The Woody Guthrie Disco Sing-Along

Writing to music

Once or twice a year, I bring some speakers into class, and we write to music. We write to things like Tchaikovsky, Bach, Buena Vista Social Club, Edith Piaf, fiddle tunes, Tuvan throat singing, blues, and a seven year old’s piano compositions. I avoid English lyrics, just to let everyone’s imaginations be free of a pre-made story. I usually let each song run for three minutes or so, and then shift to something different. Sometimes at the end I’ll leave on a good, emotional classical piece for fifteen or twenty minutes. The music makes it fun, and we can write for a long time. I ask the children just to write down whatever words, ideas, feelings, or images come to mind when they listen to each song. If a whole story comes to life, they can write that. If it feels like a poem, they can write it like a poem. If they like a piece and want to keep writing it later, they can.

What is wonderful about this exercise, beyond watching everyone’s responses to all the weird/cool music, is how dramatically music stirs our emotions, and how many interesting, specific images it can generate. A sad woman folding socks for money, writes a student. A family standing on an island scared of sharks. A man at a beauty store playing a banjo. A mime pretending to die. A man in a boat, singing to a swordfish. A cheetah is lost in a dark jungle. Slow yoga. The sky is singing to the people. How utterly strange and beautiful and particular! This is good stuff.

And once, this lesson ended with an impromptu disco sing-along to Woody Guthrie. Does it get more fun than that?

A playlist for you:

There’s no end to great music you could use, but here’s a really thoughtful playlist put together by Aidan O’Connor, Frog Hollow teacher, musician, and world traveler. All songs should be findable online etc.

1) Janjara by James Asher

2) Boat to Nowhere by Anoushka Shankar. 

3) Misty by Erroll Garner

4) Africa by Amanaz

5) Green Onions by Booker T and the M.G.’s

6) October by Eric Whitacre

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