Folk Tunes USA

Learning folk songs in my childhood was what got me interested in music in the first place. I’m now a music major…whether I’m in the shower, taking a walk, going to class, or frustrated in traffic, I can sing my worries away with folk songs I learned in the 1st grade. — MENC Member, 2004

American Folk and Heritage songs – who teaches them? Who learns them? In 2004, MENC asked members about teaching and learning American “heritage” songs.

Members responded in droves. Most agreed that children in America’s schools should know about these types of songs because the songs are important to America’s cultural identity and history. Many members expressed that it was difficult to always include this type of music because of limited contact time with kids and the demands of covering required curriculum areas.

Others thought these songs helped children new to the United States learn about this country, while other members stressed the importance of balancing the curriculum to be inclusive of the cultures of the all students, not just those born in the U.S.

Next week, you can weigh in on this topic in a new Folk Song Poll.

To help get you thinking about folk songs, here are a few of the thoughts from members back in 2004:

Many of my students seem to love them. There are many music concepts that can be taught when I use these songs.

“American Heritage Songs” are important, but a large population of children do not identify with them in the same way as children from fifty years ago. Many of the songs speak to rural and or European American sensibilities. Children in public schools, especially in urban areas, are from very diverse backgrounds.

This an area that is being overlooked by many music teachers today-especially in middle school music classes. So many of these folk songs can teach so many wonderful fundamentals of music, while also geography, or humanities. 

I think it’s very important to expose our children to these songs as they are a part of our musical & national history. I always include a little bit of history about the period during which a song was written to give my students some historical perspective and to make the song more relevant and interesting to them. These songs are always well-received. If we don’t take the time to teach them to our children, they will be lost forever.

Some of the songs are more than relevant, they’re chunks of American history. When I taught elementary school, my students spoke 86 languages and came from all over the globe. They knew very little about the culture and history of their new country, and I found the best way to teach them to appreciate it was to teach them folk songs and play the children’s games–hand games, jump rope games, bouncing ball games.

I teach in several multicultural schools. I had at one time assumed that the children I taught were introduced to American nursery rhymes and patriotic songs at home. This is not the case where I am. The children are learning songs from their own cultures at home. This is important too. I feel that we need to teach American folk and patriotic songs, but we also should include folk songs from our students’ cultures so that they feel respected.

Folk and children’s songs from other countries should be considered as well. These are the musical mother tongues of our children. Kodály had it right!!!

I suggest all music teachers study the Kodály method which is based on folk songs of the child’s own heritage! Miracles happen in Kodály music classrooms.


MENC Get America Singing…Again! 

MENC Journal of Research for Music Education: “Common Songs of the Cultural Heritage of the United States: A Compilation of Songs That Most People “Know” and “Should Know.” McGuire. Winter 2000

Member Heritage and Folk Song study and song list
Kodály American Folk Song Collection

Folk Song Index and Database

Sing a Boatload of History: Peter Yarrow

The Joy of Singing (includes resources and lessons for group singing)

–Sue Rarus, May 6, 2009, © National Association for Music Education