Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

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