Sing For And About America, Part One

Listen up!

Have you noticed that those who study and practice music in some fashion generally become students who, on most measurements of intelligence, are found to be more highly capable than those who are deprived of such experiences?

This is why it pleases me to read that Cumberland County School Superintendent Till avows his commitment to the arts as well as to athletics in public school curricula.  This is why it also pleases me to read that such a prominent sports figure as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Washington lobbyist for music education in the schools.

Why many of us may regret that music education is neglected,  we usually express more concern that we have lost track of physical fitness as an essential goal for our schools.  Kids are getting fatter,  kids are getting unhealthier,  kids ride busses back and forth to school, and ride in cars back and forth to nearly every destination.(Only a small fraction of students usually are part of active athletic teams.)

But I suspect we have done even less to educate all our students by having them sing from the “American Songbook” and by introducing them to at least  a rudimentary knowledge of both instrumental and vocal music.  (Dance and graphic arts are other important curricular topics that I will not address here.)

Why is music education so important, especially in learning and practicing the music that is part of our American history and, as well, part of our knowledge of world cultures?

In my simple one-room country school in northeastern Kansas,  we had few resources and limited guidance in our music education.  What we did have was Mrs. Clara Haller, who not only taught all eight grades, but also was a trained pianist who would lead us in singing two or three songs every day from “The New Brown Book” of over 110 “Community Songs.” It bore the title “I Hear America Singing.”  (I found a copy of this old treasure in a roadside antiques kiosk several years ago, and I treasure it.)

At our monthly very modest PTA meetings,  we would also listen to songs from adult members (or guests) and also perhaps be required to sing ourselves.  One song here (I guess it might be termed a “scat” piece) that was contemporary and popular and that that I recall standing up and singing with other scholars was “Mairzy Doats.”

This songbook was eclectic.  It was historically correct. Much of the language in it in the American songs (I wrote about this in my “Sandspur” column a couple of years ago) would now be considered “politically incorrect”  and, sadly, would probably be suppressed by educators more concerned about “offending” parents or adults in the community than providing a rich and stimulating education.

Sorry about that,  but the songs did exhibit authentic dialects and cultural conditions (see, for example, Stephen Foster’s robust and genuine “Old Folks at Home”) and are essential parts of American history and folklore.  Why are we afraid for our children to learn about that, the “real stuff”?

Part II of observations about this topic will follow in a day or so.  Probably more like “or so.”

RJR

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