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  • Writer's pictureJenny Ferris

A Home Among The Gumtrees... Australian Folksong and its place in our classrooms

Kodaly wrote about the importance of introducing children to songs from their "musical mother tongue". In order for them to pick up new concepts quickly and clearly, he believed children should be presented with musical examples from their own culture, believing the idioms to feel more natural to them and therefore allow them to learn and explore the songs' content quicker and more in-depth than songs from another culture.

As Australians, this presents us with a few issues when finding music from our "mother tongue" and as such, I know a lot of Australian Kodaly teachers struggle to include uniquely Australian content in their lessons to the level that they would like.

I believe this is due to a number of reasons:

Our Indigenous culture has a rich collection of songs and dances, however many of these are only intended to be performed in certain places, times or occasions or by certain people. As a non-Indigenous Australian, it is inappropriate for me to share much of this music with my students as these songs and stories are not mine to tell.

Uluru painting - Danny Eastwood

That being said, there are plenty of ways to incorporate Indigenous Australian repertoire into your classes as a non-Indigenous teacher. You can consult with your local elder about music that is appropriate to share, or even arrange for a visit or performance.

Aside from Indigenous Australian music, a lot of our colonial heritage comes initially from Britain, meaning that while we share a lot of these folk songs, they are not truly and uniquely Australian.

Sheep shearing

The first songs that did develop a uniquely Australian flavour were sung by the convicts and settlers who first came to Australia in the 18th century. Whilst there are many fantastic songs out there which have survived, many of them are not appropriate for primary music classrooms, either through bawdy content or, more often, simply because they use a wide melodic range with difficult intervals and are often in compound time with complex rhythmic structures. They're not suitable to be broken down and analysed by primary-aged musicians.

Alas, there is very little so & mi repertoire that belongs to the Australian folk song mother tongue.

So, is it worth even attempting to include Australian folk songs in our repertoire? I believe so, yes. However, we can no longer look to find repertoire simply because it contains tika-tika or a so-do passage. We must now look for other teaching purposes to include this repertoire.

One of the things I have always loved about music is the fact that it teaches so many other disciplines and subject areas besides music. Linguistics, shape and pattern, teamwork, resilience, leadership. And, in this case, history.

I did a little bit of digging and asked around the classroom teachers to see who had an upcoming Australian History unit. It turned out one class had just started looking at Australian settlers and the gold rush. So, we teamed up and studied a few folk songs such as Bold Tommy Payne from a historical analysis viewpoint and were able to find some common links to their class studies. I used these great picture accompaniments, available though Sound Thinking

I've also done a compare and contrast writing task comparing the two versions of Waltzing Matilda

(see some examples below)

Finally, these folk songs are EXCELLENT for studying form. There are some fantastic call & response songs such as Bullocky-Oh and many are really clear-cut examples of a verse-chorus structure.

And, perhaps most importantly, these songs do give students a snapshot of one part of Australia's cultural heritage, as varied and colourful as it may be. The historian in me believes it's important to preserve these songs and make sure they stay alive by performing them and passing them on to the next generation.

It can make for some truly meaningful experiences as well. The first time I heard "Streets of Forbes" as a folk song, I just sat there smiling to myself through my own little epiphany as I had originally encountered it as a concert band arrangement when I was a French-horn tooting teenager. That connection was a powerful musical experience and I'll always be glad I had it. I hope to be able to pass on similar musical experiences to my students. After all, taa & ti-ti aside, isn't that what our jobs really are?

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