Songs and a Sense of Place

by Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat

Published in BC Music Educator Vol. 24 #1 Spring 1981;
repr. Canadian Folk Music Society Bulletin XV-4 1982

When I was a child in the BC Interior, we sang songs at home, at summer camp, and at school. At home, we sang the songs my parents had brought with them from Germany as well as American songs from Burl Ives records. At summer camp we sang the usual repertoire of rounds, tongue twisters and nonsense songs, and at school we learned primarily British and American songs with occasional forays into Canadian nationalism with such songs as “My Country, ’Tis My Cathedral”. I enjoyed singing very much and never thought to examine the kinds of songs we sang, where they came from or what they were about. But one experience sticks in my mind.

My father was a Scoutmaster in Castlegar and every summer the scouts camped on the shores of the Arrow Lakes. My father was one of the prime song-leaders at Scout camp. One summer he and my brother came back from camp with a new song. It was based on the American folk song “The Erie Canal”, the chorus of which is:

The Er-i-ee was a risin’
And the gin was a-gettin’ low,
And I scarcely think we’ll get a drink
Till we get to Buffalo

My father and the Scouts had changed the chorus to:

The Arrow Lakes was a-risin’
And the cocoa won’t go far,
And I scarcely think we’ll get a drink
Till we get to Castlegar

I remember distinctly the picture this song evoked in my mind. It was of the Arrow Lakes on a stormy day. The clouds hung low on the mountains and the rain poured down. The lake was covered with whitecaps and a small motorboat full of bedraggled Scouts struggled southward through the storm toward Castlegar.

The song sticks in my mind because it was about where I lived. We swam in the Arrow Lakes all summer, built hideouts among the piles of driftwood on the beaches and hiked on the surrounding mountains. Suddenly these Arrow Lakes had become just as important as the Erie Canal (wherever that was) because here was a song about them. Not only did this song impress me because it was about where I lived, but it also gave me a different perspective on other places. If the Arrow Lakes is just an ordinary place where people live and work, then all those other places mentioned in all the other songs I knew must also be just ordinary places rather than the never-never lands I imagined them to be. Suddenly the world seemed a little less mysterious than it had before. the Arrow Lakes
Rika Ruebsaat

The experience described above is very simple and at first glance to be a slender hook on which to hang observations about children and their relationship to music. Yet sometimes the simple things are the hardest to do. As Pete Seeger once said, “When people hear one of Woody Guthrie’s songs for children they say, ‘That song is so simple any fool could have made it up.’ But any fool didn’t — Woody did.”

The Arrow Lakes song relates the known visible landscape to the child’s (in this case, Rika’s) experience. Though it is simple, many children have never had this experience, have never had their landscape validated in this fashion. This is especially true in Canada, with so many songs coming from “somewhere else”.

Children are surrounded and bedazzled through their waking lives by millions of images. So much of what they see and hear is mysterious. Through such questions as “Where did it come from? Why is it here? How does it work?” they try to come to terms with this constant input. A healthy growing awareness of the world and their part in it validates their experience and allows them to move forward. Unfortunately, much of what they see and hear has no connection to them — instead of validating them, it devalues and disorients them.

Many of the most disorienting images come from TV. Children will strive to make meaning out of them, but only in the advertisements do they see something familiar. The product shown in the advertisement is exactly the same in appearance as the product they see in the store. This is precisely the meaning of “as seen on TV”. It will come as no surprise, then, when we find that TV advertisements and their jingles are the most popular bases for children’s parodies.

Forty years ago, Squirrel peanut butter ran an advertisement on TV. It was immediately parodied and, in the schoolyards on the BC interior, children were singing:

Squirrel peanut butter is worst by far
Bugs and beetles to the bottom of the jar
Tastes so bad you won’t buy more—
Get Squirrel peanut butter on your bathroom floor

The children singing this song were doing exactly the same thing the Scouts did with the “Erie Canal/Arrow Lakes” song: they were taking a song that was not theirs and making it theirs. They were “personalizing” the song. By changing “The Erie Canal” to “The Arrow Lakes”, the Scouts transformed an unknown place into a known place. With the Squirrel peanut butter song, children used a jingle about a familiar product to personalize what they were seeing on TV. Parodies and takeoffs of television commercials are found in every schoolyard. This kind of “personalizing” is universal among children. It must therefore fulfill a very important need — the need to make sense of the world.

How can we music educators speak to this need? How can we “personalize” music in the classroom?
One very simple way is to use songs that relate directly to children’s landscapes and experiences. Canadian folk songs are ideal for this purpose, since many of them are about the landscape. Just as Rika’s relationship to where she lived was validated by the “Arrow Lakes” song, any child on the Prairies (or who has otherwise lived through cold winters) will immediately identify with:

Saskatchewan, the land of snow
Where winds are always on the blow,
And people sit with frozen toes
And why we stay here, no one knows

The same identification can take place in this province with songs from BC. We once sang some west coast fishing songs to a class of grade 6’s and were treated to detailed explanations of fishing techniques from a boy who had spent part of a summer on his uncle’s boat. The relationship to the environment of the songs is not always that direct. Many children live in the city and have never been on a fishing boat. But many of them have been to the PNE and have seen the logging show, so when we talk about and sing BC logging songs, they can relate the song to an experience in their own lives.

To make songs relevant to themselves, children alter words and make up parodies of existing songs. Who has not heard:

We three kings of orient are
Smoking on a rubber cigar
It was loaded and exploded—
We’re following yonder star.

sung with great gusto in the schoolyard? There is no reason why the same thing can’t happen in the classroom. If the text of a song doesn’t “work” for the students, it can easily be changed. A song from Manitoba (itself a parody of “The Red River Valley”) exaggerates the weather in Winnipeg:

It was raining and hailing this morning
At the corner of Portage and Main
Now it’s noon and the basements are flooded
And the dust storms are starting again

The song is now being sung in Edmonton schools with the street names changed to refer to that city:

It was raining and hailing this morning
On the corner of Jasper and First
Now it’s noon and the basements are flooded
And by evening we’re dying of thirst

We have found that shanties (work songs from the sea) are ideal for this kind of “localizing”. Here is a typical verse from a typical shanty:

I thought I heard the old man say
Today, today is a holiday

The chorus (in caps) stays the same throughout the song, but the balance can change very quickly — viz:

I thought I heard the principal say,
Today, today is a holiday

or, by localizing to the school itself:

Of all the schools that are in the west
(General Gordon) is the best,

The song is thus made up by the students themselves and becomes their song about who they are and where they live.

Jon by lakeshore at sunsetSinging is a communal activity. We sing together with other people, and the shared songs reinforce our relationship with those people. In the same way, the form and content of the songs we sing can reinforce our relationship to where we live. The transformed “Erie Canal” song about the Arrow Lakes validated Rika’s environment. We can likewise transform songs (or create new ones) to make them fit our experiences as students, as teachers and as British Columbians. Sharing this creative work will bring us closer to each other and to our common environment and will begin to lay the groundwork for a (hitherto absent) common culture.