Traditional Folk Songs – Still Great for Kids Today

By Anna Stange

The songs we use in my early childhood music classes (Miss Anna’s Music Class) are primarily old American folk songs.  Most are traditional songs handed down and/or adapted for children.  Some were always songs for young people.  Some of the songs I use are those remembered from my childhood, and some I learned when my daughter and nieces were young.  But to keep the classes and songs fresh (for us adults) I always have an ear open for “new” songs.  One of my favorite resources is American Folk Songs For Children by Ruth Crawford Seeger.  It has been in print since 1948—a testament to its value to classroom teachers.

In her introduction to the songbook, Mrs. Seeger talked about the importance of teaching American folk music to our children:
–          It belongs to our children—it is an integral part of their cultural heritage.
–          It is a bearer of history and custom.
–          It gives early experience of democratic attitudes and values.
–          It has grown through being needed and used—it has adapted itself frequently to new surroundings.
–          It is not “finished” or crystallized—it invites improvisation & creative aliveness.
–          It has rhythmic vitality—it is music of motion.
–          It is a kind of music which everyone can help make-it invites participation.
–          It is not just children’s music—it is family music.
(Adapted from American Folk Songs For Children by Sally Rogers in Pass It On! The Journal of the Children’s Music Network, #51, Fall 2005)

Here are some examples of songs I use with children and parents in my classes:

By’m Bye (Stars Shining)
May be used as a counting finger play, or to count buttons, steps or any foolish thing.
By’m Bye, By’m bye,
Stars shining, number, number one,
Number two, number three, (repeat and continue as necessary)
Oh my, By’m bye, By’m bye,
Oh my, By’m bye, by’m bye.

Part of the great fun of these simple folk and children’s songs is their versatility.  “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” easily morphs into “He’ll be picking up his toys when he comes… She’ll be buckled in her car seat when she comes…”  You can use any familiar tune to “zip” in some new verses to suit any situation.  The song, “Mary Wore Her Red Dress,” is one that I use in every class to sing about something special about each child by name.  Here’s what Merle Peek, the illustrator, had to say about the use of this song:

“Mary Wore Her Red Dress is a folksong from Texas, and it lends itself well to improvisation.  Children can make up verses about themselves and their friends.  It doesn’t matter if the new items are too long to fit the music; just add the necessary number of beats to fit the syllables as in Julie wore her green-and-blue-striped overalls, her green-and-blue-striped overalls…
“Besides singing about clothing and colors, the possibilities for other verses are endless.  Daily incidents can inspire them—outside it’s raining; the tulips are blooming; the dog is sleeping.  Along those lines, the children could sing, Barry is running in the rain, in the rain… David picked some red tulips, red tulips…; Daisy took a nap by the fire, a nap by the fire…
“A guessing game is always fun.  The children might begin with: Who’s got a bandaged finger, bandaged finger…? Sydney has a bandaged finger, bandaged finger…Then they could go on with: Who has a new kitty, new kitty…?  Alice has a new kitty, new kitty, new kitty.  Alice has a new kitty, all day long.”

(From the Merle Peek book, Mary Wore Her Red Dress)

Anna Stange is a board member of The Children’s Music Network.


  1. I was raised on traditional folk songs. It saddens me that many kids do not know them. It’s a lot like B&W movies or TV shows…hard to relate. My small contabution this year has been to rerecord many folk classics in my style and hope that it can be a bridge to the more tradition sounds. I love to rock, but I still love the classics!

  2. Ah yes, the beauty of traditional folk songs can’t be beat, nowhere, no how! While it’s fun to share songs that I’ve written, I, too, love sharing traditional songs when I perform concerts. They are part of our cultural heritage and if we continue to sing them with our children (music teachers, classroom teachers, parents), we can guarantee their place in our history. The trick is: let’s continue to sing them!!! Thanks for the reminder Anna!

Comments are closed.