Top of page

Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Skin and Bones for Halloween

Share this post:

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Around Halloween, children are often introduced to the startling folk song “Skin and Bones.” Music teachers especially appreciate how the song’s call-and-response form and minor pentatonic tonality invite participation. The response’s pure vowel and descending melodic line encourage healthy vocal production. It’s a pedagogically sound, seasonal choice, and a closer look through Library of Congress primary sources can captivate revelers of all ages this Halloween.

Notes from Jean Ritchie on the Song Skin and Bones

The standard classroom song resembles Jean Ritchie’s version, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1949. The recording, held at the Library of Congress, is digitized and available through the Association for Cultural Equity. In a different, 1951 reel-to-reel recording at the Library, Jean Ritchie changed the refrain from “ooo” to “mmm” in the later verses. The shift in dynamic and color draws listeners, priming them for the fright at the end.  In fact, as the recording concludes, she laughingly apologizes for startling Lomax! Many teachers will identify with her experiences introducing the song to new generations of children.

The Library’s card catalog holds clues about other versions, recorded by Lomax and archived at the Library of Congress. Students examining these card catalog records may glean clues about the lives and circumstances of the singers; how might each recording sound unique?

Catalog card: There Was An Old Woman All Skin and Bones, Recorded Evansville, IN  1938

Catalog Card: Skin and Bones. Recorded Austin, TX, 1934

Catalog Card: Skin and Bones . Recorded in Tucker, AR, 1934

Our colleagues in the American Folklife Center blogged about scary songs, including “Skin and Bones,” and featured a less familiar setting collected by Anne and Frank Warner in 1941. Pairing the two versions provides opportunities for standards-based musical exploration.

  • Respond: Compare the recordings. What similarities and differences do students notice? Which recording seems scarier, and why?
  • Perform: Draw upon students’ prior experience with call-and-response form and the Ritchie version to make musical predictions about the less-familiar Warner melody. Challenge students to sing the response, even upon first listen, guided by their prior knowledge.
  • Create: Encourage students to notice similarities in the pieces’ composition. Inspired by the meter, lyrics, melody, and form of the original works, students might create a contemporary “Skin and Bones.” What settings or plot developments would frighten a modern listener? What melodic shapes would complement the ideas? Invite students to share their work as a soloist or small group while the class supports the responsorial refrain.
  • Connect: In Ritchie’s song, the narrative wanders. The climax leaves the listener in suspense, wondering what will emerge from the broom closet. In the Warners’ recording, the narrative follows a more direct path to the graveyard. Rather than wondering, the old woman is overcome with dread when she realizes exactly what’s in store. Which kind of fear do students find more terrifying: the unknown or the inevitable? How might different fears be communicated differently through musical performance?

I agree with Jean Ritchie: “Skin and Bones” will forever delight children. Deeper analysis of the piece has the power to keep on haunting. What frights and delights does “Skin and Bones” hold for your students this season?


Comments (2)

  1. An engaging and delightful post: thank you! The ‘respond, perform, create, connect’ steps are strategies might work with other primary source material as well!

  2. I’m late reading this, but delighted to know of another fun, singable Halloween song. My favorite since early childhood descends, then ascends the scale: Come on a\long, the \ moon is shining \ bright; there are \ goblins and \ witches and \ black cats out to\night. Those / ghosts and / pumpkins / give me such a / fright! / Oh, but it’s / scary on / Halloween night!
    I know nothing of the origin, but I sing it nearly every October. 🙂

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.