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Storytelling with songs (Tapestry of Faith)

In "," a Tapestry of Faith program

Storytellers have been combining songs and stories for millions of years, and to this day many cultures tell stories in song. Homer sang The Iliad. Praise singers in western Africa chant stories to local leaders, telling of the leaders' many achievements and ridiculing the achievements of their rivals. The songlines of Australia are ancient paths on which elders embark on walkabouts, singing Creation stories and recreating the world. The old Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf was probably told in song.

But you don't have to sing your stories. In this section I will explain how to weave singing throughout a spoken story.

Children love to sing, and they love to hear stories. Combining song and story excites children, and they become intimately involved with the tale. Pete Seeger's adaptation of the South African song/story, "Abiyoyo," is a terrific example. The story tells of a magician who can make objects disappear and his son who loves to sing a little song about a monster called Abiyoyo. In the story, the monster attacks, and only by having everyone sing the song with energy can they make the monster dance and eventually lie down in exhaustion. When Abiyoyo lies down, the magician has a chance to make the monster disappear.

The combination of story and song in "Abiyoyo" is irresistible. The song is sung throughout the story and eventually becomes an integral part of it. The leader sings the song the first few times, and soon the children will know it and can all join in.

More and more children's stories like "Abiyoyo" are appearing in books that combine story and song. There are illustrated versions of "Lift Every Voice," "Follow the Drinking Gourd"and" Stars and Stripes Forever." The Nick Page Sing with Us Songbook has "I Walk In Beauty," a song and story adapted from Navaho traditions.

Using your creativity and the creativity of your children, you too can combine stories and songs. Find a Native American Creation story. Find several places in the story in which to weave the chant, "The Earth Is Our Mother" (Singing the Journey, #1073), and then have fun with it. Any time you can add movement, do so. Having the children act out the story as you go along is always a thrill, particularly if they all get to participate in some way. Be cautioned, however: if you're working with young children and you know that most of them will not get to play the fox, tell them ahead of time.

You can add songs to your favorite stories, and you can add stories to your favorite songs. The possibilities are endless. Many songs are stories in themselves and can be adapted to become song/stories, including "The Fox, " "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine, " Tom Paxton's delightful "Going to the Zoo," and Bill Staines' "A Place in The Choir."

The UUA curriculum, Timeless Themes: Stories from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles for Grades 3 and 4, with its accompanying songbook, Bible Songs on Timeless Themes, is an excellent way to teach biblical stories by learning African spirituals. The combination of the stories and songs creates empathy, an understanding in the heart, not just in the mind. The songs help the stories come to life—sometimes painfully, sometimes joyfully—and the stories help the songs come to life.

The book Ballad of America: A History of the United States through Folk Song, by John Anthony Scott and John Wardlaw Scott, teaches history from the colonial days to the Civil Rights Era. The stories are not in a format from which you can simply read, so you will have to adapt them.

Invite adults in to tell stories with the children. A teacher in Houston invites local astronauts and scientists from the Johnson Space Center and simply asks them which songs were important to them growing up. These scientists are from all around the world, so hearing their stories and songs can be an amazing experience for the children.

I taught the song "Donna Donna" to a group of junior high singers and explained that it is a song from Esterke, a Yiddish musical by Aaron Zeitlin and Shalom Secunda, adapted from a play produced in Poland in 1932. Shalom Secunda escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland and was befriended in the United States by composers like Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

The students were learning about the Holocaust, and they shared stories and songs with parents and grandparents at a special commemoration. After singing "Donna Donna," an elderly woman told the youth that she had sung the song when growing up in Poland. A connection was made, and the students (and teachers) were drawn into a living history. As the woman described how they sang the song on a transport train, our hearts began to swell. When we learned that this was the last song she sang with her family and that she was the only survivor, our eyes filled with tears. The woman said it brought her great joy to hear the youth singing it and asked us to sing it again. What had been a song and a story suddenly became real. It is an experience that neither my students nor I will ever forget. The song, the history—they both came alive that day.

Combining stories and songs lift our emotions, creating empathy, an emotional understanding. We can use this tool to teach moral lessons on faith, justice, peace, friendship, and caring for the earth. We can use this tool to teach cultures and world religions. A song like "Soon the Day, Bashana" (Singing the Living Tradition, #146) can teach us about Israel in the late 1960s, when the song was composed. You can use a song like Holly Near's "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" (Singing the Living Tradition, #170) to teach about the rights of our bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. We can combine songs and stories to teach history, biblical stories, and myths.

Here is a simple technique: sing the song, tell part of the story, sing more of the song, tell more of the story, and continue to weave story and song together. First you need to find an appropriate story, and then figure out the best places to insert the singing. Through simple repetition, the song often teaches itself. Try to leave time for questions and discussion about what the story and song mean. After the discussion, go back and sing the song again. As was the case with "Thula Klizeo," the more we know about the song and its culture/history, the more powerful and meaningful the experience will be.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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