Monday, May 17, 2010

How Music Can Tell a Story: The Ballad

Since man was created, he has set words to music to make them more memorable. The ballad is something integral to almost every culture; before writing existed and written records were common, memorized stories -often set to music to make them more memorable- were THE way a nation, family, or king's histories were remembered from generation to generation. These simple story-songs can be found in the Psalms, ancient poetry, folk songs, all the way up to today's rock 'n' roll ballads and country music songs. These stories-to-music are often the most accesible to children because they exist for the sole purpose of telling stories, and who doesn't love a good story? As I used to sing to my preschoolers "A ballad is a song that tells a story/it might be true, or it might not be/ a ballad is a song/ a sung story." Here are a few common ones that kids love, linked to books about them or tangential to them:

-- for the very youngest, there are all those nursery rhymes-- Jack & Jill, Mary Had a Little Lamb, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Hey Diddle Diddle... The Complete Book of Rhymes Songs & Fingerplays and Wee Sing Mother Goose are two very inclusive ones. Many of the nursery rhymes have picture books devoted to them. You can also find coloring pages of them to print from online.
  • The Itsy Bitsy Spider, by Iza Trapini
  • The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by John Prater
  • The Bunny Reads series by Rosemary Wells (Twinkle, Twinkle; The Bear Went Over; The Itsy Bitsy Spider)
-- Froggy Went A-Courtin', by either Iza Trapini or Gillian Tyler or John Langstaff. Truth be known, my sisters & I came to know this American folk song through this story-on-tape at our grandma's house.
-- Over the River & Through the Woods, by Lydia Maria Child. A great accompaniment to your Thanksgiving celebrations.
-- There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly, by Simms Taback
--The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night- Nickel Creek's version is my all-time favorite of this American folk song. My 5-8th grade boys LOVED this book version, by Peter Spier.

(as usual, they use this song to show off their amazing talent and go off on random amazingly cool tangents. On the actual CD it's just the straight up song, which most kids appreciate more.)
-- while I'm on the topic of Nickel Creek, a great many of their songs are in fact, ballads ("The Lighthouse," "The Hand Song," "The Fox," "Sweet Afton"). And all of them on their first album, simply entitled Nickel Creek, are really well-done. Go buy the album!
-- The Middle Earth Album, by Glass Hammer, is meant to be set in the middle of JRR Tolkien's Prancing Pony Inn of The Hobbit fame. It has several rollicking good yarns about trolls and ladies and elves and even Tom Bombadil. If your kids have read The Hobbit, this is almost a must-have.

-- The Ballad of John Henry, another American folk song, has several books of it. I read this one aloud to my middle school boys choir class. The version I grew up on can be found on the Wee Sing America CD.
-- last but not least, there is the Celtic ballad. The Irish in particular had perfected the art of story-telling music, with professional bards called filid at every ruler's court, entrusted with memorizing, performing, and writing songs detailing the clan's history and their ruler's feats. In their tradition, Loreena McKennit is an amazing perfomer of many, many ballads including Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman and The Lady of Shalott. The Tanahill Weavers' Best Of album also has two ballad recountings of the Battle of Prestonpans which will delight most boys and girls: "Tranet Muir" & "Jonnie Cope"

Christians can also find "stories behind the Psalms" in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.

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