Where, Oh Where, Have the Good Old Songs Gone? as Schools Cut Music Programs, America's Folk Music May Disappear

By Jennings, Lane | The Futurist, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Where, Oh Where, Have the Good Old Songs Gone? as Schools Cut Music Programs, America's Folk Music May Disappear


Jennings, Lane, The Futurist


Whenever school budgets shrink, music programs tend to feel the pinch early and hard. But new research warns that America's rich folk heritage of lullabies, play songs, historic and patriotic ballads, and even the national anthem could be permanently lost unless teachers get help fast.

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Traditional folk songs have largely disappeared from the educational and cultural landscape, and folk singing in America could become a dead art--forgotten and ignored by all but music historians and a few fanatic devotees of antique entertainments. Along with the music, cultural knowledge will fade, fears music-education scholar Marilyn Ward. Her research for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida revealed that schoolchildren no longer know the words or tunes to many of the songs their parents and grandparents grew up singing, especially songs of work, history, and patriotic sentiment, such as "Home on the Range," "Erie Canal," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again."

"When people stand up, but don't sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" Ward reports, "there's a reason for that. They don't know it." She points out that other countries do a better job of preserving their past through music. "In Hungary, schoolchildren sing nothing but folk songs of their heritage, and usually a cappella, through fourth grade. Other nations uniformly value their heritage."

Ward began her study by compiling a list of 100 familiar American folk songs recommended by music educators and a representative sampling of men and women over 60 years old. She then surveyed 4,000 school music teachers from every state. Few of the teachers surveyed believed their students could sing many of the listed songs from memory, and most reported that they had little time or encouragement to include traditional songs in their classroom. While results varied slightly in different regions (Nebraska ranked highest overall for teaching traditional songs, and California ranked lowest), Ward found that urban schoolteachers taught the most children's songs, and suburban schools the fewest.

The economic pressure on many public school systems is partly responsible for cutting back music teaching overall, but another concern, Ward discovered, is the new emphasis on mandatory testing for reading and math, which is forcing many schools to refocus their curricula.

The long-term danger in this trend is a disconnect from the nation's past. Ward concludes that learning traditional songs helps children relate more closely to the hardships and joys their ancestors experienced and gain a more personal and emotional experience of events from history. Not learning these songs, she argues, weakens children's connection to their community, which may contribute to antisocial attitudes and behavior.

"In the classroom, teachers need the flexibility to supplement their core curriculum with whatever they're good at and interested in," says Ward. "Just like in every subject, there are core concepts and songs we need to teach, [including] a core repertoire of American children's folk songs, songs that have been passed down for generations in America and help children bond and form connections with their communities and nation. …

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