Folk musics and social justice

Hi all -- Christopher here.  Lately, I've been thinking more and more about the ways that we use music in our lives -- soothing a crying baby, offering praise, or just joining together for the sonic satisfaction of putting words and melodies and rhythms together to create a group musicking experience that can be incredibly powerful.  There is also a rich tradition of songs and folk musics used as forms of protest, or to comment on the status of particular aspects of the world we live in.

As we get towards the end of the year, I often begin to think: What’s the big picture here?  What do I want my kids to walk away with?  The most important thing is always for them to love music, to feel that the musical experiences that they have in music class fulfill them and make them want to go on to create music for the rest of their lives.  I also want them to get those music literacy skills, because even if they don’t know it, I know that being able to read and write music will be a valuable skill in helping them attain that first goal of lifelong music-making. 

But I also want them to think broadly about the world, and to understand the ways that music can work in it.  Particularly towards the end of the year, when the literacy elements are all in practice stages, I am comfortable taking more time than usual to engage in discussion about issues that come up in the music that we do in class.  And sometimes, to seek out musical experiences for them that will raise important issues for them to consider.  Here are a couple of experiences that have worked for me in the past couple of months.

Grade 5: Those Gypsies, How They Rove…

Fifth graders at the end of the year are often an interesting bunch – ready to move on to middle school, with the attitude that goes with that, but still in many ways children.  I feel that they are just able to understand (and experience) the very tip of some of the more sophisticated emotional experiences in life, and finding ways to tap into their deepening maturity can be a powerful experience for me as a teacher.

The Gypsy Rover is one of the songs that can do that.  The text of the song refers to a “lady” who leaves behind her finery after she falls in love with a traveling gypsy.  Her father is none-too-pleased about this turn of events, and goes after her to bring her back to their castle.  In the end, though, he finds her, and the classic fairy tale ending ensues in which the lady tells her father that “he’s not a gypsy, my father…but lord of these lands all over.” 

Before they ever hear the song, I ask the students what they know about gypsies.  Usually, kids have the carnival-like visions of women in flowing head-scarves, looking into crystal balls to tell your fortune, and there’s always laughter as we talk about these ideas.  But I also usually have students who state that they think that gypsies travel a lot, in caravans, and that they sometimes steal your stuff.  At this point, I transition into some cultural information about the Roma of Eastern Europe, a nomadic people who have long been very poor and experienced discrimination.

Then, I perform the song while they listen, papers in hand, to figure out what happens in the story.   

2. She left her father’s castle gate,
She left her fair young lover,
She left her servants and her estate,
To follow the gypsy rover.

3. She left behind her velvet gowns
And shoes of Spanish leather
They whistled and they sang ‘till the greenwood rang
As they rode off together.

4. Last night she slept on a goose feather bed
With satin sheets for to cover,
Tonight she sleeps on the cold, cold ground,
Beside her gypsy rover.

5. Her father saddled up his fastest steed,
And roamed the valleys all over
He sought his daughter at great speed
And the whistling gypsy rover.

6. He came at last to a mansion gate,
Down by the river Crady,
And there was music and there was wine,
For the gypsy and his lady.

7.  “Oh, he’s not a gypsy, my father,” she said
“But lord of these lands all over,
“And I will stay ‘til my dying day,
“With my whistling gypsy rover.”

While it seems straightforward to me, they aren’t always so sure, and have lots of ideas that I might not have thought about: Is he a gypsy?  Isn’t he a gypsy?  If he’s not a gypsy, why would he lie?  Did he break into an abandoned castle to pretend he’s rich?  Could it be that she has more than one castle, and they are in one of hers?  The students use examples from the text to support their assertions. 

Their understanding of the song evolves as we continue to sing it in future classes, and it leads to continued discussion about stereotypes and oppression.  The students relate the discrimination that the real-life Roma have faced (and continue to face) to groups in our country.  Economic inequality comes up, and the ways that this can affect the way people are viewed by others.

While many recordings use a rollicking 6/8 performance style for the piece, I prefer a slower, contemplative on, inspired by a recording by Jill Trinka.  I accompany the song on the dulcimer, finger-picking a repetitive, fairly easy pattern that I modified from Jill’s version.  It’s a mesmerizing song for the students, one of those songs that worms its way into the souls of many of them.  I teach in a K-8 school, but I only teach the students up until 5th grade.  When I run into these students in 8th grade, this is one of the songs that they will often bring up, when naming their favorites.

Grade 3: Whose Land is it, Anyway?

This Land is Your Land: A classic!  Woody Guthrie wrote the wonderful text to a tune based on an old gospel hymn, and I really wish it was our actual national anthem.  In the late 1990s, a picture book version of the song was published, with wonderful drawings made by Kathy Jakobsen.

This has become a staple of my classes towards the end of the year.  I think that this is one of those songs that all students should know.  Since the range is fairly small, even the kindergarten students can sing it (at least the chorus).  The detailed pictures chronicle many regions of the United States, with a diverse group of peoples scattered throughout the pages.  The images have a lot going on in them, and younger students sometimes want to stay after class to examine a picture up close.

By third grade, they are able to grapple with some of the more sophisticated text:

In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people,
By the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking:
Is this land made for you and me?

Up to this point, the images have been rosy views of a multicultural, gorgeously scenic country, and the image Jakobsen uses here stands in stark contrast:

We talk about what a “relief office” is, I first ask the students to explain what is different about the text at the end.  After they identify that the statement in the last line has been turned into a question, they have to come up with reasons that this might be the case.  All students in third grade can’t figure this out – but there are always some students who are able to articulate the idea that if we’re a great country, why is there still hunger?  They can make connections to other problems that we have in our country today (homelessness is one that comes up most often for my city-dwelling third graders).

The picture book goes from there to another verse:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway,
Nobody living can ever make me turn back:
This land was made for you and me.

At this point, Jakobsen brings back the picture of the run-down church, but now the church is spruced up, with people working to paint the exterior, pick up trash, and plant gardens. 

The third graders can make the connection that we need to all pitch in, that if we work together we can make the country a better place.  It’s a simple idea, I think, but with the song, the pictures, and the discussion, I believe that it plants those seeds that will help turn out adults who give back to others.

Grade 1: Can you Didjeridoo it?

The first graders in my school study Australia, and I have tried to integrate with the classroom teachers by including a unit of music on Australia.  There’s a great Smithsonian Folkways unit on Aboriginal didjeridoo music created by Cyndy Nasman, one that I modified to work in my class.

Here's the album she used:

And here are her lesson plans (Note: I'm happy to send on my powerpoint slides, if you'd like them):

I love listening activities that expose students to music from other cultures, particularly music like this in which the vocal timbres are different and the didjeridoo has such a unique sound. 

The connections to social justice come up when talking about the performers.  Traditionally, the didjeridoo was a man’s instrument in Aboriginal culture.  So the question for the children is: Is this fair?  They are a little bit too young to weigh the pros and cons of cultural rights vs. gender rights, and so most students usually say that they do not think it is fair.  I tell them that in our country, the types of jobs that women and men were able to get were restricted.  I ask if they can think of other places in our country where you would only see men or women.  Various ideas come up: professional baseball, single-sex high schools, the priesthood (I teach in a Catholic school).  In first grade, the length of time that they can focus is about the size of my pinky, but a quick minute or two of these sorts of ideas can start to get them thinking about these issues.

Enjoy the rest of your school year, everyone!


  1. As always, such wonderful ideas, Christopher! I have "This land is your land," and have not delved into the lyrics as much as I should have. "The Gypsy Rover" is such a beautiful've inspired me to practice some accompaniment on dulcimer! Thank you! :)

  2. Love the post Christopher! The Gypsy Rover is one of my favorite, I sing it to my own two all the time. Funny story: Jill Trinka gave us an assignment in level 1 to audio tape recorder someone singing a song they remember from growing up. My dad sang the Gypse Rover to my mom. I had never heard him sing it before. The next day in class Jill performs it with dulcimer, it was goosebumps!!!

    1. What a great story, Amy! I never knew the song before Jill, actually.

  3. Great post! Love the ways you are inspiring your students to take a deeper look!

  4. Excellent post - thanks for the insights. I have been listening to Jill Trinka's version of this song, and wanting to use it in my classroom. A plan for next year. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree with your "big picture" - sometimes we get so bogged down in the trees, we miss the forest and forget what we're actually trying to do - inspire! I will definitely try out the Gypsy Rover next year. Thanks again!

  6. Thanks for a very interesting blog. What else may I get that kind of info written in such a perfect approach? I’ve a undertaking that I am simply now operating on, and I have been at the look out for such info.

  7. Dear Christopher, Please don`t stop your job with such a great spirit. In these we need this. And for our children: the music can`t be good enough. Thank you very much.


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