folk songs, and causing trouble

I caused a stir in music class recently – a class I don’t even teach.

I arrived to pick up the kids and the music teacher asked without preamble, “Did you teach them I’ve Been to Haarlem?

I wasn’t sure how I could have taught them a song I didn’t know. As a way to collect the group during transitions, I had started to teach them this:

I’ve been to London, I’ve been to Dover

I’ve traveled this wide world all over

Over, over, three times over

Drink what you have to drink and turn your glasses over.

Sailing east, sailing west, sailing over the ocean

You better watch out when the boat begins to rock

Or you’ll lose your lunch in the ocean.

Given the nausea joke, it was a big hit.

The song was in my repertoire from a long ago stint as a rehearsal assistant/intern with a professional company, where I worked as general go-for, fly-on-the-wall, and sponge for everything I could learn about professional theater. The director asked one of the actors to start warm ups with a song, and Lindsay launched right into it.

Now, when my students’ music teacher tried this more traditional version on the kids, they rebelled:

I’ve been to Haarlem, I’ve been to Dover…

… You better watch out when the boat begins to rock

Or you’ll lose your girl in the ocean!

What was this business about Harlem? And girls? It was about throwing up on a boat! I felt bad for indirectly causing resistance and confusion in music class. Later in the day I explained to a few kids that there were different versions of the song – they had just been introduced to a second one. (Personally, I appreciate replacing the gender-stereotyping of a girl falling overboard with a bit of physical humor, but that’s neither London nor Dover.)

The whole incident has me psyched to teach the kids about folk music more generally, as a genre that people can change and remake to communicate their own messages. Female singers and activists have edited the old Woody Guthrie tune “Union Maid” to emphasize the ongoing struggles for women in the workplace. Many people don’t know about more radical (and often unpublished) verses of “This Land is Your Land.” Heck, if my students wanted to, they could write their own version of the song in question, which I now know is called “Turn the Glasses Over.”

I hear that they’ll soon be learning the sea shanty “John Kanaka” in music class. Maybe once they know it I’ll play them a version by a punk band for variety.

The fun part is that whether you say London, Harlem, lunch or girl, “Turn the Glasses Over” is compatible with The Cups Song. That will really blow their minds.

*Photo of Woody Guthrie singing on the subway taken at the excellent Folk City exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

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