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Notes - Sing Me a Story!
by Laurie Ornstein

Who doesn't like a good story? I remember listening to stories on the radio, not to mention bedtime stories. There are colorful storytelling festivals held around the world and kids of all ages flock to them.

I'd like to suggest a twist on this idea to brighten up your lessons and add interest to the run-of-the-mill "listening comprehension" - story songs!

Ballads, loosely defined as narratives set to music, fit into this category. I prefer the traditional folk ballads for this rather than the more modern usage which defines a ballad as a slow and romantic or sentimental song. The important point here is a song with an engaging story.

"Barbara Allen" is one of my favorite ballads and you can easily find many versions to choose from. This intriguing woman originated in the Old World and then crossed the ocean to America. Joan Baez, in her younger years, made a beautiful recording of an American variant. I also love a Scottish take on the same ballad sung by The Sangsters.

Another story song that is high on my list is, "The Gray Selchie of Sule Skerrie" or sometimes known as, "Silkie". Many tales of "sealfolk" have been collected along the coasts of the British Isles. Legend has it that often these enchanting sea animals come on shore and shed their skins to become mortals. Dr. James Walters wrote a lovely melody to accompany this silkie narrative. Joan Baez and Judy Collins have both made recordings to this tune. Scots singer Bob Blair tells the tale to a traditional unaccompanied Scottish melody.

Depending on how much romance, gambling, blood and drink you want, choose your ballad! Just to mention a few more : "Stewball", "Lily of the West", "Silver Dagger", "Fennario" and "John Riley".

Many songwriters have been inspired to write contemporary ballads in the traditional style. A popular one is, "The Whistling Gypsy," by Leo Maguire. This has been recorded by Irish singer-songwriter, Ben Sands. For those of you who might have caught him in Israel at Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival, or one of his other gigs, you will recall how he elaborated on the theme and inter-twined his own story into the ballad.

You may be wondering now, all right, I've got a great story song here. What do I do with it in class? A few ideas:

  1. Of course, start with an introduction or lead-in, as you would with any other text. Bring some background information about the song or ballad. This could be a picture to spark their thinking. Present new vocabulary items.

  2. Listen to the song.

  3. Prepare a set of questions for your pupils to answer as is common with listening comprehension. Alternatively, comprehension can be checked orally. Ask simple comprehension questions before going on to deeper understanding and analytical discussion. (LOTS and HOTS).

  4. Listen again.

  5. Prepare a cloze exercise and ask the pupils to listen and fill in the missing words.

  6. Hand out the lyrics to the song. Suggest a few possible follow-up activities which allow your pupils to relate personally to the song. A partial list of ideas includes drawing a scene from the story song, writing another verse, a letter to one of the characters, or an original story song. They can also write the song in a different genre (newspaper report). Let them be creative.

As the ETNI Rag goes to print, so does my album, "Time Flows Backwards". I've included original, contemporary and traditional folk songs. Along the traditional lines are, "Lakes of Ponchartrain" and "Buttermilk Hill". The first is about a young Irishman far from home. Buttermilk Hill, which, according to legend, got its name during the Revolutionary War, is not far from where I grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. This arrangement weds the traditional Irish and American versions. Both are story songs.

Summer days are past and long winter evenings lie ahead. It's a great time to spin yarns of your own, read or listen to some good ones and enjoy the music!

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