Traditional Children's Songs

Children's songs, traditional. Songs which children learn from each other - chants passed on orally from one generation of children to the next. They may be rigmaroles, used for games or to accompany skipping, ball-bouncing, or clapping, or simply songs sung for fun.

Songs which children learn from each other - chants passed on orally from one generation of children to the next. They may be rigmaroles, used for games or to accompany skipping, ball-bouncing, or clapping, or simply songs sung for fun. Most of them are old - even centuries old - and came originally from Britain or France: very few actually were composed in Canada, although some of the older ones have acquired Canadian twists or local references.

Formal singing games used to be common but now children sing the game songs to unstructured activities like the twirling of skipping ropes or the bouncing of balls. However, most children still know some bridge games ('London Bridge' or 'Trois fois passera'), ring games ('The Farmer in the Dell' or 'Nous n'irons plus au bois'), line games ('Nuts in May' or 'J'ai un beau château'), and action games ('Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow' or 'Quant le bonhomme a semé son avoine').

The chants for skipping are particularly numerous and varied: two common Anglo-Canadian ones begin 'On yonder mountain stands a lady' and 'The wind, the wind, the wind blows high'. The English 'Mother, mother, I am ill' is paralleled by the French 'Salade, salade, je suis malade'. Perhaps the most widespread ball-bouncing chant begins 'Are you coming out, sir?' which has its French-Canadian counterpart, 'Allo, allo, monsieur. Sortez-vous ce soir, monsieur?'

In addition to the songs that circulate among children in the playground, others are picked up at summer camps. These usually originate with adults but soon become part of the children's repertoire. In this group are rounds ('Row, Row, Row Your Boat' and 'Frère Jacques'), cumulative songs ('The Green Grass Grows All Around' and 'Alouette'), parodies ('Found a Peanut' to the tune of 'Clementine'), and nonsense songs ('Il était un petit navire').

Edith Fowke's Sally Go Round the Sun and Ring Around the Moon (Toronto 1969 and 1977) include many Anglo-Canadian children's songs, while Marius Barbeau's Roundelays: Dansons à la ronde (Ottawa 1958) gives some French-Canadian examples. The folksong collections of Helen Creighton, Arthur Huff Fauset, and Kenneth Peacock contain some children's songs. Robert Crosbey's All in Together, Girls: Skipping Songs from Regina (Regina 1980) is a small but important book that describes the patterns, sources and significance of the songs. Two Inuit children's game songs are included on the recording The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska (Folk FE-4444), and Sam Gesser recorded Game Songs of French Canada (Folk FC-7214). There also is a recording of some of the songs from Sally Go Round the Sun (McClelland and Stewart T-56494). Select Records released 1980-1 three records of traditional music produced by teachers and students in Montreal's Catholic Schools: La poulette grise (SSC-13077) has songs for primary children; L'alouette chante encore (SSC-13080) is music for dance; and Chansons de toutes couleurs (SSC-13081) contains music from various ethnic groups. Other recordings of interest include Canada's Favourite Folksongs for Kids (1977, Berandol BER-9031); Tanglefoot's Igg's Pig: Songs and Stories for Young Canadians (1984, Waterloo WR-8030); Rick Avery and Judy Greenhill's Land of the Silver Birch (J&R JR-583) and the cassette Train-Train de chansons (Regroupment des Garderies du Montréal-Métropolitain RGMM-4-03). Traditional music also is employed by many modern children's artists including Raffi; Sharon, Lois, and Bram; Matt; Jim and Rosalie; Ken Whitely; and Fred Penner. See also Barbara Cass-Beggs.


Further Reading

  • Fowke, Edith. 'Canadian folk songs for children,' In Review, Winter 1970

    Posen, Ira Sheldon. 'Song and singing traditions at children's summer camps,' MA thesis, Memorial 1975

    Rahn, Jay. 'Stereotyped forms in English-Canadian children's songs: historical and pedagogical aspects,' CFMJ, vol 9, 1981

    Deschênes, Donald et al. 'Trois disques d'initiation au folklore Québecois et étranger,' CFMJ, vol 10, 1982

    Bowers, Neal. Index to Canadian Children's Records (Bridgewater, NS 1984)

    Johnston, Richard. Folk Songs North America Sings (Toronto, 1984)

    Osborn-Seyffert, Ann. 'Analysis and classification of British-Canadian children's traditional singing games,' CFMJ, vol 16, 1988

    Caputo, Virginia. 'Continuity and change in children's songs,' MA thesis, York University 1990