - regardless of whether as Australians we are recent immigrants or are proud to say we have ancestors who arrived on the First Fleet.

As our lives become more and more complicated, and more and more culturally homogeneous with the nebulous global megaculture of television, we need folksongs more than ever. They are special because they carry the unique stories that are the legacy of our nation. They are a wonderful way to celebrate our own history in this rapidly changing world.

You will not be surprised then to discover that we have diverged significantly from the AO folksong lineup to include many, many more Australian folksongs. In addition to this, there are many songs that while not being necessarily part of my country's heritage, are certainly part of mine. Some are songs I learned at school; some are the very special songs my parents sang to me. These are part of my family heritage, and I want them to become part of my daughter's history as well. Then there are the songs of England - my husband's homeland; the songs of Scotland from whence my dear Dad hailed; and the songs of the Ireland of my mother's family. We spend a term on each of these.

Folksongs integrate really closely with a country. A cursory listen to the folksongs of a country will reveal distinct rhythmic differences. You would never confuse the music of France from that of England, for example, even without the lyrics. The words, too, tell us about a people. The children's songs of France, often talk of bodily functions that are never referred to in our English songs for the same age. Japanese songs do that too. As a consequence of this link between country and song, we learn Japanese folksongs before our regular visits to that country.

For this same reason, folksongs really enhance our foreign language study. We are blessed to have been able to visit France many times. We have many wonderful memories of sing-alongs with friends from that country when they have discovered with delight that Jemimah knows the same French nursery songs as their children do. She might not be able to speak very fluently with them, but in song there is no impediment at all!!

It is difficult to imagine studying the middle ages without including mediaeval music and folksong. We did them both in AO2 with much success, learning such old English songs as Early One Morning; Sumer is icumen; I Gave my Love a Cherry; and Greensleeves. It enhanced our study wonderfully. How could you study Bonnie Prince Charlie without including My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean, or of Australia's involvement in WWI without And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda or of the damming of the Snowy without the Snowy River Roll? For me folk music in inextricably twined with so much of what we learn.

So how do we study folksongs? It always surprises me that this is a subject that homeschoolers neglect. Apart from all the obvious benefits from their study, singing folksongs is FUN! There are no rules in how you sing them. There is no 'right way'. To add singing into your day that's all you have to do - sing!!

We sing every day. Psalms twice week; French folksongs twice a week; English folksongs (that is songs in English, not from England) once. The Psalms we sing A Capella; the others we sing accompanied, almost invariably, by a YouTube clip.

The vast majority of our French songs are traditional French chansons. Occasionally we chuck in one that helps with language - Jean Petit qui Danse, or L'Alphabet en Chantant. Most of our folksongs are Australian. If we can find a song that fits into our historical study we'll add that in. We've done a term of Scotland for Parsie, and a term of England for Daddy. Ireland comes next. We've also studied a term of Japan.

If you can integrate singing with your other studies, then to me that's the ideal. But really it is more important just to get started. Pick a song and sing. At some stage you might want to learn a bit about what the song's talking about. That's a bonus. If it's in a different language you may want to translate it. That's a bonus too.

When we sing, we try to learn what we're singing by heart. Because for us the biggest bonus of all is at the end of the term the song stops being something to learn and forms part of our Family Song Book. They're the songs we sing together in the car, and around the campfire, and whilst we're we're walking in the bush. These are the songs that are forming part of our family identity, much in the same way that folksongs have done in times gone by.

One day, I hope, Jemimah will teach them to her children.


  1. I too was brought up on wonderful folksongs, mostly Australian, but I have very fond memories. We listen to a variety of folksongs, I sort of follow AO but also add my own Aussie ones. Thanks to your help too! We listen to a lot of these songs while we travel singing at the top of our lungs...what memories! xxx

  2. Jeanne... THANKS FOR THIS POST. You are soooo right. We've just discover the pleasure of the folk songs, and I already thought to follow my heart and add Spanish folk songs, traditional, and songs. We love singing too and we learn the hymns by heart. It's truly beautiful.

    But we are in our first and delightful beginnings with other folk songs. We have been singing The Three Ravens, and let me tell you that ain't anything as cute as my four year old singing derry derry derry down down! Or both of them singing Dare to Stand Like Joshua, Ha! And when our youtube playlist continued one morning to the other songs I have added for later, and I heard cheesy Simon and Garfunkel with their version of Scarborough Fair! Oh, I'm transported.
    I also loved finding Lear and his Owl and Raven page with different versions, some whimsical some folky... You made me play S and G right now!

  3. Love this!! We are like Magpies with our folk songs, and have included Wild Colonial Boy and Van Dieman's Land in our home repertoire as well as many others.

  4. oh no! I haven't done folk songs yet!!! I will try to get there:)
    btw, please update us on how you are all going post-floods - you haven't talked to us in a while about how your are recovering. I really want to know:)

  5. You have inspired me to add some to our next term. Alas, I don't sing well but perhaps my children will let me sing with them anyway. :)


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