Whither the farmer in the dell?

Few American children learn traditional children’s songs, such as “Old MacDonald” or “The Farmer in the Dell,” according to this Chicago Tribune column. Kids sing pop songs; teachers don’t bother with the “Hokey Pokey.”

“I listen to nothing but the top 40,” says Shawna Bramlett, age 7, of Tampa. “Eminem really speaks to me. Old music is for old people.”

The traditional songs of American childhood — folk tunes, nursery rhymes and even the national anthem — are disappearing, victims of pervasive pop culture and funding cuts that have nibbled away at arts education in elementary schools.

Among the endangered or lost: songs tied to periods of American history such as “My Darling Clementine” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”; spirituals and songs with religious roots such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace”; nursery rhymes and activity songs such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Hokey Pokey”; even patriotic songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

. . . But in a survey I conducted last spring, music teachers said songs that could be considered American children’s musical heritage often aren’t part of the public school curriculum. Among their comments: “My school is low socio-economic, so I teach only pop music.” “Our curriculum is multicultural. We do not teach songs of the American culture.” “These songs aren’t in my textbooks, so I don’t teach them.” “These songs aren’t appropriate for us. I teach in Hawaii, not in America.”

Can this really be true? Little kids are singing songs in school, whether the arts budget has been cut or not, and they’re not singing Eminem. Surely “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” has not dimmed in the minds of pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. Parents of young children, what do you think?

About Joanne


  1. Percy Dovetonsils says:

    “I teach in Hawaii, not in America.”

    Really, I have to stop in awe at the breathtaking… well, it goes way beyond ignorance and prejudice. The statement is just so perfectly indicative, and on so many levels, of what’s wrong with contemporary education.

  2. Hawaii is not America? Bet this dimbulb is an NEA active in good standing

  3. My kid knows most of these songs.

    I don’t think the music teacher is necessarily a dim bulb. I think Hawaiian culture and politics are different than that of the mainland. Where is Amrita? Isn’t he from Hawaii?

  4. Wacky Hermit says:

    “My school is low socio-economic, so I teach only pop music.”

    Oh, I see. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is a song only rich folks can identify with, there not being any stars in the sky over the poor folks and all. And those poor kids must not have any elbows and knees to stick in and out for the “Hokey Pokey”.

    “Our curriculum is multicultural. We do not teach songs of the American culture.”

    Evidently “multicultural” excludes at least one recognized culture… one wonders what else it excludes…

  5. My first grader knows a number of standard songs. He certainly knows “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” even though I’ve been trying to teach him “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat“.

    The excuses listed are certainly lame, at best. I also wonder what kind of parents let a 7 year old listen to Eminem. My 6½ year old doesn’t even own a CD player. He sings, in order of frequency – cartoon theme songs, hymns, classic songs, old rock (e.g. “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult).

    On the other hand, I fail to see why this loss is so bad. All of those songs were “pop” songs at one time. The difference today is that there is a surfeit of new music available which compete with the classics.

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    > I think Hawaiian culture and politics are different than that of the mainland.

    Since when is the mainland a monoculture?

    Hawaiian culture is no further from the mainstream than Chabbad, Amish, and several others.

  7. I was watching SpongeBob SquarePants with my four-year-old niece yesterday. I caught a reference to a scene in Moby Dick in which Captain Ahab nails a gold dollar to the mast as a reward for the first person to spot the great white whale.

  8. That girl deserves a smack for being such a brat.
    Her parents deserve a smack for letting her become that way.
    Those teachers deserve a smack for being such pretentious ….

  9. No time to sing. Gotta prep for the tests!

  10. My daughter sang all those folksongs and more in school, but she already knew them because I sang them to her. Mostly I sang them in the car, every verse I knew over and over, very loudly, to distract her from the fact that she hated riding in her car seat. (Once she was old enough to tell me that she’s frequently carsick, I understood why.) I remember shopping with her for groceries when she was very small; she sat in the cart and bellowed “TWANKULL TWANKULL LUTTUL STOR” at the very top of her lungs. Those were the days.

  11. Yup, that monolithic mainland “American culture.” Let’s see: I’m of German, Spanish, Puerto Rican, Russian, English, Italian and Turkish descent. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood that abutted an African-American neighborhood (where my first romantic interest hailed from). One of my close friends emigrated from Thailand, another is a North Vietnamese refugee.

    It was a bit of a struggle to overcome the racist brainwashing I received from learning tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which was composed by some Austrian guy. (American, Austrian, Aryan; it all adds up to the same thing.) Thank goodness I saw through the scientistic myth perpetrated by “Ring Around the Rosie” which just priveleges a Western medicalized view of history.

  12. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    Sengaku wrote: “It was a bit of a struggle to overcome the racist brainwashing I received from learning tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which was composed by some Austrian guy. (American, Austrian, Aryan; it all adds up to the same thing.)”

    Nope, it was our steadfast French allies.

    WAJCMozart wrote Variations on Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman (K. 265), a French childrens’ song, at seventeen. That was eighteen years before he became a dead white Austrian male. He was only an innocent youth, duped by the French.

  13. So, the folks doing the “Barney” (purple dinosaur) videos of kids singing “Ol’ Macdonald” or “Turkey in the Straw” are, in fact, helping?

    But these are aimed at 3-5 year olds. What do you want 6-12 year olds to sing?

  14. sounds like Jayson Blair is alive and well and working at the Chicago Tribune. a clue: we learned the “itsy-bitsy spider” … what is this “eensy-weensy spider” canard?

  15. I was born in Chicago, and it was “Itsy Bitsy Spider” territory. In the ’50s.

  16. I think the “survey” alluded to in the story calls for a bit of more rigorous documentation … sounds compelling but not the ring of truth

  17. It was Itsy Bitsy Spider in Mississippi in the 1960’s.

  18. Wacky Hermit says:

    My kids take music classes taught by professional music educators from the age of 3, and this is my understanding of music education from having attended these classes with my kids:

    Singing any songs to children is better than no songs; and songs with simple melodies are better than songs with complex yodeling wails, because they teach kids to stay on a note and to respect the relationships between notes. (Later, after they know what key they’re actually in, they can learn to wail like the pop stars.) So I would argue that yes, the traditional children’s songs are musically superior to *some* pop music. But if a pop song has a clear, simple melody and age-appropriate lyrics, I don’t see why a child couldn’t get some musical benefit from singing it.

  19. “But if a pop song has a clear, simple melody and age-appropriate lyrics,”

    Which obviously rules out eminem (and most pop music these days)!

  20. Andy Freeman says:

    > age-appropriate lyrics

    Isn’t that ageist?

    How can they have any self-esteem if we treat them as kids?

  21. Kids in Hawaii absolutely learn all the typical songs listed plus a large variety of Hawaiian songs. My mother is a private preschool teacher there and hasn’t mentioned any decline in such singing. However, all this may be different in public schools (where I suspect the dimbulb is employed). Oh, and about Hawaiian politics, its not so different- victim groups whining for entitlements and the NEA has a stranglehold on politicians.

  22. I’m not an Eminem fan, but if everyone magically had the “Hokey Pokey” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” wiped from their brain, I imagine America could somehow survive the tragic and vast cultural loss. We’re not talking Mozart.

  23. greeneyeshade says:

    can’t recall whether i’ve mentioned this b4, but this reminds me of one of the saddest museum exhibits i ever saw, at cincinnati’s city museum a few years back _ mentioning that traditional kids’ games like hopscotch and jacks were dying out as tv, computers and the rest of pop culture grabbed the kids’ attention. i hope that was as wrong as a lot of the posters say the songs piece was.

  24. I don’t ever remember playing jacks or marbles as a kid — I think those were already becoming old fashioned in the 70’s. I see kids playing hopscotch all the time, though. My observation is that the pop music for the second grade set is more along the lines of Lizzie McGuire (I think it was David Cassidy or the soundtrack for Grease — which is experiencing a comeback — when I was a kid). All things new again.

  25. Eric Jablow says:

    In any case, kids will always sing the songs they learn from each other, even if they don’t know what the songs mean. Songs like:

    I love you,
    You love me.
    That’s how we got HIV.


    My eyes have seen the glory of
    The burning of the school…

    Teachers don’t control everything. Thank God.

  26. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘My school is low socio-economic, so I teach only pop music’ and I’ll do anything else I can to keep it low socio-economic by keeping it low academic.

  27. Gary,

    You were being ironic ??? Right???
    Mozart DID write the music (part of his Symphony #40 in G minor, I believe)…….His variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are used, by many music schools of Instruction, as the first piano piece to be taught.

    BTW: Jane Taylor wrote the words in 1806. (I wonder how long-lived Eminem’s work will be????)

  28. The Bramlett quote doesn’t sound like something a real 7-year-old would say, which makes me suspect the whole story.

  29. Eric Jablow says:

    Incidentally, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot now counts as multicultural. The song has been adopted by English rugby supporters as their theme song.

  30. My three year old sings everything from traditional songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to the theme song from the “Holes” soundtrack to “Get Over It” by OK Go. I’ll let you guess which one of the three he’s learned in pre-school.

    I call shenanigans on this story.

  31. greeneyeshade says:

    rita c. and eric jablow bring sighs of relief to this old crank’s heart. and i suppose 120 or so years ago people like me were complaining that kids had given up hoop-rolling and embroidery for bicycles …

  32. Mark Odell says:

    Bill wrote: Mozart DID write the music (part of his Symphony #40 in G minor, I believe)

    *gasp* You mean it wasn’t Don Music? 😉

  33. Mark,

    Actually, it was his brother, I.Am. Music, and he wrote the song…….

  34. Sheldon Klein says:

    Jayson Blair indeed. Anyone know a 7 year old who says things like: “Eminem really speaks to me.”? I will need videotape and sworn affidavits before I believe that this isn’t b.s.

  35. America is not a country, Dimbulb!

    North America and South America are continents in the Western Hemisphere. Hawaii, while it is one of the United States of America (a country in North America), is a series of islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is not in America.

    The USA is not America is not the USA.


  1. Education in America

    A couple of tidbits on our school systems. [source, source] in a survey I conducted last spring, music teachers said…

  2. Multicultural?

    Joanne Jacobs quotes the following explanations from several music teachers of why traditional American songs (such as “My Darling Clementine,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Amazing Grace,” and even “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) are no longer taugh…

  3. Tinotopia says:


    ‘Multiculturalism’ is really just a code word for ‘underdogism’, the true guiding principle of the modern Left.