Folk Music for Neurosurgeons

A long time ago, in neighbourhoods everywhere, kids went to school and freedom to have fun was part of the curriculum. I know this is true because I was there.

My kids know it was true because Pete and I were really bad at stifling our guffaws and incredulity while they shared “stories of oppression” around the supper table during their elementary school days. More about that later.

A few Sunday mornings ago, I was driving back from Toronto and was working my way through Sirius, hunting for something to set the tone for the day ahead. Instead of music, I landed on some charming father-daughter dialogue that really fit the bill. I’d never listened to The Village folk show before and host Mary Sue Twohy had invited her dad Jim to be her guest that morning.

Mary Sue is an accomplished folk singer/songwriter herself and it was clear she was mighty grateful to her pop for influencing her passion for this genre. Jim had been a folk singer in a church choir and in a band of his own in the 60’s and 70’s and the two were having a lot of laughs volleying music and family memories back and forth.

Like all great music interview shows, there was an entertaining mix of chat and tunes; Simon and Garfunkel, Emmy Lou Harris, The Kingston Trio, CCR, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Cash –totally sing-able and totally nostalgic.

If you read Escape Hatch, you know that I’m one of those drivers that just can’t help myself if the music moves me. I don’t care who sees or hears. So when Jim introduced The Kingston Trio singing The MTA Song, I went directly to the land of happy, uninhibited drivers.

The MTA Song reminds me of childhood campfires and bus rides. But mostly of my grade 5-7 music classes with Mr. McDougall. He was a bearded, shaggy-haired teacher with a groovy British accent, flares, an acoustic guitar – and boy could he sing. Boy, could he get us to sing. Every year he’d hand out copies of folk song lyrics and before long we knew them off by heart: Four Strong Winds, Tom Dooley, Down by the Bay, Cotton Ginny, Puff the Magic Dragon, Banana Boat Song, Watermelon Man, The MTA and yes – Kumbaya.

Music class was twice a week and each one was like a schoolroom jamboree. Heck, Mr. McDougall would even break it up by spinning some vinyl so we could listen to the genuine artists. The MTA was one song that could really get us all going. On hot days, the windows would be open and making joyful noise was just what happened. Oh, and of course – pounding on the desks and clapping along was strongly encouraged.

I don’t remember any limitations being imposed on these sessions at all. Our principal was a conservative Christian. I do however, remember him coming in to sing, clap, and stomp along with us a few times. Especially in the winter when the windows were closed and the songs filled the halls.

For our own kids; products of the nineties, music classes were presented as more of an afterthought. They didn’t even have a decent choir experience to fall back on. We had a name for the sound we’d hear at school ceremonies – we called it “talk-singing”. No tune, no voices, no joy. “Don’t you kids like singing?” we’d ask before launching into one of our own stories, like the one I just told you here. “Yeah, well, our teacher just wants us to make sure we memorize the words. They just thought of a choir last week, so, yeah…”

Oh brother.

I don’t propose to know (and certainly don’t agree with)  every long-winded reason behind the myriad rules, regulations and agendas propping up the current school system. I do know our kids were not part of one that seemed to honour the freedom to have fun. Not really. They do know what they’re missing. We had to eventually put a clamp on our story telling because their little faces started to droop when it was clear they couldn’t relate. How could they? Most of their classroom stories leaned toward the punitive, like getting a “green sheet” for tossing a grape, a detention for “touching snow” and a call home to discuss that one little boy had “nudged” my son in a line-up. Insert stifled guffaws and incredulity here.

Yes, academics were the focus of our elementary school experience as well but there was a healthy balance between academics and the arts. Educators seemed to put emphasis on the fact that for a child, play is work too.  Somehow, we 70’s kids got plenty of work done while having fun.  For the record, many of us that sang and clapped, shouted and stomped together twice a week went on to have futures as neurosurgeons, engineers, professional athletes, business leaders and the like. Some had a little band on the side. Some have always loved to belt out songs from the top of their lungs, while driving in their cars.

While the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pulled at my heart with Will the Circle Be Unbroken, I began to wonder what would happen if a current day Mr. McDougall was allowed to bring a guitar to class and teach a few sing-able, clap-able, desk-pounding joy-filled songs twice a week?

What would his playlist be?

Maybe that’s something else to ponder.

What classroom experience would you pass on to your own kids if you could?

Photo Credit: Steve Garry via Compfight cc


One thought on “Folk Music for Neurosurgeons

  1. Kath… you need to see Ashley MacIsaac in a very small venue. He usually tells some awesome tales and the music is almost a background. I saw him in Victoria, PEI with simple piano accompaniment. I wish I remember the woman’s name. Such a delight.

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