Songs Our Teachers Taught Us.

A Nostalgic Look At The Music We Sang in School.


This month, as the children of America return to school, it brings memories to me of my own years in grade school and the music that my teachers taught me way back then. Music has always been an important part of the learning process. Music helps us not only learn about music itself, but other aspects of life as well. Anyone who doubts the effect of music on learning should watch Sesame Street or pay attention to how quickly a child will learn a jingle to a commercial while struggling for hours to memorize passages from text. The association to learning with music has been researched and thoroughly documented.


The connection to learning though is not our point this month. Rather, I just want to revive for some of our readers the nostalgia and good memories that seeing and singing these songs can bring to us. The songs our teachers taught us have stayed with us for our entire lives. I'm sure that many of you, as do I, recall the songs you sang in school with warm memories and happiness. Our teachers helped us learn songs about life, about friendship, God and country. Chances are that schools today leave out songs of worship or God due to the pressures of groups who preach tolerance through intolerance but I will say that most of us grew up in the less politically correct environment in perhaps better shape ethically and morally than many of the kids today.


So much for my own political sentiments, for the moment anyway. For those of you who grew up before modern times and hopefully for some of the younger readers in our group, this month's feature offers a look at some of the songs we learned and a little about them that we probably did not learn at that time. As is often the case, I want to dedicate this feature to Mrs. Forward, my 4th grade teacher whose love of music was transferred to me and many others in my home town who were blessed by her presence. Her collection of sheet music was the original core basis for the ParlorSongs collection. Without her, ParlorSongs would not exist. In the interest of memories of good times, all of our songs are printable this month using the Scorch plug in.


Probably one of the first songs that any of us learn in school is the simple, yet enjoyable "A-B-C" song. In more modern times, the song was set to a work by Mozart titled Ah! vous dirai-je, maman which later became known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. However, that version is a definite dumbing down from the version taught in 1919 and contained in the 1919 publication by Hall and McCreary, The Gray Book Of Favorite Songs. This version is also based on a work by Mozart but there the similarity ends. Rather than a simplistic melody, the 1919 version was a virtuoso piece that one would think no-one under the age of 30 could attempt and master. The song appears to have it origins in a Sonata, at least that seems the style to me. I'd love for one of our readers who recognizes it to let us know the title of the original Mozart work.


Be that as it may, not only is the music difficult but the lyrics are difficult as well. Ok, so you may be laughing, after all, what can be so hard about the alphabet. Nothing, if you sing it straight through. But, the evil creator of this version did not make it quite so easy. Instead, we are faced with phrases of letters, filled with some repetitive passages and then backtracks to start new phrases. For those of you who doubt that school was more difficult in your father's day, give this song a try and then compare it to what goes on in today's world of school music. Perhaps all of us can gain some appreciation of mom or dad's stories that always chide us for being too soft or that things are easy. As for me, I'm glad my teachers chose the dumbed down version for I'd have never learned this one without a headache. Try it using the scorch version (printable using the Scorch plug-in) by clicking on the music image on the right, or here for the MIDI version, and see the Lyrics in a separate window.



Not only did we learn our own language skills, but many of the songs we learned taught us about other languages and cultures. My teachers introduced many a song from other countries as a basis for learning a little about the language and cultures around the world. Song books such as the Treasure Chest Series from the 20's, 30's and 40's published by the now defunct Treasure Chest Publishing Company in New York gave us many wonderful songs from around the world and on other subjects. We'll look at more of these books as the feature progresses. Among the songs my teachers taught us I most remember were the French song, Allouette and the Spanish song, La Cucaracha.


Alouette was for most of us, our first introduction to the French language. The engaging melody and repetitive nature of the song made us all learn a little French and have lots of fun in doing so. The song is said to have its origins in French Canada however exact origin is unsure and the writers are even more obscure. An alouette by the way is a skylark, a bird and the song is a memory round of sorts, somewhat like the Twelve Days of Christmas. Basically the song acknowledges the beauty of the bird then goes on to speak of plucking it's feathers from head to tail. Not nice, but it is a charming song and melody. Perfect for children to learn and a great way to first learn the sound of the French language. Sing along with it using the scorch version (printable using the Scorch plug-in) by clicking on the sheet music image, or here for the MIDI version, and see the Lyrics in a separate window.


The same can be said (a great learning method) for the terrific and humorous Mexican song, La Cucaracha. With this song we move from a song about a bird we'll pluck bare to a cockroach that smokes dope! (marijuana que fumar). I suspect most of us, when we learned La Cucaracha did not fully comprehend some of the lines, hey it was a foreign language so what did we know? According to one account, the song had it's origins with Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa. Supposedly Villa had a carriage that was always breaking down on his journeys around the northern desert. His troops nicknamed the bulky carriage "La Cucaracha" and made up this little ditty about how the carriage "ya no puede caminar" (can't get around any more). However, in researching this song, I've been unable to find what might be considered the definitive version of the lyrics. It seems there are many, many versions and the version we represent to you here is yet another. It seems to have been somewhat sanitized and rather than being a song about a rickety carriage or dope smoking bug, we have a love story that is set to the familiar tune. Sing along with it using the Scorch version (printable using the Scorch plug-in) by clicking on the sheet music image, or here for the MIDI version, and see the Lyrics in a separate window.


Stephen C. Foster provided us with many songs during our school days back then. His simple yet melodious tunes provided some of the best singing that there ever could have been. His songs are genuine American treasures but I suspect they've fallen by the wayside or been sanitized to the point of hardly recognizable to satisfy today's sensitivities. Most of Foster's songs were considered "Ethiopian" or blackface songs and in them Foster often liberally used stereotypical language that was meant to be reflective of the way blacks talked. Though not really meant to be demeaning at the time, today they tend to make one wince. For more on the subject of racism in music, see our acclaimed article on Coon Songs. Regardless, in my day, we all sang Foster's songs completely oblivious to any hurtful nature that they may have conveyed. Singing the funny dialect was fun and made us giggle. We sang them without malice and just for the joy of his music. This song book from the 30's would have been one our teachers kept handy to teach us Foster's songs.


Among Foster's many songs we learned that I still remember is the sweet song, Nelly Bly. Originally published in 1850 by Foster's publisher Firth, Pond & Co. in New York. There is no historical record I've found for whether there really was a Nelly Bly in Foster's life although one of America's pioneer woman journalists was named Nelly Bly but she was born fourteen years after this song was published. The song seems to be set for two female maids, working and singing together in the kitchen. The original sheet music chorus was written for two female voices. Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics here.


Yet another of Foster's creations is even less likely to be heard today in the halls of lower academia, Old Black Joe. It isn't that the song itself is any worse than Nelly Bly or some other less potentially offensive Foster songs, it is more simply just the title. This version comes from a wonderful song book published by the Southern California Music Company in Los Angeles. The book was a "freebie," an advertising give away that was quite generous in its contents. On the outside titled National Songs and Melodies, the inside title is National Songs and Negro Melodies. The book contains 48 traditional songs by Foster as well as a generous sampling of other best loved melodies and patriotic songs. Undated, as best I can determine from advertising artwork featuring acoustic "Talking machines," I would guess it was issued sometime around 1910. The company was founded in 1880 and amazingly still is in business, now located in Glendale. You can visit them at: . My copy of the book is well dog-eared showing a great deal of use over the years. Items like this were ideal for teachers to gather a repertoire of music for use in school and was likely a staple in schools in the LA area during the early years of the 20th century.


The song I've featured from this song book, Old Black Joe, was published in 1853 by Firth, Pond & Company. As previously said, the title of this song might be the only politically incorrect part of it for the lyrics are a sweet memory of times past from the point of view of the singer. It is a wonderful melody and the sentiment is nostalgic and wistful. It carries with it a bit of sadness as well; sadness that the good times are gone and with it the happiness except for the memories. Click the music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable) or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics .


Foster of course is one of America's best loved songwriters. In his prime, Foster wrote so many lasting American hits that his enduring output has eclipsed virtually every other composer from that period. Much of his music is almost as well known today as when he wrote it. Self taught as a musician and composer, his deepest musical influence as a child, was hearing the "Negro" spirituals when a household servant would take him to her church whenever his parents were away. For more about Foster, see our composer biographies page.


I also remember many "fun" songs that we sung in school, some of which may still survive because they are fairly innocuous, non controversial and quite honestly, still fun. The song book, Singing Time, published by Hall & McCreary in 1950 surely was a "must have" for teachers in the 50's. It is full of many such fun songs such as Clementine, Buffalo Gals, Home on The Range, Skip to My Lou and Short'in' Bread. As well, the book had minstrel songs, songs from other countries, patriotic songs and even (gasp!) hymns, sacred songs and carols.


Among the many fun songs that I learned in school were my Grandfather's Clock, I've Been Workin' On the Railroad and Dinah. Of these three, Grandfather's Clock is undoubtedly the oldest and holds the most prominent pedigree. Written in 1876 by one of America's musical pioneers, Henry Clay Work, the song was almost prophetically, his last successful song written before his death in 1884. Work was an amazingly versatile man who also was a writer and inventor, patenting the first rotary engine as well as a knitting machine. See our biography of Work for more information about him and his music. The song tells the sad and sentimental tale of a clock that was lovingly owned by a grandfather than quit the day the man died. Now, why would that be fun? I think for me the attraction was the clever way the song was written to emulate the ticking of a clock. I can still remember my classmates and I emphasizing the meter when we got to the little chorus; "it.....stopped....short....never to go again, etc." You have to have lived in a cave for your whole life to have never heard or sung this song. Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi and here for the Lyrics for this work.


Yet another of my own remembered fun songs is the combination of I've Been Workin' On The Railroad and Dinah. The two almost always came together as the ending of "Railroad" leads directly into Dinah. Whether they were originally written that way, I'm unable to confirm. However, it seems that every site that features the lyrics to this song (these songs?) link them together under the "Railroad" title. Likewise, all other sites state that the writer and composer are unknown and several state that it is a "traditional" melody as does the copy we have. Several call it "a campfire song." In spite of that, I've found that the melody appeared as early as 1894 in the Carmina Princetona ( a college songbook) titled as the Levee Song. The 1894 version did include the "Dinah" verse at that time as well. One researcher has stated that the Dinah verse was first published separately as early as 1850. One researcher also says that 1881 is the year it gained widespread popularity, and that it was modified from an older black railroad worker's levee song. Regardless of it's true provenance, most of us have enjoyed this song in childhood and it's a good bet that due to it's non objectionable nature, it is still a staple in elementary music education. Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi and here for the Lyrics .


The Treasure chest series surely provided much fodder for singing in school and in the home as well. They published many collections that preserved many of the traditional songs of our past. The books provided a low cost option to gain a large repertoire of music and the books were attractive (in this case with a cover by Stacey H. Wood) and contained 40 or more songs. This particular collection brought together an eclectic mix of more Foster songs and several others that have become staples over the years such as The Old Oaken Bucket, Kathleen Mavoureen and Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes. Unfortunately, there are many other songs that are in the book that have been largely forgotten. Among the less remembered works in this book are The Blue Juniata, Alice, Where Art Thou?, Twickenham Ferry and When The Corn Is Waving, Annie Dear.


Irrespective of those that have been preserved and those forgotten, one song I've not forgotten is the lovely Scottish song based on the poem Comin' Thro' The Rye written by the famed poet, Robert Burns (1759 - 1796). The song itself only uses a small part of the original Burns poem but it is said that Burns wrote the song using a portion of his poem and attached it to an old Scottish melody that was originally a bawdy song from the 18th century. The original poem by Burns was written in 1796. Here is the text:

O, Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry:
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Comin thro' the rye, poor body,
Comin thro' the rye,
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl' ken?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing's a body's ain.

Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in)or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.


Another of the Treasure Chest series books, Songs We Love, featured another lovely cover, this one unsigned. This issue, from 1936 brought the reader another super size serving of 44 songs that ranged from more Foster favorites such as My Old Kentucky Home to other less well known songs (today) such as Flow Gently Sweet Afton. Unfortunately for us today, the Treasure Chest Publishing house that produced these songs seems to have been long gone but a few copies of the songbooks seem to still be in circulation.


Among the many songs I love from my childhood is another of the lasting classics that has stood the test of time; Long, Long Ago. This song is also one that we still hear as it too is uncontroversial. The song is a standard not only for singing in school but as a beginner's piece contained in almost every piano course and appears in many other instrument learning books. I remember not only singing this song but having to learn it in my early days of violin instruction. It is a nice melody and the lyrics provide a pleasant sentiment that can bring back many fond memories." The song was written in 1833 by the English songwriter and dramatist, Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839). The song first appeared when Rufus Griswold, editor of a Philadelphia magazine, published a collection of Bayly's poems and songs in 1843. Bayly originally named the tune The Long Ago, so it appears Griswold changed the name. It achieved instant popularity and was the most popular song in America in 1843." (quote and song history from taken from Best Loved Songs of The American People Edited by Denes Agay, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York, 1975)
Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in)or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.


Another of the many sources of songs we sang in school were the hits of the "gay nineties."The Treasure chest people mined this source as well and in 1943, published a collection of some of America's best songs from that period. Using original editions in the public domain, Treasure Chest gave us a grouping of some of the greatest songs from that period but still managed to sneak in a few from other time periods. They did include an obligatory (it seems) song or two by Stephen Foster but beyond that they included many of the best such as Way Down Yonder In The Cornfield, The Band Played On, While Strolling In The Park One Day and Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home. (Links are to Scorch versions previously published on our site)


One song from the 90's was the fabulous song we all grew up knowing as A Bicycle Built For Two. In fact, the original song when first published by Harry Dacre in 1892 was titled simply, Daisy Bell. Of course most of us never learned the verses to the song. It was the famous "Daisy, Daisy" chorus that knocked your socks off in this song and is the most memorable part of the work. The verses, though neglected are just as clever as the chorus. Dacre crafted a set of lyrics that incorporated bicycling terms into the story of a budding love and perhaps even a tryst in the night in what had to have been the first musical evidence of vehicular parking for the purpose of petting prior to modern times. Daisy Bell was written by an English composer, Harry Dacre and had its first success in London. Tony Pastor introduced the song in the US at his music hall in New York and the song immediately was a hit that has lasted for over 112 years. Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.


All of the songs we've looked at so far this month bring back fond memories for me, and I hope for you too. If you grew up in the early to mid part of the 20th century, chances are you sang these songs along with me and my classmates. For younger people, many of these songs may be curiosities only, I hope not. Regardless of my love for all the old songs, I've saved my all time favorites, the patriotic songs of America that we sang in school for the end. Of the many wonderful moral and ethical things our teachers taught us, a respect and love of our country and the principles on which it was founded was one that always swelled me with pride. Singing songs of America and her foundation based on Godly principles was a time when my classmates and I sang out the loudest and proudest. Such feelings today are scoffed at by many and the secular forces in our country are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of our children. Though they will argue with force and sometimes venom that we are better off today, I argue just as forcefully that teaching children to respect our country and the principles on which it was founded is right and pays off in positive energy directed towards making the country great rather than tearing it apart. The song book, Legion Airs, published by Leo Feist circa 1920 is a great compilation of a number of patriotic and war songs such as the great Over There (Scorch format) and other hymns to America.

Among the over 100 songs in this wonderful compilation is one of the first songs we learned of a patriotic nature, My Country 'Tis of Thee, sometimes also titled America.. Of course in our adulthood or somewhere along the way, we all learned that the song was actually based on a French melody written in approximately 1686. The song first appeared in England in 1745 as God Save The King, when Charles, grandson of James II was marching into England. At that time it appeared in an engraved musical half-sheet, with the last stanza added. The words have been attributed to Henry Carey, who was said to have been heard singing it in 1740. The melody is a bit harder to attribute. Some sources say it was originally a French song. "According to the French encyclopedia, Quid, the music is by Jean-Baptiste Lully a famed French composer. It was loosely based on a hymn sung when the French king arrived at an event, Domine Salvum Fac Regem." ( from No matter what the origins, it is a stirring melody and is accompanied in both versions by strongly patriotic sentiments. As with many early songs in America, before we had established our own music industry, many of our songs were based on English melodies brought to America by our forefathers. The version and lyrics we've provided here present both songs. Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.


Yet another "America" titled song we all sang was the fabulous America, The Beautiful. The song lyrics were written by Katherine Lee Bates (1859 - 1929) in 1893. Bates later revised the lyrics in 1904 and then again in 1913, giving us the beautiful text we know today. While the poem was sung with a variety of tunes, it is now known, almost exclusively, to the melody of the hymn-tune Materna, previously known as O Mother Dear Jerusalem, which was written in 1888 by Samuel A Ward (1847 -1903). According to the songwriter's Hall Of Fame's biography of Ward:

America the Beautiful” first appeared in print in the weekly journal The Congregationalist, on July 4, 1895. The lyrics were written while on an 1893 summer lecture series at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Looking at the view of the Rockies from Pikes Peak, its author, Katharine Lee Bates recalls, "It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind. When we left Colorado Springs the four stanzas were penciled in my notebook, together with other memoranda, in verse and prose, of the trip.

Click the sheet music image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch player) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.


Our final piece for this issue comes from the 1919 Gray Book of Favorite songs shown at the beginning of the article. The Battle Hymn of the Republic has endured for 143 years as one of the most stately and stirring songs ever written. On one hand it is fiercely patriotic but on the other it is deeply religious. Oft times used in a political setting to stir the souls of the faithful, it also is regularly sung in churches and at funerals as a holy hymn of praise. This hymn was born during the American Civil War, when Howe visited a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington, D. C. She heard the soldiers singing the song John Brown’s Body, and was taken with the strong marching beat. She wrote the words the next day:

"I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and for­get them!' So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper."

The hymn appeared in print in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. It was sung at the funerals of Winston Churchill, senator Robert Kennedy, and president Ronald Reagan. Given it's history and lyrics, the song is really more a hymn than it is a purely patriotic song. It's many references to God make this song a strong target for the ACLU and others who want to expunge loyalty to country and godly principles from our country. God grant that this wonderful song will always be welcome in any school, church or public venue for the nest 143 years as well.

Click the sheet music or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.


That completes my nostalgic look at my own musical heritage. I hope it was a part of yours as well. Forgive my strong sentiments about God and country, if they offend you, I regret that and hope that rather than being offended you will understand that what has made this country great is the right to disagree and express our opinions freely. We've always had that but unlike today, in the past it was met with courteous and thoughtful debate. If you'd like to express yours, feel free to write me at .


This article published September, 2004 and is Copyright © 2004 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Academy, Inc. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author.

We hope you've enjoyed this article and the music and will come back to explore more of our features and articles. See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all other resources used to research this and other articles in our series.


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