Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Making Music Live: A Guide to Weaving Music into Faith Development Programs

The call-and-response song

An image of sheet music for call and response song "Woke Up This Mornin'".

"Woke Up This Mornin'" is based on the African American spiritual of the same name.

The call-and-response song is one in which the leader sings a phrase and the group sings a different phrase in response. You can sing "This Little Light of Mine," for example, by singing, "This little light of mine" and having the children respond each time with "I'm gonna let it shine." You all join together at the end with "Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

A similar call-and-response song is the civil rights song, "Woke Up This Mornin.'" It is based on the African American spiritual of the same name.

A simple way to teach this song is to sing the lead part all the way through. Then teach the echo part, phrase by phrase, using the rote method (which is basically an echo). Be sure to use a lot of emotion and to sing percussively. As is true of most civil rights songs, you can replace key words. In this case, replace freedom with words such as justice or liberty.

When the children have learned the song, divide them into two groups. Then have one group lead (or call) and the other group respond. The Book of Call & Response, edited by John M. Feierabend, is a terrific collection of children's call-and-response songs.

The collection of South African songs called Freedom Is Coming, edited by Anders Nyberg, has many great call-and-response songs in this style. The song "Freedom Is Coming" has a tricky response that is inherently South African and lots of fun (Singing the Journey, #1035). I taught it to my seventh- and eighth-grade singers who then shared it with the younger children. The kindergarten students wanted to learn it, but I told them it was too hard—so they learned it from the junior high students. They came back and sang the song for me with both the call and the response parts. It was utterly charming, and I learned not to underestimate five-year-olds.

The spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" can be another call-and-response song.

Leader: I looked over Jordan and what did I see?

Singers: Comin' for to carry me home.

Leader: A band of angels comin' after me.

Singers: Comin' for to carry me home.

And then everyone sings the chorus:

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Comin' for to carry me home. (2x)

Older children can learn to improvise their responses, as is often done in the African American style, by having the leader (you) or a youth/adult volunteer demonstrate. Basically you, or the volunteer, improvise an echo response: the group sings, "Swing low," and you make up the melody on the response, "Swing low." Continue in a similar way for the chorus. Once you demonstrate the style, divide the class into two groups. One group sings the chorus as it is written, while the other group improvises the response. Then switch and have the second group sing the call and the first group sing an improvised response. Next, see if any children will volunteer to sing solo. You might be amazed at the results. The sound is alive with energy and spirit.