by Carolyn Forte

A couple of years ago we took a field trip to the Hollywood Bowl.  During the tour, we were given the opportunity to sing a song on the stage and I was shocked to discover that we could not find any song that everyone knew.  I can’t remember what we finally sang, but it was something on the order of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.   Most of the children did not know any of the songs I suggested such as America or Yankee Doodle  Later, some of the moms asked where the children would learn such songs.  I was puzzled by the question because I had thought the answer was obvious, but on further reflection, I realized that anyone born after 1964 might not know the traditional American songs that every previous generation learned from their parents, schools and churches.

When I began teaching in 1970, I remember that the State of California had just adopted new music books complete with records.  At first, I thought they would be fun to use, but I soon discovered that none of the old familiar songs about America and its folklore was included.  All the songs were new to me and since I had little time as a new teacher, I simply put the books and records aside, got out my guitar, and proceeded to teach my students the wonderful folk songs  that were missing from the new books.  When  I was young, those songs were everywhere.

We sang them at school and at camp.  We learned them at Sunday School and at Scout meetings.  We even heard them on  radio and TV.  Sadly, the popular culture (whatever or whoever that is) has dismissed our history as old fashioned and irrelevant, but that is hardly surprising when you realize that school children have been deprived of American traditional and folk songs since 1970.  You actually have to hunt to find them and the tunes are no longer familiar to anyone under forty.  We sing them at Riley’ s Farm but I notice that few adults let alone children know the words.  It is a pity because those songs encapsulate the history of America and Americans, whatever our ancestral origins.

It occurs to me as I watch America (except for homeschoolers) sliding into moral and cultural decay, gradually fragmenting into a grotesque mosaic of disconnected interest groups, that the cultural glue that once held us together as a nation has almost disappeared.   Part of that glue was the unique music that told of our trials and struggles to become a people.  Much of the music came from the “old country” but new words were written by the patriots and pioneers, slave, free and indentured to describe their experiences, vent their emotions, and promote their causes on a new continent.   Thus, our folk music contains the flavor of every country and ethnic group that ever sent sons and daughters to America.  Once here, composers wrote new songs about the new country, capturing the flavor of each era and region.  Our current music is no different, except that for some reason, instead of adding to and enriching the old repertoire, the sheer volume of modern music has replaced the older music, leaving us impoverished as a result.

Our folk music can still be found but you have to look for it.  Many of the folk singers of the 50’s and 60’s can now be bought on CD fairly cheaply.  Wee Sing America and We Sing Around the Campfire contain many of the old songs.   Homeschoolers have discovered how fascinating American history really is.  Don’t neglect the music.  If you would like to join others in discovering the cultural heritage of America’s music, see the announcement inside this newsletter about a Folk Music Club.  It’s meant for everyone, young and old, musicians or those who just enjoy music.