Beautiful French-Canadian Folk Song and Game: La petite hirondelle

children playing passera
I recently discovered this treasure: “La petite hirondelle”! It’s a French-Canadian folk song and dance, similar to “London Bridge”, but instead of a bridge falling down, the theme is a naughty swallow who has stolen our wheat and must be punished!

“Qu’est-ce qu’elle a donc fait,
la petite hirondelle
Elle nous a voler
Trois petits grains de ble
Nous l’attrapperons,
la petite hirondelle
Nous lui donnerons
Trois petits coup d’baton

Pass, pass, passera,
la derniere, la derniere
Pass, pass, passera,
la derniere restera!


What has she done,
the little swallow?
She has stolen from us
three grains of wheat!

We catch her,
the little swallow,
and we give her
three strikes with a baton!

Pass, pass, pass through,
the last one, the last one,
pass, pass, pass through,
the last one stays!

In the dance, as you can see in the video, the children pass under the joined hands of the adults (or other children) until the last line of the chorus. Then the last swallow is caught, and put in the center of the dance. Finally she is “punished” – the others tap her on the head (GENTLY) to represent the strikes of the baton.

Adorable Toddlers Singing and Dancing “La bella lavanderina”!

circle dance

For Valentine’s Day, I offer you this adorable Italian children’s street song, which ends with a kiss!

La bella lavanderina, che lava i fazzoletti
per i poveretti della citta’
fai un salto, fanne un altro
fai la giravolta, falla un’altra volta
guarda in su, guarda in giu’
dai un bacio a chi vuoi tu!

English Translation:

The little washer-woman, washing all the hankies
for the poor people down in the town
go on a trip (or jump), go on another
turn yourself around, turn around again
look to the sky, look to the ground
give a kiss to whomever you choose!

I have one problem – I watched dozens of home videos of little children dancing and singing this song, and I was unable to decide which one was the cutest. So, I decided to share my two favorites and let you be the judge! (They are less than one minute in length each.)

According to Serena at Transparent Language (a blog which covers aspects of Italian language and culture), La bella lavanderina is “a popular game [where] the children fanno il girotondo (make a ring). One child is chosen to be la lavanderina (the little washerwoman), and stands in the center of the ring acting out the ‘script’ of the rhyme. When the rhyme is finished the bambino or bambina chooses another child from the ring and they swap places.”

La bella lavanderina is a perfect example of “childlore”, or children’s folklore. It must be at least a hundred years old (how long has it been since washer-women washed hankies for poor people?) and thus, part the remarkable oral tradition of songs, rhymes and games that is unique to childhood. Children’s folklore is passed on by word of mouth from one generation of children to another, exists in virtually every culture around the world, and in most cases has no known author. The American Library Association confirms that children’s folklore is indeed “a form of literature”.

Sadly, many factors in our modern world threaten this wonderful oral tradition, including limited recess time at school, segregated age classes, tv and digital media culture, and any other factors that reduce the time children spend in free play in mixed age groups. Some ways that parents can help preserve children’s folklore include coming to my family music classes :), limiting your kids’ screen time, co-ordinating playdates with kids of different ages, and singing and playing children’s music in your home.

Shi Naasha – I Am Walking

Your Weekly Listen for 11/13/16 is this traditional Navajo (Diné) song, performed by Daybreak Warrior. Now sung by Diné parents to their children as a lullaby, the song refers to the end of a terrible time in their ancestral history: the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.

In the winter of 1863-64, Kit Carson, a lieutenant in the Union Army, was instructed by his superior, Major James Henry Carleton, to “solve the Navajo problem”. Carson led an army which ravaged the Diné countryside in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, killing men, women and children, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, destroying villages, and contaminating water sources. Without food, and with nowhere left to hide, the starving Diné were gathered at Fort Defiance (near modern day Grants, NM) and were forced to march 400 miles to the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, NM. Out of 11,500 Diné captured, around 8,500 reached Fort Sumner. Some escaped and fled west, some were taken by slave traders, and many died along the way.

The captives were fed meagre army rations, which made them sick. The alkaline water from the Pecos River caused intestinal problems, and many prisoners were killed by an epidemic of smallpox. Winters were bitterly cold, and there was inadequate firewood.

In June of 1865, a Joint Special Committee of Congress visited the reservation to investigate conditions. It was obvious that the Bosque Redondo reservation was a failure. However, it was not until the spring of 1868 that a treaty was signed which finally allowed the Diné to return to their homelands. They had to walk all the way home.

As they walked, they caught sight of Mount Taylor, known to them as Tsoodzil, which they consider to be a sacred mountain. Overcome with joy, they began to sing “Shi Naasha”, which means “I Am Walking”.

Those of you who learned this song from me in music class will notice some of Daybreak Warrior’s pronunciation is different. I learned the song from Julia Begaye’s recording, which you can find on iTunes. I don’t know which is the “correct” version, or if both are correct. I myself do not speak Diné, and I understand that the structure of the language is so different from English that a literal translation is not possible. However, I believe the most important thing to know is that the song is an expression of joy and gratitude.

“Take a Potato” – The Hanukkah Latke Song

I teach music at a Jewish day school, and I have been sharing this charming little children’s song with my younger students, which I learned from a Jewish music-teacher friend of mine. This song reminded me that my family shares some culture and language with Ashkenazi Jews, which is not too surprising considering that my maternal grandmother’s ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. In fact, another dear Jewish friend of mine helped me figure out that his great grandfather in Poland lived only about 50 miles from my great-grandmother Amelia in Lvov, Galicia (now Ukraine).

I myself grew up with several Yiddish words in my vocabulary, which I learned from my mother who learned them from my grandmother, Sophia. Sophia spoke Swabian (a German dialect, also called ‘Swabish’), and apparently, she could understand Yiddish as well. This is less surprising if you consider that Yiddish is also a dialect of German, although it is written in the Hebrew alphabet. And, like Amelia’s Jewish neighbors, potato pancakes (better known to some as ‘latkes’) are a tradition in our family.

It was pointed out to me recently that the lyrics of “Take a Potato” instruct you to roll the potato. I assume this is an example of artistic license, since everyone I know grates potatoes for their latkes. However, to quell the complaints of the literalists, here is my grandmother Sophia’s recipe for potato pancakes.

Potato Pancakes (Latkes)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes

3 large potatoes, raw
1 medium onion
2 eggs
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
pepper to taste
oil for cooking

Finely grate the potatoes and onion into a bowl. Drain excess water.
Add pepper, salt and flour, and stir. The mixture is right when it is not too dry and not too watery. Stir the eggs in last.

Heat the oil in a frying pan. For each pancake, put a two-tablespoon-size scoop of the mixture into the hot oil. Keep the heat high but be careful not to burn the pancakes. Fry them until they are golden brown on both sides. They should be served hot from the frying pan, with sour cream or applesauce.

My mother’s Prairie Pantry cook-book suggests this variation for children, although I don’t know if anyone in my family has ever tried it:

For children, the onion can be replaced by a grated apple and the pancakes can be served with sugar.

A Sailor Went to Sea


This popular children’s song is part of our fall music collection for 2016, entitled “Clouds and Puddles”. Here is a fun video that I hope you’ll enjoy watching and listening to.

There are several versions of this song, and it is also popular in Spanish as a rhyme without music, “Marinero que se fue a la mar”. It can be sung with no movements, or played as a hand-clapping game in partners with varying levels of difficulty. The simplest version involves two partners facing one another and clapping first one, then the other, and then both hands together, and repeating that pattern over and over. In another version, the word “sea” or “see” is accompanied by a salute. In this version, when the verse is sung a second time, the word “chop” is substituted for “sea” at the end of each line, accompanied by a “chopping” movement; a third verse then substitutes the word “knee” accompanied by a knee slap, and a fourth verse includes all three words and movements, thus: “A sailor went to sea, chop, knee … “. The Spanish version has three different movements as well, but instead of the “chop”, each partner slaps his or her arms to her chest in a criss-cross motion, and the words don’t change, only the movements.

Hand clapping games are popular with children of all cultures around the world, and help to develop rhythm, co-ordination and social and musical intelligence.

Chocolate – Spanish Clapping Song (Juego de manos)

Girls Playing Hand Clapping Game

Your weekly listen for 1/26/2016 is “Chocolate”, a spanish-language hand clapping game.

Virtually all cultures around the world have clapping songs and games played by children. In all likelihood, musical and rhythmic clapping games date back to prehistoric times, and have been found in the folklore of ancient Rome, Britain, Africa, Asia, Australia and many other regions around the world. In North America, familiar clapping games include “Pat-a-Cake”, “Miss Mary Mack”, “Pease Porridge Hot” to name just a few.

According to a study by Dr. Idit Sulkin and Dr. Warren Brodsky at Ben Gurion University in Israel, hand clapping songs improve children’s cognitive skills. “There’s no doubt [hand clapping games] train the brain and influence development in other areas,” said Brodsky. Read more about this study here:
Hand Clapping Games Improve Child Cognitive Skills

Toc, Toc, Toc, Tortue (Knock, Knock, Turtle!)

Terrapin Station

Children around the world enjoy songs with fingerplays, like this endearing French “jeu de doigts” about a turtle.

In addition to improving manual dexterity, fingerplays help children remember a song and internalize the rhythm. Best of all, children love fingerplays because they are fun!

In this one, the turtle is hiding because of the rain and the song makes him come out again.

Toc, toc, toc, Tortue,
Sors ta tete, sors ta tete,
Toc, toc, toc, tortue,
Sors ta tete, il ne pleut plus

Toc, toc, toc, Tortue,
Sors tes pattes, sors tes pattes,
Toc, toc, toc, Tortue,
Sors tes pattes, il ne pleut plus
Le soleil est revenu!

(which means …)

Knock, knock, knock, Turtle
Poke your head out, poke your head out
Knock, knock, knock, Turtle,
Poke your head out, the rain is gone.

Knock, knock, knock, Turtle
Poke your feet out, poke your feet out
Knock, knock, knock, Turtle,
Poke your feet out, the rain is gone.
And the sun has risen, too!

Children’s Singing Games: “London Bridge”

Children Playing London Bridge Game

Your weekly listen for 1/5/16 is a traditional English children’s game called “London Bridge”.

The earliest known record of the song was made in 1744, although the game is similar in form to other children’s games from the Middle Ages so it is likely much older. There are several variations on both the lyrics and on how to play the game.

In the version I teach in class, pairs of adults or older children form the “bridge” with their arms, as shown in the illustration and the video, and younger children walk under it. When we sing “My fair lady”, on the final word in the refrain, the bridge collapses and catches anyone who happens to be underneath! Hopefully, giggling ensues, the bridge is “rebuilt”, and we sing another verse.

Below is a painting of London Bridge as it would have looked around the time the song and game likely evolved. As you can see, it does indeed look quick precarious, as there were several buildings on top of it with tunnels through them which wagons and foot traffic had to navigate in order to cross. There was a saying that the bridge was “for wise men to cross over and fools to cross under”.

Be sure to scroll all the way down to the bottom for the video demonstration of how to play the game. We’ll be doing this in class this week!

London Bridge- Tudor Era

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair lady.

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

Last Post on the Bugle, in Honour of Remembrance (Veteran’s) Day


Your weekly listen for 11/11/15 is Last Post played on the Bugle by one of Canada’s Governor General’s Foot Guards.

I bet you didn’t know I was a Canuck, did you? Well, in Canada, we have some slightly different traditions for celebrating November 11, which we know as “Remembrance Day”. We don’t take the day as a holiday, but wherever we find ourselves at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, most of us, if not at an actual service, will at least stop what we are doing, turn on a radio and listen to “The Last Post” on the bugle followed by two minutes of silence, during which we may bow our heads in silent reflection or prayer in honour of those who have fallen. We also wear pinned felt poppies on our lapels, sold at stores everywhere in the weeks leading up to November 11, which benefit the Royal Canadian Legion.

Here you can see the Foot Guard wearing a very funny tall fuzzy hat. He plays our traditional “Last Post”, followed by in this case just under one minute of silence and then “The Rouse”.

In addition to its significance as part of our cultural tradition, these bugle tunes are of interest to music students because they are composed entirely of notes from what is known as the “Overtone Series”, a naturally occurring series of tonal frequencies. In the case of the bugle, this series of notes is produced simply by changing the speed at which air flows through the horn. The same series of notes can also be created by multiplying the frequency at which one string vibrates. The overtone series is closely related to our Western system of musical scales.