The Folk Tradition

I believe my first memory of a nursery rhyme or song is my mother singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” to me in the dining room of our house. Strangely, although I now know all of the traditional songs I don’t have any direct memory of learning them or singing them as a child.

Not having children myself I haven’t had the opportunity to teach any songs to a new generation but a quick search on Amazon UK provides a number of current publications that list a range of traditional children’s folk songs and, given the way market economics works (they wouldn’t be produced if nobody was buying them) I can only assume that the current generation of children is enjoying them as much as the last.

I’ve also asked a number of friends with children and it seems that traditional nursery rhymes and rounds are still very popular although a number of people commented that songs from television programmes are also frequently being sung.

Although the two terms might in some cases be interchangeable, the origin of individual nursery rhymes are, initially at least, generally distinct from the historical formation folk songs due to the selection of subject matter.

Folk song as a genre may have developed from the storytelling tradition of wandering minstrels relaying semi-historical or fictitious accounts of courtly love or derring-do. Once a melody or subject had become popularised there would be no control over manipulation of the music or text so it could be changed at will by the people at large.

However, a subject that might seem initially to address a social issue of some depth might, in time, develop into something completely different as both circumstance and society develop. A useful example is “Ring o’ Roses” where an early version might have been being sung as far back as the late eighteenth century. Twentieth century received wisdom was that the poem/song was concerned with the great plague of 1665. The ring of roses were said to represent the red rash that accompanied infection, the pocket of posies were the nosegays used by the population to fend off the smell of corruption from the bodies that littered London, “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!”, the sneezing which accompanied an advanced case and, somewhat brusquely, “we all fall down!”, everybody dies. Splendid.

Unfortunately, these don’t seem to tie in with the symptoms of the plague but it hasn’t stopped generations of children (children being what they will) reveling in morbid fascination at the thought of the demise of thousands. We now happily sing this in nursery schools.

The birth of new nursery rhymes might need to be meme-like as an individual composer wouldn’t be able to recognize the cultural relevance of a work to a future audience. For instance, writing a catchy tune with text relating to the folly of George Osborne would only work if history painted the subject in a comparable light. If future generations looked favourably on the Chancellor’s work, the rhyme wouldn’t be retold and would soon wither.

The musical structure of most nursery rhymes seems to rely on the major scale with as few accidentals as possible. The perfect fifth features strongly. Twinkle Twinkle jumps from the tonic straight to the perfect fifth, up a further tone, then straight back down the scale. This is easy to listen to and easy for young ears to remember. Frère Jacques has a similar formulation in that it begins with a climb from the tonic to the major third, then climbs again to the perfect fifth, creating a nice harmonic triad. The second two phrases are a bit more challenging in that the third line (fifth, sixth, fifth, fourth, third, tonic, repeat) asks the singer to double the time for half of the bar, and the last requires movement to a fourth below the tonic, that being an octave below the original fifth.

“London Bridge is Falling Down” is a little more unusual as it doesn’t begin on the tonic but on the perfect fifth, and this is where the melody returns most frequently. We only get resolution to the tonic with the last three notes, another pleasant harmonic triad.

Lyrically, nursery rhymes tend to stick to an easy-to-remember formula that will allow a child to follow and join in quickly:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, (Star – A)
How I wonder what you are. (Are – A)
Up above the world so high, (High – B)
Like a diamond in the sky. (Sky – B)

Incidentally, the same AABB pattern can be seen in rudimentary Rock ‘n’ Roll:

The warden threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing.
You should’ve heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.

Another popular pattern is ABCB:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

It would be quite difficult in the 21st Century to try and pin these songs down to a particular region without a reference of some kind (like naming the place in London’s Burning), especially in a region such as northern Europe where there has been such movement between countries. For instance, Twinkle Twinkle is based on a French tune but the text is from an English poet, Jane Taylor.

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