Exploring the History of Children’s Songs

As the American Folklife Center celebrates Alan Lomax during the centennial year of his birth, the Educational Outreach team found ourselves exploring some of recordings done by him and his father John and John’s second wife Ruby. It’s interesting to note that a number of the recordings include songs performed by children. We decided to search for more children’s songs and the stories behind them.

We found a Library of Congress blog post on the creation of the song “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” The post explores the connection of the teddy bear to Theodore Roosevelt and how this dance tune became a children’s favorite and was eventually recorded by countless musicians including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Anne Murray.

The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America has a feature on children’s songs that presents a variety of songs in both English and Spanish. The essay also includes Government Camp Song, written by three girls about their experience in one of the migrant camps during the Dust Bowl.

A section in America’s Library tells the stories behind some popular children’s songs. And the American Folklife Center blog has a wonderful post on the origins of Ring Around the Rosie.

Here are a few ideas on how to use children’s songs in your classroom:

  • Play recordings of some popular children’s songs for your students. Are the words the same as the versions they sing today? Do different students know different versions of these songs?  Ask them to think about why different people know different versions of the same song.
  • Ask students to interview family members and other community members about songs of their childhood. Students can ask them specifically about the song(s) discussed in class. Do they provide more variations?
  • Students can listen to the Government Camp Song. Encourage them to think about why the writers decided to write this song. Explore what day to day life might have been like for these girls. Encourage students to think about how life was different for children during the Great Depression compared to life today.
  • Ask your students to write a song or poem about an event at school or something from their daily lives that children might use when playing a game or hanging around with friends.

For a guide to other resources available from the Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America collection,  read the Songs of America: A New Online Collection from the Library of Congress, including ideas on how to use the collection with your students.

How do you use songs to connect primary sources to your student’s lives and classroom activities?

One Comment

  1. Marlene
    March 11, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Very good ideas about teaching traditional songs. I am a recently retired elementary school music teacher, and I often used to rewrite and retell original folk songs with the students, for example, “Froggie Went A-Courtin'”, and then use home made hand puppets to act out while students sing.

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