Folk songs are tried and true songs that have lasted for hundreds of years because the melody is good, the words are catchy, and the song is often connected with a dance/movement/game. They come from a different time and different age when getting together with friends and neighbors to sing and dance was expected. When teaching folk songs the connections to history and culture are endless. If you spend just 5 minutes of each lesson talking about some of those connections you can quickly help kids understand more about their history and culture.
This song I want to share with you today, "As I Came Over Yonder Hill," is one of my new favorite Thanksgiving songs because it has some great vocabulary connections, uses a MINOR tonality, provides some easy connections for movement and partner fun, and is generally a blast for kids!
As I Came Over Yonder - Learning the Music
After they heard and sang through the A section I asked them to think about a word that they heard repeated a few times that might stick out for them. "You might have heard this word before, but we are using it in a different sort of way in this song." Some kids raise their hand and identify the word "yonder" and I take a second to explain what that means and how it's used. Then usually I have a kid who says the word "awful." I love that this song uses two different meanings for "awful" because it really gets kids thinking. I show them this slide (below) and explain that awful could mean "terrible/bad" or it could mean "very." I use the example sentences: "That dirty pig smells awful!" and also "The dessert was awful tasty!" The kids hear and understand the clear difference between these meanings even though most of my kiddos have never heard "awful" used to give emphasis.
Then I quickly teach them the B section or "la la la" chorus. This part really feels more minor than the A section, but my kiddos picked it up pretty easily anyway. There is an alternate chorus option that replaces "la la la" with the pretty silly nonsense "Fol-link-a-ti-dy." I usually don't teach the song to students with those words or if I do, I save that for day two when they know the song already and can make the change without spending too much time on it.
And side note, I love that this song is minor. It's not a sad or scary song. It's not your typical minor example and it exposes kids to something different and unique. LOVE!
Adding ACtions and Improvised Movement
Then once I teach the chorus/part B of the song with the nonsense "la la la" I ask them what actions we could include for that new part. When you have words like "flap his wings and spread his tail" you can easily imagine a movement that fits, but what to do when there aren't words like that? I posed the question to my kiddos and got some AMAZING responses. One girl said that we could act like we're talking about the turkey with a partner as if the words were "blah blah blah" instead of "la la la" and we were continuing a conversation. Another person thought we could skip around arm-in-arm with a partner. One students suggested that we could hop. Someone else thought we might dab. One kiddo even suggested we add in a do-si-do. After each suggestion we sang and tried out the new action to see how it might fit.
Once we had about 5 completely different suggestions I told kids that they got to partner up and decide what THEY wanted to do. Each little duet chose one of the actions that we practiced and there were tons of smiles as some people skipped, some dabbed, some "talked," and some went off script to do something completely different. Then we put it all together and added back the A section where they did our prescribed actions along with the new movement for the B section.
Part c - The Turkey Strut!
Then I sat down at the piano and said that I was going to play some "strutting music" for them to walk to. I played the basic chord structure of the song without the melody as a little interlude and the kids were encouraged to "strut like a turkey" through the room. As a final twist, I told them that as the interlude music stopped they had to find a NEW partner and do the A and B sections with this new person. The kids could chose to do a different action for the B section if they wanted to.
Making this little change and adding an interlude gives students the chance to move/hear a song where there's a musical but non-singing interlude. It also means that you can go through the song several times and kids can cycle through partners and find new people to work with.
Other Connections and Variations
We also talk about this song functioning as a lullaby. Asher E. Treat, the musicologist who first wrote this song down, said that the song was sometimes used to put children to bed. The song is pretty high-energy when used in my classroom so the kids and I talk about how we could change the song to make it sweet and quiet to put a child to bed. I grab my uke or guitar and play the music quietly while the kids sing the song in a soft and easy way. They really seem to understand how this could be used as a lullaby when we sing the B section (la, la, la) in a quiet and soft way. Again, I usually see some "ah-ha" moments in the kids' eyes!
If you liked the visuals and resources you saw in the above blog post then check out this Favorite Folk Song Set for the song. I have it available to download as a PowerPoint presentation and also as JPEG files. Included in the set are a lot more pages of historical context, vocabulary, background for the song, visuals, and aids for teaching. You can use the PowerPoint for visuals and explanation as you teach or you can post the images out in the hallway as a bulletin board that reinforces the content you teach in class (or you can do both)!