Smithsonian Folkways - Folk Music From Around the World

Hi!  I’m Christopher, and this is my first blog post for Kodály Corner.  Usually, I’ll be posting from Seattle, where I live, but today I’m sitting in my hotel room in San Antonio, where I’ve come for TMEA.  As an aside, if you’ve never been to TMEA…….well, there is just nothing quite like it.  Huge attendance, tons of great clinicians, enthusiastic participants, amazing exhibits.  It’s awesome!  I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room for an elementary session where there were something like 1000 people – crazy!  Plus, it’s in San Antonio, which is a super-fun city to visit J  So if you ever get the chance to come down here for the event, go for it!

One thing that has struck me about being at TMEA is the diversity of Texas.  Mexican Americans make up the majority of the minority, but I had many conversations over the three days I’ve been here with teachers who have large populations of students from other countries as well – Spanish-speaking countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as groups of students from Nigeria, Korea, and Myanmar.  I mean, Myanmar?  I had to go look up where that one was!  (It's in Asia, borders six countries, including Thailand and India, and is commonly called Burma.)  One of the things that I love about the United States is our history of welcoming immigrants; treks like my family’s journey from Wales, a hundred years ago, continue to this day, keeping our country evolving and vibrant and filled with new cultural traditions.

For music teachers, I think that this increasing diversity means we need to be on the lookout for new material and ideas that incorporate world music traditions in our classroom. If you have a group of your student population from a particular culture our country, either creating a short-term unit on music from that country or incorporating it throughout the year can be powerful for those students, to experience the music of their mother tongue.  But just about all teaching situations have diversity, even if it is not initially apparent.  Last year, I did a unit on the music of Turkey with my fourth graders – mostly just because I liked the music and thought that there were some cool connections I could make – but it turned out that two of the students had parents or grandparents who had come over from Turkey.  One parent e-mailed me to thank me for doing the unit, saying that it made him feel connected to the school.

Which brings me to one of my favorite resources: Smithsonian Folkways!  If you don’t know the Folkways website, leave this post now and go check it out!  (

For Kodály-inspired teachers who primarily use folk music in the classroom, this is an extraordinary resource of traditional music from a wide range of cultures. Folkways is an old record company that was founded in the late 1940s, with a mission to record the sounds of the world.  In the late 1980s, the Smithsonian Institution purchased the label, and all of the recordings they ever released are now available through their website.  You can sample 20-30 seconds of all the recordings for free, and purchase individual tracks for 99 cents.  In addition, all the liner notes are available for free download.  

For music teachers, there are two principal ways to use the archive in the classroom:

(1) Do it yourself!  If you’re looking for music of a particular culture, you can go to the search box in the top left corner, and enter the name of country (or culture, or song name, or whatever you might want to search for).  So, for example, after talking with the teacher this weekend with students from Myanmar, I went back to my hotel room and entered it into the search function.  Here’s some of what I found:

Eight results seemed pretty good to me!  I clicked through to listen to samples from each of the albums, and decided that the more recent release, from 2003, had music that would be most accessible to my students, particularly “The Twelve Royal Gates.”  Now, I’m not doing music from Myanmar in my classes, so I didn’t follow this process through to create a lesson plan.  But if I did, I would write a lesson focusing on the timbre of the harp (with comparisons to other string instruments the students knew), the vocal quality of the singer on the recording, and the contrast between the harp and vocal patterns.  I would also spend more time with the liner notes, to understand the cultural context of the music.

(2) Tools-for-Teaching.  The second option – and probably the one that you should do first – is to check out the Tools for Teaching part of the website:

Here, you’ll find lesson plans that other teachers have created around the music of a particular culture.  The lessons contain anywhere from one to four segments, each with a suggested sequence for teaching, links to recordings, transcriptions, and other information about the country and/or musical culture.  They are free.

I have used a number of these lesson plans over the past few years in my classroom.  Like all lesson plans that other people have created, I usually cannot use them exactly as written – my students may have more or less experience than the teacher who created the plan, so I usually have to tweak the sequence of the focus somewhat.  But the authors have done the important work of finding good recordings, providing some transcription and cultural context, and creating an outline of a lesson plan.  Currently, there are over 100 plans from throughout the world.  Particular plans that I have either used as-is or modified for my classroom with success include:
-       Japan, by Colleen Casey-Nelson
-       Jamaica, by Nina Alden
-       Turkey, by Kyra Settle
-       Australia, by Cyndy Nasman
-       Botswana, by Christopher Roberts
That’s right, the last one is my own lesson plan – and you too can write one!  If you create a lesson plan using some music from the Smithsonian Folkways website and think it might be helpful to other teachers, Smithsonian Folkways will consider placing it on the website.

Fair warning: If you’ve never been to the Smithsonian Folkways website before, you might not want to go there right before bed.  You’ll end up mesmerized by wide array of musical choices that you have, with one amazing listening experience following another!

Happy listening and teaching!


  1. Wonderful post, Christopher! I have browsed the Smithsonian website a bit, but now I'm inspired to really dig deep! Thanks! And safe travels! :)

  2. Excellent! I have not used the lesson plans, thank you for calling attention to this aspect of the site.


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