If you were asked to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Three Blind Mice,” “The Bear Ran Over The Mountain” or the “A, B, C” song, chances are you could deliver with flying colors.
But did you ever wonder, as I have, just where and how we learned those little ditties?
As a former music instructor who was schooled at a reputable university, I can attest to the fact that I was never, ever introduced to those common folk songs by my professors. Never once did I have to come up with the words to “On Top Of Old Smokey” on a college exam. Nor do I recall being taught those songs in grade or high school.
But, I know the words to “On Top Of Old Smokey” as do millions of Americans. I can sing “Rock-A-By Baby” to my grandchild and not miss a beat.
So, if those songs were not taught to us in school, and “Three Blind Mice” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” certainly never made the top 40 on the Billboard charts, and we never sang those songs at college keg parties around a campfire, just how is it we came to know them?
Let’s delve a bit into where and how we might have learned these “pop” folk songs.
We who were born in the 1940s or before, know lots of folk songs because they were sung to us by our parents and grandparents who were just a generation or so off the boats from Europe. Many of those tunes had their origins in the old worlds of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, England, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries and were casually sung by immigrants as part of their daily routines in their homes.
But, that is just part of the journey of folk music to the lips of Americans in the 20th century.
Believe it or not, as recently as the 1960s, folk music became a major part of our popular music culture. There was a period of time in American history (the late 1950s and very early 1960s) when folk songs were actually popular among the masses, so much so that the three most popular TV shows in 1960 were “Hootenanny,” “Hullabaloo,” and “Sing Along With Mitch.”
“Hullabaloo” and “Hootenanny” showcased folk singers, both soloists and groups, appearing on television in front of simple sets, performing, or lip-syncing their latest hits. Several songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooly” even made the top-40 charts during that time.
And the oddest hit show of that period may have been “Sing Along With Mitch,” which featured a camera looking directly over choir director Mitch Miller’s back leading a bunch of stiffs in dresses and V-neck sweaters singing simple songs like “On Top of Old Smokey” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
Those shows, were hits in prime time television in the early 1960s. And indeed, folk music was as much the rage in that brief period of American history as the other TV genres such as westerns, variety shows and games shows. Maybe that is where we “Boomers” learned folk songs.
So, why is it that folk music as a major genre in today’s pop culture became out of vogue?
One reason was the negative impact that style of music suffered from the anti-war movement and rock-and-roll phenomenon of the 1960s. Just as our nation was enjoying the simplicity of songs sung by the Kingston Trio, the Brother Four and the Limelighters, our country was shocked to the core by political assassinations, race riots and an unpopular war, so it became inane to promote artists singing “The Bear Ran Over the Mountain” while being engulfed day after day with these national disasters.
Because of the changing spirit of the times, folk music as we knew it in the 1950s and early 60s died, but soon transitioned from the benign to an edgy, provocative style with tunes put forward by artists such as Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, whose lyrics often dealt with social issues of the day, including songs such as “Blowin in the Wind” and “The Times, They are a Changin.”
I for one, lament the fact that traditional folk music is in critical condition with the general public these days and can only hope for its revival in some form.
Meanwhile, I will continue to sing my little ditties learned somehow during my formative years and remember that the reason it is called “folk” music is because it is our music — the music of us folk.
Bob Statz is a Messenger staff writer.