Happy Is the Child

An email exchange with Mark, a Sacred Harp singer and the parent of two toddlers, got me to thinking about music for young children (age 5 and under).

Years ago, I took a workshop in leading songs with children, and the leader of the workshop (an experienced children’s chorus director) pointed out that young children sing best in a range from about middle C to the A above middle C; this is precisely the range of one of the all-time great children’s songs, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Not only is this the most comfortable range for young children to sing in, but they actually hear best in this range. So if you want to teach a Sacred Harp tune to a child, the ideal melody would be one that which would have a range of about a sixth, and which could be pitched from about middle C to A. This rules out most, but not all, tenor melodies in The Sacred Harp.

Another thing to remember about young children is that they don’t read (most of them, anyway). So a Sacred Harp tune with lots of words, or lots of verses, is going to add a layer of difficulty for young children. And while young children are good at memorizing, they find it easier to remember lyrics that have words and images that they understand — like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This rules out many tunes in The Sacred Harp, which may have words that young children simply don’t yet know.

If you’re looking for a Sacred Harp tune with a tenor melody that has a range of a sixth, plus words that young children will find comprehensible, about the only tune that comes to my mind is 46 “Let Us Sing.” I’m sure there are others — but not many others.

Fortunately, Isaac Watts wrote a whole book of poetry for young children: Divine Songs for Children. Most of the tunes are aimed at older children, but there are plenty of stanzas and couplets that work well for young children. So I decided to set some of Isaac Watts’ poetry to child-friendly melodies, and then harmonize them in Sacred Harp style.

Now the number of Sacred Harp singers who have children age 2 through age 5, and who want to teach their children Sacred Harp-y tunes, and who furthermore want to have their young children sing along with other Sacred Harp singers — well, this is going to be a pretty small number of people. But I work with children, and this is the kind of thing I find fun, so I wrote two tunes, and we sang them today in the Palo Alto local singing. The singers present liked the tunes pretty well, but the two-year-old and the four-year-old who were there did not join in singing with us.

Here’s the first tune:

Happy Is the Child. 8s.

Oh, and this tune? It’s adapted from “Jimmy Rose He Went to Town,” in the book American Folk Songs for Children by Ruth Crawford Seeger. My copy of this book is a well-worn, much used copy owned by my mother, a schoolteacher who taught kindergarten for over a decade, and preschool (ages 3 and 4) for nearly a decade.

On to the next tune.

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