Kids & music

henrymusicDo you remember the post not too long ago about the MA library that loans out a ukulele? The “Unshelved” guys (one of whom is a uke player) did a comic strip about it. I’ve noted in the past that Americans tend to enjoy ukuleles, or they hate them in the way some folks hate glockenspiels or accordions, and the dichotomy between the two attitudes is pretty apparent in this strip.

Anyway, hooray! (As I always say when anyone recognizes, for better or worse, that ukes aren’t just toys, even when kids are playing them.)


bearI’m starting the new year with an old song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” I looked in my copy of Tom Glazer’s Treasury of Songs for Children (Doubleday, 1988), as well as in Wikipedia, and it doesn’t appear to have any kind of story behind it. It’s just a silly song set to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (which means of course that you can use the uke chords I offer here for that song, too).

I’ve often used this song for toddler and preschool storytime sessions in which I brought out the big box of rhythm instruments – the drums, tambourines, shakers, and sticks – and descended with the children into sonic chaos. But it’s a fun sonic chaos, since most young children don’t really get the idea of a beat, but they sure enjoy making noise. The trick, of course, is “Can you, as song leader, guide this noise, and have the children follow your directions?”

I would encourage the kids to beat, shake, or pound their instruments whenever I’d reach the spot indicated by “dramatic pause” in the lyric sheet. I’d pause in the song, strum the uke percussively (rest your fingers, lightly, over the strings and strum yourself a drum roll), and shout out, “Faster!” or “Slower!” or “Louder!” or “Softer!” and then…. “Stop!” And then I’d go right into “To see what he could see…”

It’s fun. Try it.

henrymusicHere’s a great idea that I never thought would work well, but obviously seems to – at least it does at the Forbes Library of Northampton, MA. They’re circulating a ukulele. Read about it in this article.

The inexpensive uke was donated by a local music store. Here are the details:

Any library card holder in 6th grade or older can check out the ukulele for three weeks and then renew it once. “If someone loses or damages it, or the instructional DVD, we will charge for replacement the same as with other circulating materials,” [the FPL’s Art & Music Dept. head Faith] Kaufmann told LJ. It is worth about $50, on a par with many audiobooks, for example. So far patrons have taken excellent care of it.”

There’s a waiting list of 24, which I find pretty amazing.

I don’t know if I would like to see what would happen in a bigger city library, but I think circulating a uke is an extremely cool idea, especially if several of of them could be provided for kids and a community volunteer would be willing to hold, say 30 – 60min programs each week to teach kids and adults to accompany themselves on simple songs. With so many kids unable to have music lessons through school any more, it could be a really appropriate service. More libraries should be taking chances like these.

I was happy to see this week that the ukulele has gained another library-related fan – Bill Barnes of the “Unshelved” comic strip. Evidently Bill, who homeschools his kids, was one of a multi-family homeschoolers’ camping trip, and several families included instrumentalists – and there were plenty of sing-along sessions. Those sessions inspired Bill to take up an instrument himself.

But when choosing an instrument, he had some conditions:

  • I’m lazy and undisciplined, so it needs to be easy to learn.
  • I travel a lot, so it needs to be highly portable.
  • It needs to feel fun, so that I’m inspired to practice and play.
  • I love to sing, so it needs to be a good accompaniment instrument.
  • I’m a cartoonist, so it needs to be inexpensive.

Guess which instrument, as I’ve been saying here for some time, meets all these criteria?

Check out his post on the Unshelved blog. And if you haven’t yet picked up a uke, take a look at his list once again. If you have any music in your soul at all, who can resist?

Somewhat less library-related, but just as much fun, is this story from the Worcester (MA) Telegram site: “Ukulele lovers stand tall.” It’s a great run-down of the story behind the huge boom the uke has experienced worldwide in the past few years – almost all of it inspired by the Internet. I played the uke for nearly thirty years, thinking that everyone else who played an instrument played the guitar or piano or trumpet – but not the uke. I never came into contact with another uke player until around 1998, when I discovered that ukulele fans were posting on the Net.

It’s a perfect example of the “Long Tail” (or “Short String” might be better) phenomenon – a niche group of widely scattered but passionate folks who have finally discovered each other and put together festivals like the “Uke-stock” mentioned here.

I’ve always thought it exceedingly odd that there are two well-known songs for young children that feature ducks, and one is called “Five Little Ducks,” while the other is “Six Little Ducks.” I’ve sung ’em both (not at the same time) for a long while, and I posted “Six Little Ducks” here some time ago. (If I had to choose one as my favorite, I’d choose the Six, as it’s happy and goofy all the way through. But I like the Five, too.)

The fact that I like “Five Little Ducks” doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not troubled by the fact that up until the penultimate line, this is a really tragic song. Like in a bad crime thriller, the mother of the Five Little Ducks is losing her children one by one. Is it a kidnapper? A child molester? A serial killer? The Big Bad Wolf?

We never do find out. (My wife rolls her eyes at my suggestion of serial killers and says, “They’re just exploring; you know, asserting their independence.”) But at least they’re all returned to her in the triumphant climax. Whenever I sing the song with kids, I always stop somewhere between verses to ask, “Well, where did they go? Where do you think they are? I sure hope we find them.” When I get to the verse in which the “sad mother duck” does her “quack, quack, quack,” I do it very melodramatically and mournfully, with a loud snurgly sniffle. And when the five ducklings reappear, I sing it with a happy smile and a cheer.

Hooray for the ukulele!It was great to discover a feature story in the Style section of this weekend’s New York Times about the resurgence of the ukulele, called “Those Four Irresistible Strings.” Well, in truth, I know that lots of adults can resist them and aren’t uke fans. (I find that pretty unbelievable, but oh, well.)

But you know and I know that kids love ukuleles, and a great deal of the reason why is that they grasp pretty quickly you can learn to play well enough to accompany yourself on whole bunches of songs without much hassle. And if you want to buy your own, there’s not a huge investment involved. Plus the sound is great fun, like being tickled without needing to be doubled over in discomfort – you can’t beat that. The story says:

“You can’t walk down the street with a ukulele without being asked about it,” said Chris Johnson, who plays the instrument with the Deedle Deedle Dees, a Brooklyn-based rock band for children. “I teach some kids music lessons, usually starting with piano, but they are all interested in ukulele.”

What the world seems to need now is something tiny, fun and inexpensive.

Here’s a special announcement for those interested in learning to play or practice some uke who are here in the Austin, TX, area. I’ve met some folks who have put together a uke hobnob, or as they call it, a “Wail ‘n’ Flail,” at the Ruta Maya coffee house every few Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. The next one is August 17, but check out the Wail ‘n’ Flail page for the date of the next one if you happen upon this post after that.

I hope I’ll see you there. If you’re interested in learning the uke to sing with kids, I’ll be happy to get you set up with all four of those strings you’ll need.

Here’s a ukulele song that’s really flexible for storytimes and other children’s events – “She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain.” It’s easy to play; my arrangement uses the same old C – F – G7 chords I’ve typically used throughout the uke songs I’ve posted here. You can, however, transpose it up and down the scale as it pleases you and as your skills improve, if you don’t want to feel as if you’re stuck in the same key with every song you play (for example, to F – Bb – C7 or G – C – D7).

So, anyway, who is the “she” who’s coming around the mountain? As Wikipedia tells us:

While it is not entirely clear who the “she” in the song refers to, there are various plausible interpretations. One interpretation suggests that “she” is the train that will be coming through the tracks that are being laid out by workers.

Carl Sandburg, in The American Songbag, suggests that “she” refers to union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones [pictured] going to promote formation of labor unions in the Appalachian coal mining camps.

Currently the song is usually sung in collections of children’s music with slightly different lyrics. The song has been recorded by musicians ranging from Pete Seeger to Barney the Dinosaur.

(I had no idea that Barney was a musician.) Some people may object to singing “We’ll kill the old red rooster” in a preschool storytime. This doesn’t bother me, and I never saw it bother the kids, but some of the parents and caregivers may object. If it bothers you, you can always sing, “We’ll go shopping down at Whole Foods when she comes,” and for the next verse, even “We’ll eat a mess of tofu when she comes.” (Sorry.)

Seriously, though, the thing I find great about this song is how you can change the lyrics to fit a particular program need. For example, some time ago I discovered a version on the Web, on a site called “Grandpa Tucker’s Halloween,” called “She’ll be riding on a broomstick when she comes.” This site no longer seems to exist; the version I link to appears to be a Google archive. So grab these lyrics while you can; I’ve used them in every Halloween program I’ve done for the last five years.

You can use the tune for Christmas (“We’ll give her [or she’ll bring us] lots of presents when she comes”), Mother’s Day (“We’ll have those flowers ready when she [Mom] comes”), Thanksgiving, Summer Reading or any holiday that needs more songs that work with younger children. Try it.

And do watch this video on the site (scroll down to the bottom to see it). I loved it, but I wouldn’t try playing the song quite this fast with young kids.

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