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Songs about Death

If you've been following the blog since the beginning, (2007) you know that my mother has been battling cancer and chemotherapy since the fall of that year.  Well, it looks like she's about to end her journey.  I pre-write most of my posts. By the time this is posted, she will most likely have died.  I'll be in the position that many of my students have faced.  I will have lost a parent.

Looking at my repertoire, I'm amazed by the presence of death, dying, and suffering in many songs and games.  Most of the songs we Kodaly teachers use are over 100 years old.  These songs were created to help children deal with the death around them.  It was rare for children to escape childhood without losing a sibling (or many siblings), a mother in childbirth or complications in pregnancy, a father to an industrial accident, a pet, an aunt or uncle, grandparents.  Today such losses are less common with only pets and grandparents being common losses for children.  Our culture doesn't talk about death and this leaves grieving children feeling more isolated and alone than they should.

Let's examine some standard songs in a typical Kodaly elementary classroom that deal with death and dying.  In my experience it is adults, not children who try to avoid the subject of death.  Adults try to cleanse children's world of unpleasantness.  Death is part of every person's life and needs to be treated with tenderness, honesty, and respect.  Rather than ignoring it, let's embrace our historical songs and learn how to grieve from our ancestors.

Who killed Cocky Robin
The video that heads this post is the variant of the song that I know best.  I taught this last year to second graders.  It is a fabulous so-mi-la song.  The kids really loved it because it was the first long song that they could read.  This year I have a child in that class whose father is gravely ill.  The song, which deals with the process of death, preparing the body, and burial, may be comforting for her or it may be traumatic.  Since her father is alive, she has not been exposed to the concept of a loved one as a body instead of alive.  I think that, this year, I'll choose another song for her class.  Here is a link for you to hear Alan Mills sing another variant of this classic Appalachian song.

This song is great in the context of hunting and wild game songs.  You can pair it with many standard elementary songs.

  • The book, "Oh a-hunting we will go" by John Langstaff is a wonderful book with a tuneful melody.  It's good for low so, low mi, and it throws in a fa at the end.  It has a mi-re-do pick up.  It's good comic relief to Cocky Robin and it's a faster tempo.
  • Kangaroo, this song (ssm, ssm, ssmmssm, ssmmssm, sfmrddd) is a great song for a sitting circle.  The last phrase "look who's caught you just for fun," is sung by a solo singer.  The person who had been hiding their eyes in the center then guesses who "caught" them.  
  • Shoo Turkey is a wonderful call and response song from the Georgia Sea Islands.  This song is in "Step it Down", the classic collection of songs dictated by Bessie Smith.  This song begins with students sitting and is an excellent transition to standing.  At the end, when you "shoo the turkey," students stand and make sweeping gestures with their hands while strutting like turkeys.  It's a fun game.  I play it differently than Miss Bessie.  I have students hide their eyes and I pick a "turkey" to be caught.  That person goes into the "fort" and puts one foot out.  We all have to guess whose turkey foot it is.

Tom Dooley and The Banks of the Ohio and Frankie and Johnny

I remember singing this song at Third Grade Hootenanny and thinking "gee, this is a naughty thing to sing about."  Tom Dooley killed his girlfriend in a jealous rage and now faces death by hanging.  The Banks of the Ohio is sung by the boyfriend who killed the girl and Tom Dooley is sung by someone witnessing the execution.  These songs are appropriate for upper elementary age children (9+ years old).

Frankie and Johnny is a great middle school song.  The subject is jealous murder of a lover, but the pentatonic melody is a jazz standard.  This song easily translates to Orff instruments, and there are many great renditions of it by jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Anita O'Day, and Lena Horne.
Frankie caught Johnny cheating

If you choose to do Frankie and Johnny, you MUST frontload discussion of the idiom, "he done her wrong."  The students need to hear the expression "being hard done by" or "you did a wrong there."  If they do not understand this, they will construe that line to mean, "Johnny was bad at sex."  This will get the class on a tangent that you don't want.

All three of these songs are great for tweens and teens.  These children are working out the implications of their burgeoning sexuality.  These songs deal with the extreme consequences of extreme adolescent infatuation.  These songs help students sort out right and wrong thinking and feeling when their thinking and feeling is most confused.
Placido Domingo as Otello
Portrayal of a black man as wealthy
and powerful.  Video is about $30
or you can rent from Netflix!

Click on the titles to hear the songs.  Keep in mind that there are thousands of variants for each song.  If you come across a different one, it's not wrong, just another kind of right.

These songs are also a great lead-in to opera.  Middle school students LOVE Verdi's Otello.  I show the Placido Domingo production in three classes.  I make cuts for time, but the inner city kids that I taught loved it and applauded when Iago met his end.  The opera promoted great discussion about communication and relationships.  The kids loved the music, and never complained about subtitles.

The link above brings you to an archival recording in the British Library.  I know the version in Sail Away.  This song is a great one for teaching the descending major triad, so-mi-do, reviewing so-la-so-mi, and working on dance improvisation.  Students sing the song and can clap if they wish.  At the end of the song, one student's name is called and that person gets up and dances in a wild and wacky manner, then bows to all.  That person gets to call out the next name.  In 3 minutes, everyone in a class of 20 can have a turn!  The lyrics are
Sir Luke Filde's painting, "The Doctor"
a common scene for pre-20th century people

Wallflowers, wallflowers, growin' up so high
may I catch the measles and never never die
let's all go to (Sally's) house, she has not relations
She can tick and tack and turn about and
bow to the congregation

I do this with grade 3 and up.  I talk about getting our shots to prevent diseases like measles.  We discuss how common it was to have children die of measles and polio and other illness before we had vaccines.  This painting can be made into a sound carpet or translated into a full composition using elements from Wallflowers in the Universal A section.

Old Roger is Dead
"Saved by the bell," it's not just a teen sitcom, it's an expression common during the gaslight era.  Before gas was scented with rotten egg smell, it killed thousands from leaks.  Many others seemed dead, their pulse was hard to detect, their breathing was hard to detect, and they had the pallor of death.  People were buried alive in many cases.  When bodies were exhumed, the coffins were scratched to the bare wood from the inside!  People took to running a bell pull from the hand of the departed, through the coffin, to a bell on the surface of the grave.  If a person wasn't really dead, they would pull the bell and "be saved by the bell."  This is the context of "Old Roger is Dead."

This call and response song is great for teaching the ascending phrase, so-la-ti-do.  It is a role-play game where one person is the non-dead, Old Roger, another is the apple tree, another is the wind, and the last is the Old Woman.  At the end of the song, Roger jumps up, knocks the woman on the head and the woman hops away.  You can find a different variant (the one I use) and a complete game description in 120 Singing games and dances by Lois Choksy.  I use this song with elementary children aged 9+.

The link for Old Roger above also brings you to other songs that I did not previously know, but have a dark subject.  "The worms crept out," is about a woman who is dealing with her own mortality.  "He took a dagger" seems to be in the vein of "Tom Dooley."

If you want to suggest a great horror/suspense movie to your students around Halloween, why not the Ingrid Bergman classic, "Gaslight."

Old Blue
This is the only song about death that has ever made a child sad in my classroom.  It's about a dog, Blue, who gets ill and dies.  The child who sings about him misses him a lot and honors his memory with the song.  Younger children express their similar feelings about loss of loved ones when this song is sung.  Depending on the adults, you may want to be careful with it.  As I mentioned before, children don't have a problem expressing grief, adults have a problem with children expressing grief.

The Gypsy Rover and Black Jack Davy
My upper elementary students love these songs.  They can easily be found in Sail Away or 150 American Folksongs.  They come in various modes and deal with children losing their mother in childbirth.  The "Gypsy Rover" or "Black Jack Davy" is death.  Death comes and woos the woman who "leaves her lover and children" to follow him over hill and dale.  The husband usually goes to the edge of "the water" and tries to talk her out of leaving, but she chooses to go.  These songs are appropriate for children over the age of 9, but I have had some adults expressing concern about the "edginess" of the lyrics.

Many variants of these songs are quite lively and cheery.  It's quite possible for a class to sing them and never realize the true nature of the lyrics.  It's amazing how much more they enjoy the songs, however, when they realize what the lyrics are about.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Dry Bones, and other Slave spirituals
Slavery is a biennial topic for our middle school, and it is very common in middle and high school curricula.  How great would it be to join with your middle school team and have students learn spirituals while they read Uncle Tom's Cabin, learn about Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, discover the underground railroad, and discuss Buffalo Soldiers and the aftermath of the Civil War!?  You can even integrate with the health teacher on mental health by discussing the role of music in preserving the spirits of slaves who underwent unimaginable hardships and brutality.

The bible is being taught as literature and for its historical influence in many public and private schools.  Pairing Negro Spirituals with the bible as literature would be a deeply personal and engaging way to present music to your middle school students.
Battle Hymn of the Republic, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and The Dying Redcoat
Soldiers go off to war and sometimes, they do not return.  Children with fathers and other family members deployed overseas live with this truth daily.  Patriotic songs that don't gloss over the danger and tragedy that comes with being a soldier are wonderful for children to sing.  Don't neglect these songs around Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  President's Week vacation is also a good time to trot out the patriotic, historical songs.

The last song listed above is from a series of newsletters from the 1980s called "Folksong in the Classroom."  Most of those songs have been compiled in an excellent book called "Ballad of America."  I'm going to buy said book with the proceeds from ads on this blog.  Please CLICK CLICK CLICK  on the ads!  I want that book!

Dangerous jobs and work songs, 
The Blantyre ExplosionThe Dying Cowboyand John Henry
Children will not realize how completely unexpected the rescue of the Chilean Miners was, because they have only known that disaster and probably do not live in a mining town.  The fact is that the case of the Chilean Miners is unique.  It has never happened before.  When mining accidents happen, people die.  It happened in Chile too, only some were saved, very very blessed men.  The building of bridges, railways, highways and the delivering of fuel and supplies has always been dangerous.  Songs of this ilk are paired effectively with the reading of Moby Dick and other classic tales of dangerous jobs.
Moby Dick can be studied in English while shanties are
studied in music class!

Research projects for music class can easily be done on dangerous jobs or even prison songs.  Have students brainstorm dangerous jobs of the 19th century and earlier, then have them find songs on those subjects.  Have them analyse the lyrics and melodies.  How does the music give evidence of the culture of work, life, and mourning from that time?

This link, which includes a variant of John Henry, has other great songs which deal with danger and death.

P.S. My mother died on February 17.  This is a link to the obituary.   May her memory be eternal.


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