Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Venn diagram of student musical knowledge

Profacero's post about "You Are My Sunshine"  made me think about "traditional American songs"--you know, the kind you learn in elementary school or through Wee Sing or maybe from your family.  

I asked my students about this the other day. Did they have to learn songs like "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" and "The Erie Canal" and "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? How about "America, the Beautiful" and all its verses, including the amazingly myopic verse about "Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears"? Or Woody Guthrie's smart answer to it, "This Land is Your Land?" Or, yes, "Dixie," since that came up in a work we were reading? 

A few did, and most didn't.  Songs they know: "Amazing Grace" and maybe "This Land is Your Land."  Songs they don't: apparently a lot of the above, though a few knew them. 

It doesn't really matter, of course, although it's helpful if these songs come up in what we're reading. Mostly I'm just curious. I know a lot of old songs, including a few that my family sang that I've never heard anywhere else, so I don't expect them to know what I know. 

And they know a lot that I don't know. They all have different musical backgrounds, different interests, different kinds of expertise, some of which is a lot more advanced and useful than mine. 

I'd like someone to do one of those questionnaires about this, the kind that they do at the beginning of every school year--you know, the one that says that for first year students, vampire movie sequels have always been the hottest thing at the box office, or that they are too young to remember 9/11.

Sometimes I feel like an explorer trying to map out what they know so I can then find those intersecting points with what I know and make a connection or get them to see an allusion. It's a Venn diagram of what I can refer to in class with a reasonable expectation of being understood. 


Z said...

I remember the song I most objected to singing in elementary school: The Ballad of the Green Berets. The speaker/hero is killed in [Viet Nam] and his last words direct his wife to make a soldier of the baby.

Z said...

Ah - also - I hear that it is still or was recently still standard in Portland, OR to sing the Woody Guthrie song, "Roll On, Columbia." I see now that it is the state folk song of Washington.

Fewer people than I would think grew up with folk, it seems; also current students did not read fairy tales.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

There was only one year when we learned much music in school. One of my mental stores is hymns, and their language, which I treasure; I mean the old stuff, not modern anodyne church music which I find appalling. Through living with Sir John, who was brought up Catholic, I've learned how specifically Protestant most of my stock is, something I hadn't realized before.

Anonymous said...

this is actually closely related to my research interests, and I have a few years of student projects wherein they list the songs they learned aurally/orally, mostly as children. While they're more likely than I was to have learned some of the things from recordings, there's actually a lot of crossover between my list and theirs. "Erie Canal," "This old Man," "America," "Alouette, and quite a few others. The music ed association MENC printed a list of songs all American should know about 15 years ago; happy to send you my paper on it if you're interested.

undine said...

Z--I cannot believe that they made you sing that song! I didn't know that about "Roll On, Columbia" and don't know if I've ever heard it, though I know "Jackhammer John" and a bunch of other Guthrie. My students seem to know fairy tales but only the Disney version. Cinderella's stepsisters do not cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper in the versions they read.

Dame Eleanor--Like Sir John, I was brought up Catholic, and when I first sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem," I thought it was a sin for me to sing it because it was a Protestant hymn. True story.

I know what you mean about the modern anodyne music, which all seems to have been composed by one mildly talented guitarist in 1972 and put in every church service that exists.

Anonymous--I didn't know that! I would love to see that paper, if you can send it:

It's amazing to me that "Alouette" is as popular as it is, once I figured out that it's basically about taking a bird apart piece by piece.

Z said...

Shockingly, I know most of these:

There was also the American Songbag:

And the song, Abdul Abulbul Ameer, you have to have had relatives born in the 19th century to know that.

Roll on, Columbia, it rouses the sentiments of every exiled West Coaster: "Green Douglas firs where the water cuts through / right down the wild mountains, through the canyons she flew / Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue / It's roll on, Columbia, roll on." West of the Rockies there just isn't such a dramatic landscape.

Z said...

Correction: I mean East of the Rockies there isn't, only West of the Rockies there is (it's a whole line of volcanoes streching all the way down through the Andes).

Z said...

I've found these hilarious lyrics of long long ago memory: