Lambs, Larks, and Cockroaches: A Folk Compendium


My friends hosted a half-Swedish, half-Danish holiday party the other evening and after being invited to sing a Swedish drinking folksong with one of the hosts, I decided it would be a great idea to co-opt part of the evening to knock out a few requirements for the ever-fascinating Music Appreciation badge that I’m working on. Hence, I commenced to “dropping some folksong science on suckas,” to use the words of my Scandi host.

First, I dusted off requirement #14: Discuss and dramatize good musical manners for a concert in a public hall, during a radio or phonograph program in a home.

In the present-day, technology plays a large role in our manners…or lack thereof. According to the Academy of Movement and Music, there are six important things to remember when you’re at a performance of any kind; to paraphrase: 1) Don’t talk, 2) Hold applause until all sections in a set are complete, 3) Turn off all electronics, 4) Don’t use flash photography, 5) Remain seated and only exit between songs, 6) Do not whistle, yell, hoot, or holler.

As counterpoint, I also researched what the etiquette rules looked like back in the glory days of 1947 (our year of divine holiness, the printing of the Girl Scout Handbook, Intermediate), and found a lovely list from Her Highness of Manners, Madame Emily Post. Here are a few choice tidbits, paraphrased:

  • Full black tie (with tails), hat, gloves – BRING IT.
  • Ladies enter the seating area first; the most distinguished (or oldest, since being old was a lot more awesome back in the day) guest goes in the front, and gentlemen never sit in the front row!
  • If you’re inviting others, always invite them to dine first, and keep it to no more than six to eight people…and only suggest the outing if good tickets are available, you cheapskate! Furthermore, the hostess or host should arrange to order all tickets beforehand.
  • Do not giggle or talk…and do not glare at those behind you if they do. Perhaps just practice some other form of gentle passive-aggressiveness?
  • Never say anything as gauche as “Beg pardon” – allllllways say the full and proper, “I beg your pardon.”
  • And, my favorite: Be mindful of others as you take your seat, “especially when it is dark and difficult to see, a coat on an arm passing behind a chair can literally devastate the hair-dressing of a lady occupying it.” LITERALLY DEVASTATE.

Second, I brought the interactive fun (or, more likely, the interactive hostage-holding of party attendees) with a high-speed vocal medley of twelve folksongs and an accompanying quiz game in order to knock out these two requirements:

#10: Prepare and put on a music program for your troop, another troop, or your parents. Sing, play, use phonograph records, or get someone else to sing or play songs or selections. Tell your guests some of the interesting things that you have found out about these selections, and plan your program so they can take some part in it.

#11: Find out how folk songs originate and some of their general characteristics. learn twelve folk songs, from at least five countries, including two Negro spirituals and two cowboy songs from the United States of America.

Here are those twelve songs, along with some of that folksong science that was promised:

HEJ TOMTEGUBBAR (Sweden): I was asked to sing this with one of the party’s hosts, a gentleman of Swedish extract named Mattias. You know what’s hard to sing? ANYTHING IN SWEDISH. But I tried, even though everything after “Hej, Tomtegubbar!” sounded like mangled gobbledygook. This is a traditional Christmas song about letting bygones be bygones and bidding adieu to any negativity lingering from the previous year. Then you drink. A lot. Skål!

HOME ON THE RANGE (United States, cowboy song): If you’re anything like me, this is one of the first things that would come to mind if you heard the phrase “cowboy songs.” These were the tunes sung during long journeys across the Great Plains, especially around the campfire with a tin of beans and something potent in your cup. This song also happens to be the state song of Kansas, which boasts the American Bison as its state animal – who knew! Kansas used to be a bison Holy Land and this song originated with a poem written by a Kansan doctor with the awesome name of Brewster M. Higley. They just don’t name ‘em like they used to.

OH MY DARLING, CLEMENTINE (United States, cowboy song): Like many folk songs, this one has disputed origins, but it’s thought to have emerged somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade on either side of “Home On The Range.” While researching these songs, I stumbled across a really cool NPR piece on – wait for it – Cowboy Songs, and you should give it a quick scan if you’re at all interested!

WADE IN THE WATER (United States, Negro spiritual): Folk songs developed in many ways, but the history of spirituals has deep roots in American slavery. Songs were used to help pass the time, tell stories, share history, and express emotion. In some cases, they were also used as “coded communication” between slaves and by the Underground Railroad. In this case, to “wade in the water” is often interpreted to mean that those who were fleeing slavery should walk in the waterways to avoid detection by sniffing dogs.

SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT (United States, Negro spiritual): This was another song that found popularity among slaves and in the Underground Railroad, and like “Wade In The Water,” it’s now a staple in many churches, especially in the South. In the video above, Johnny Cash offers an interesting introduction about the purported origins of this song. This also goes to show how folksongs are adopted outside of their original contexts – this is a bit of a (sort of oddly) jazzy arrangement, and while Cash acknowledges the song’s slavery origins, he states his reason for singing it right at the beginning: “I’ve known a lot of people…who work hard every day of their life, backbreaking work when you get your hands dirty, and it’s a sweet thought to think that there’s gotta be something a little better after this life is over.”

ALOUETTE (France): This song is considered a cute children’s song, but I was surprised to learn that it’s actually kind of violent, since it’s about plucking every single feather from every single part of a lark’s body! French Canadians adopted it as their own and it’s now used to teach children about body parts, as with the unsettling cartoon above. CREEPY, RIGHT?

MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB (United States / England): The story behind this folksong isn’t all that sexy – started as a poem, yadda yadda – but what did catch my eye is that the writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, is credited with forging a crusade to formalize Thanksgiving as a national holiday! She hit a home run when (probably exhausted from her letters and inquiries) President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863, establishing the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving! Notice that he did not proclaim anything about the last Friday of November being Throw All That Thanks Out The Window and Trample People In Wal-Mart Parking Lots Day.

DRUNKEN SAILOR (United States): Oh yeah, that’s right – that’s a “United States” in the parentheses over there! What – you thought this was from Ireland? Me, too. Turns out that even though this sloshy little ditty is widely regarded as an Irish drinking song, it’s actually a sea shanty with origins in the American shipping trade. The first printed mention of this whisky-soaked song popped up in 1839 in the records of a whaling ship that set sail from Connecticut. Zing!

KOOKABURRA (Australia): If you search for “kookaburra” on YouTube, you’ll find about a zillion videos of A) Australians and b) non-Australian zoo-goers remarking at just how hilarious the kookaburra’s laugh is, and when you watch those vidoes, you’ll realize that the kookaburra is not a fuzzy, koala-like animal (which is what I always thought), but rather a species of kingfisher. In a bit of Scout-related trivia, the composer of this song, Marion Sinclair, wrote it for a competition run by the Aussie version of the Girl Scouts, Girl Guides.

THE IRISH ROVER (Ireland): Despite its popularity today with artists like The Pogues and Dropkick Murphys, this folksong, like many others, has disputed origins. The thing about traditional folk music (the non-Bob Dylan, Lumineers-free type) is that its origins are in the oral tradition – i.e. early versions of the songs weren’t necessarily written down, so it’s not always easy to find the source of these now-iconic songs. Because they were passed down from person to person, the songs often went through slight (and sometimes not-so-slight) changes as they went from ear to mouth to ear to mouth – like one very, very long game of telephone. In that spirit, the modern version of “The Irish Rover” – and many of the folksongs I researched for this project – is slightly different than the earliest recorded versions.

LA CUCARACHA (Mexico): I venture to guess that most Americans see this as a silly novelty song, but it was actually popularized during the Mexican Revolution with very, very political lyrics. In fact, the “cockroach” in this version usually represents then-President Victoriano Huerta…but the other side of the aisle created their own version raising pitchforks against revolutionary (and eventual President) Venustiano Carranza.

CAN THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN (United States): Like many folksongs, this one started as a hymn, and as you might guess from the “hearse came a-rollin’” line, it was performed at funerals. It’s since been adopted into more mainstream use – the chorus is also used in the Johnny Cash song “Daddy Sang Bass,” which is decidedly more upbeat than funereal. The song has since been covered by a litany of legendary artists from Bob Dylan to The Band to The Staples Singers to Willie Nelson to…Moby. On that last note, maybe sometimes the circle should be broken.

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