Rough music

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh brings folk songs into the classroom, providing tips on how to get the best from pupils and the background to two traditional popular songs

Folk songs provide a rich resource for teaching music. The tunes and lyrics cover all styles and moods - from lively and witty to reflective and sad. Importantly, children enjoy them and it's the very accessibility of these songs that's caused them to survive for so long. Singing is an important activity in the primary school because: * it's fun

* it helps with reading (especially if children follow the words on a screen, carried forward by the tune)

* it promotes confidence

* it's a highly disciplined team activity in which children learn to listen to one another

* it unearths hidden abilities in children

* it can become a shared statement of a school's spirit and approach to life.

Getting started

Singing, like every other classroom activity, involves teaching and learning. It isn't just something you do to pass the time. Help your class see they can learn to do better at their singing just as they can learn to improve their writing and reading. Folksongs make an important, but not exclusive, part of your repertoire.

Try not to teach a song by bonging the tune out on the piano; the percussive sound is the opposite of what you want from children's voices.

If you play the violin or cello, that's much better, but ideally you'll teach by singing the song yourself - and that's much more a matter of confidence than of ability.

When the song starts to take shape, use the piano in a supportive role, perhaps just playing chords so children hear the harmonic structure of the song. You can use single finger chords on an electronic keyboard if you don't play the piano. Most song books print the chord symbols with the music. As children get better, those with good voices to show what you're after. This is especially useful for male teachers, whose voices can demonstrate technique but are usually pitched too low.

Dos and dont's

* Don't despair of "groaners" and don't make negative remarks about them.

Always be encouraging, and put them near confident singers. They will get there in time.

* Don't accept the meaningless statement, "I can't sing". Would you accept "I can't do maths"?

* If the children need to see the words, put them on a screen or board. Try not to have their heads down looking at books or papers.

* Encourage learning by heart - they'll learn a six-verse song much quicker than you can.

* Put simple actions (or Makaton if you know it) with a song and they'll learn the words much more quickly, and the performance will become more inclusive.

* If you run a choir, make it open access. Tests or auditions are fine for adults but not a school.

The Water is Wide

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er,

And neither have I wings to fly.

Oh go and get me some little boat

to carry o'er my true love and I.

Oh, down in the meadows the other day,

A-gath'ring flowers both fine and gay,

A-gath'ring flowers both red and blue,

I little thought what love can do.

I leaned my back against some oak,

Thinking that he was a trusty tree;

But first he bended, and then he broke,

And so did my love prove false to me.

A ship there is, and she sails the sea,

She's loaded deep as deep can be,

But not so deep as the love I'm in;

I know not if I sink or swim.

Oh, love is handsome and love is fine,

And love's a jewel while it is new,

But when it is old, it groweth cold,

And fades away like morning dew.


When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire,

Full well I served my master for more than seven year.

Till I took up to poaching, as you shall quickly hear,

Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night, in the season of the year.

As me and my companions were setting of a snare,

'Twas then we spied the gamekeeper, for him we did not care,

For we can wrestle and fight, my boys and jump out anywhere,

Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night, in the season of the year.

As me and my companions were setting four or five,

And taking on 'em up again, we caught a hare alive;

We took a hare alive my boys, and through the woods did steer:

Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night, in the season of the year.

I threw him on my shoulder and then we trudged home.

We took him to a neighbour's house, and sold him for a crown;

We sold him for a crown, my boys, but I did not tell you where.

? Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night, in the season of the year.

Bad luck to every magistrate that lives in Lincolnshire,

Success to every poacher that wants to sell a hare;

Bad luck to ev'ry gamekeeper that will not sell his deer:

Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night, in the season of the year.

The Water is Wide


This song was collected in Somerset by the great folksong collector Cecil Sharp. It's sometimes called "Waly Waly", but that's a bit confusing because the words "waly waly" don't appear in it, whereas they do appear in a totally different song of the same name. Better to call it simply "The Water is Wide".

It can be sung to various tunes. The one we give here is haunting and beautiful.

Performance hints

*This song is excellent for learning breath control and legato singing (without breaks).

*The climax of each verse comes in line three.

*Emphasise joined-up singing. Attach the final consonant of a word to the beginning of the next word so as to avoid gaps.

*Don't swallow consonants. We want to hear both final "t" and initial "g" in "cannot get".

*Tell the singers to "feed the long notes with breath" so that a long note, such as the second line, gets slightly louder instead of fizzling out.

*Work out where the breaths come and learn that as part of the performance.

Don't leave it to chance.

*Support, support, support - the mental image is of the sound resting securely on strong tummy muscles. But the shoulders and neck are relaxed and still. For accompaniment play simple spread chords, perhaps just two or even one per bar on the piano or guitar. Take the chord symbols and allocate the notes in the chords to classroom percussion instruments.


It's quite adult in its message, but no more so than the chart songs that children enjoy and in many ways it's much more subtle, which you can point out to the children. It's a love song imbued with thoughts of disappointment, and filled with images, similes and metaphors. For example, a seemingly stout tree turns out to be weak - a metaphor for so many relationships. Be sensitive to contrasts, none of it is really loud, but it can become angry and passionate at times. In a way the whole song leads up to the words "old" and "cold" at the end, and from there to the very quiet ending: "Fades away like morning dew."

The Lincolnshire Poacher


This song first appeared in the 18th century - the tune to which it's always sung is much older and was used for other songs. It has all the right ingredients - it's catchy and easy to learn, both the music and the words are lively, with a touch of real wit, and it tells a good subversive tale. It's become a sort of unofficial anthem for the county of Lincolnshire.

Performance hints

*To arrive at the right speed, think of it as a marching song - it is in fact used like that by military bands.

*Note that it's in triple time - sixeight. Marches in that metre have a particular jaunty feel.

*As in all rhythmic songs, don't let the rhythm become too insistent and "rumpty tumpty". Help children towards the feeling of travelling smoothly over the top of the underlying beat, which is marked out mostly in the accompaniment.

*The song tells a story - look for key words and sentences which can be given colour by volume.

*Make big dramatic contrasts - whisper in quiet parts, vigorous in others, but never allow children to shout.

*Use soloists for verses and parts of verses. Swap them around, try unlikely people. Build a culture in which children enjoy and applaud each other's courage and success.

*It's customary to repeat the last line of each verse: "Oh! ... tis my delight! ...", lengthening the word "Oh!" the second time. Beware of overdoing this. Keep the integrity of the underlying rhythm - a steady four beats under the long note.


*Poacher: a person who is often seen as a lovable rogue - a kind of Robin Hood figure taking game from the estates of the rich, in defiance of trespass and property laws that were resented by the mass of the population. Compare this with the modern poacher who is often an industrial scale villain. In today's Lincolnshire, deer are sometimes poached by armed gangs who bring their own refrigerated trucks with them.

*Bound apprentice: apprentices were bound to their masters by a legal agreement.

*Gamekeeper: a person who ensured there was game for the master and guests to hunt. The poacher's traditional enemy.

*Crown: a five-=shilling piece.

*Snare: an animal trap. Some are very cruel, inflicting unnecessary suffering. Their design and use are now regulated by law.

*Shiny night: a moonlit night. Some commentators say that poachers actually liked dark moonless nights, and phrase shows that the song was written by someone with no real knowledge of poaching.

*Some versions of "The Lincolnshire Poacher" are worded "Success to every gentleman" instead of "Bad luck to every magistrate..." - it depended on the company you were in. (Schools in Lincolnshire where the head or a governor is also a magistrate will get extra pleasure from our version.)

*Don't be too precious about it all. Folk songs often exist in different versions. It's an oral tradition, responding to change, so we shouldn't be finicky about "correct" versions. Nor should we be solemn about when, where and how they are performed.


When I was a head I tried to lead the whole school in singing at least once every day. Often this would be in assembly, where we always sang two songs.

I also took the whole school for an extended singing session on Friday afternoons.

This was an eagerly anticipated communal activity, where we sang our huge repertoire virtually non-stop as I segued from one song to another at the piano.

Often there would be a new song to learn, but more often new songs were learned by our choir in their own rehearsals. They could then lead the whole school, which picked up the new material very quickly.

As time went on, and the standard of singing improved, children would vie with each other to sing solos, eagerly putting up their hands to be chosen.

They were supportive of each other, greeting familiar performers with pleasure and new ones with quiet encouragement. Inevitably, some children became star singers, much as some become stars on the sports field. Their pride and confidence was a delight to see. Others showed confidence that wasn't always apparent in class. In time, singing became one of our school's signature activities that was valued and a source of great pride.

Important in all of this was the lead provided by our big choir, which practised every day for about 15 minutes at morning break (frequent short sessions are better than weekly long ones). The choir was in demand and travelled around the area to give concerts. although anyone could join they were proud of their status in the school and gave a valuable lead in assembly and other whole-school singing sessions.

Singing is an important performing skill at both primary key stages.

Studying and singing folk songs also touches most other areas of the music curriculum.

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