Swallowed by a big black snake and other nasty realities

“They all went sailing ‘cross the lake and all got swallowed by a big black snake.” I used to love that line, and the bit at the end of Frog went a courtin’ that said that there was bread and cheese upon the shelf and if you wanted anymore you could sing it yourself. The web pages of  BBC Schools Radio no longer have any reference to them all being eaten, a pity it made the song interesting for primary school boys.

Singing was important in the days at High Ham Primary School. I could never play the recorder, and I was definitely not allowed near the Glockenspiel, playing it was reserved for a very talented girl called Audrey, but I could sing along with everyone else in my primary school class. Every week the wooden wireless in the classroom was turned on and we listened to  Singing Together, on BBC radio for schools.

Singing Together has remained is deep in the consciousness of those of us of a certain age.  In retrospect, Singing Together was a deeply subversive programme. There were traditional, fun, sing-along songs, things like Antonio, it’s raining again. But there were also some songs that gently challenged our Anglo-Saxon view of the world, songs like the 17th Century Huron Carol that tells the Christmas story as if Mary and Joseph belonged to one of the First Nations peoples of Canada. There were even songs that were downright radical and would surely have prompted an editorial in the Daily Mail if it had been know that primary school children were encountering such lyrics.

My first encounter with the horrors of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s was in the words of The praties they grow small. I remember feeling aghast that Britain, which I had always been taught stood for freedom and justice, should trample people in the dust. My sister, eight years my junior, recalls the words of Blackleg miners, how such a song got past Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher is a mystery!

We are losing that culture of communal singing.  The moods evoked by the silly songs and the tales told in the folk songs cannot be sustained by a culture focused upon listening to downloads. When we don’t sing anymore, it is not just music that we have lost, it is the loss of something that bonded people together, something that was enjoyed communally, something that is recalled with fondness five decades later.

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