Importance Of Folk Songs In Education: Your Students’ Inheritance

importance of folk songs

Have you gotten sick of teaching certain songs to your elementary music students? 

Are you struggling to sort through the thousands of songs available and pick ones that can make an impact on your students? 

Don’t worry! I did too, until I realized the importance of folk songs in education. 

Folk songs are important in education because of the historical and cultural experiences you can give students. There’s something indescribable about dancing to a song people were performing hundreds of years ago. On top of this, there’s an expressive quality to the songs that have caused them to stick around for so long.  

Read on for more details on reasons folk songs are important and some of my favorite folk songs resources.  

My Story

When I first started teaching, I used any of the songs and materials I’d picked up during my undergrad and student teaching. But when I ran out, I looked at some random magazines and books my predecessor had left for me. 

But some of these songs were total duds with the kids. They never bought in, I got bored with them easily, and it was just a terrible experience. 

When I went to my mentors and started getting more trainings, I realized those songs were fake. Composed by random people trying to make a fun but cheesy song. 

They were missing a mysterious quality that authentic folk songs have. Once I switched back to using folk songs and expanding my resources, my teaching and student experience got much better! 

6 Game-Changing Reasons To Use Folk Songs

In this section, we’ll talk about my 5 big reasons for choosing to use folk songs in my music program. 

Folk Song: a song made and handed down among the common people. 

YourDictionary

#1 Expressive Quality

The number 1 reason to use folk songs is because of their indescribable expressive quality. Whether the song is a bouncy tune or moving lullaby, an authentic folk song has something which touches us on a deeper level. 

Dr. John Feierabend has said the test of a song’s quality is to sing the tune 100 times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy now, it must be a quality song. 

Not to get too dramatic here, but I think so many of these songs have been forged by the fires of time. Only the best has stuck through until today. 

We must have modern songs which are just as meaningful, but it’s hard to tell without the longer time having passed. 

#2 Historical and Cultural 

State and national music standards always mention how we need to be more cross-curricular. Now, you can grumble and complain, or you can use folk songs and get an easy in! 

Every authentic folk song has instant links to historical and cultural ideas to teach. Kids can’t believe that these songs they’ve learned and played were done so long ago. 

We all know the expression: Don’t judge someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. 

While we can’t do this with every period and culture, these folk songs are a great start. 

For example, I love to play the Mexican passing game, Al Citron, with my older kids. They love to play the challenging passing game, but they also find it interesting how children from Mexico play it as well. 

This all makes the world seem a little smaller. 

Another example is with singing The Little Black Bull, also known as Hoosen Johnny. Digging into the history, you’ll find the song was actually born from cattle laws in Illinois in the mid 1800s. 

And it was a favorite of one of Abe Lincoln’s trusted advisors!

#3 Expands Vocabulary

I’ve been asked this question in every interview I’ve been in for music jobs:

“How are you going to support classroom teachers and their teaching?” 

After I talk myself down from the ledge of a lecture on the value of music for its own sake, I think about how I want to answer. 

Do I promise to teach their content for them? Do I fake some answer with how I’m going to shove math and science in wherever I can? 

Sure, we do some of that naturally. But one of the best ways we can help develop students’ knowledge is by expanding their vocabulary. 

Many of the older songs use English words they don’t come across very often. By exposing them to these words, they expand their vocab and reasoning skills as they better learn the roots of the English language. 

According to Gray Matter – The Official Elevate Blog, expanding vocab can have these bigger benefits: 

  • Faster processing speed
  • Expanded abstract thinking
  • More success at work
  • Improved citizenship 

#4 Teaches Natural Musical Concepts

Of course, in music classes, we want to teach our students musical concepts. Between the elements of music, solfege, rhythms, part-work, instruments, ensembles, and so on, there’s no shortage of what you may want to teach. 

Looking at all these folk songs, you’ll see there are tons of songs reinforcing each one of these concepts. 

Instead of choosing a composed song to help teach quarter and eighth notes, you could pick any of the hundreds of songs using these to teach in a way that sticks better.  

#5 Music Inheritance 

We all have a right to know and enjoy the songs of our heritage. Whether it’s the genetic, geographical, or cultural history of your students, they should learn where the music they know now developed from. 

Folk songs offer you that link to your family from a time long past. Think how cool it is to play songs like Skip To My Lou when many did it decades and longer ago. 

#6 Fun For Students! 

Students just have more fun with real folk songs! 

Many of these folk songs come with fun games and activities that fit everything about the song. Even my fourth and fifth graders will beg for simple finding games like Lucy Locket or play party games like Alabama Gal. 

And we all know how hard it is to get those kids to admit they enjoy anything. 

Top 4 Favorite Folk Song Resources 

Hopefully, you can see why these folk songs are important, but now it’s time to find them.  

In this section, I’ll share with you some of my favorite folk song resources. Most of them are available for cheap on Amazon (some are even free!). 

Holy Names Folk Song Collection This collection put together by Holy Names University and their Kodaly programs is an excellent (and free!) source for folk songs. 

My favorite thing about this source is how you can sort by grade, concept, topic, and game type for a specific folk songs to suit your needs.  

The Little Black Bull Jill Trinka compile these folk songs and dances for a variety of grade levels. This is only one book in a series, but this one is my personal favorite. 

Dr. Trinka also includes an analysis, historical information, and personal story with each of the songs. 

Sail Away!The collection of 155 folk songs by Eleanor Locke is a great source for many authentic folk songs and games. Plus, with 155 of them, you’re sure to find quite a few you can use right away. 

Lomax Iconic Song ListThis list is harder to use, but it doesn’t get any more authentic than this. Alan Lomax traveled the country while recording the music of the people and compiling them to preserve the folk songs of our history. 

I like this one because it gets right to the source (and it’s free!). There are also original recordings as well which are always interesting to listen to. 

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed learning about the importance of folk songs in education. You can’t beat the historical, cultural, and expressive reasons these have stuck around for hundreds of years in some cases. 

Folk songs are a big part of many of the main music methods for teaching music including Kodaly and Conversational Solfege.  

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

Recent Posts