Volume II - 1994

Country Songs: Music, Language, and Life
by Judith Diamond and Elizabeth Minicz

      Judith Diamond and Elizabeth Minicz are ESL consultants for the Adult Learning Resource Center in Des Plaines, Illinois, which provides services to ESL programs throughout the state. Ms. Minicz has a master's degree in Adult Education and has written several books including Holidays in the USA (Scott Foresman, 1991). Ms. Diamond has a master's degree in English Linguistics and has also written a variety of books and articles, including a book on Laos for the "Enrichment of the World" series for Children's Press.

I burned my hand.
I cut my face.
Heaven knows how long it's been
Since I've felt so out of place
Wondering if I'd fit in.
-Garth Brooks "Learning to Live Again"

      Garth Brooks sang on about the anxiety of a man going on his first blind date after years of marriage. My colleague burst into laughter. "Country songs," she snorted, inventing her own: "I got up this morning, I brushed my teeth."
"Yes," I answered eagerly, "That is just the point."

      Country songs are about real life--memories and reactions to real things that happen to everyone. It is for just this reason that they fit so well into an ESL class. They are pieces of America: language, culture, emotions, and biases. More than that, they are pieces of humanity mirroring feelings felt by human beings all over the globe. Garth Brooks' agonizing over whether he'll be accepted by a woman he's never seen is not too different from a young village girl's first arranged meeting with a potential husband, an exchange student's introduction to his host family, or a newly arrived immigrant's first day on the job in an American workplace.

      Country songs are "walking and talking" songs, stories with a moral. Randy Travis sings about his grandfather in "He Walked on Water." Sawyer Brawn sings of farmers losing their fields to hard times in "Cafe on the Corner." Waylon Jennings, Willlie Nelson, and Johnny Cash tell tales of adventurers in "The Highwaymen." The lyrics are full and are better read first and then heard. They bring experiences and voices other than the teacher's into the classroom. Country music is a window to American culture. Listen to Alabama's "Cheap Seats," a song of baseball mania in a "middle-class town in the Middle West." When using any authentic material in the classroom, teachers need to be mindful that both top-down and bottom-up processing are taking place. Learners will be using their knowledge of the world and their knowledge of English to make sense of what they are presented. Prior experience, cultural background, and the content of the situation at hand will be combined with the learner's level of English proficiency.

      There are a number of ways to prepare students for listening to a country song, or any song for that matter. Informal teacher talk and class discussion are time-honored techniques to make the content and language of the song accessible. Together, the teacher and class, question new vocabulary and talk about the situations described. They may examine pictures, look at or make lists of information, preview a chart, predict or speculate about the content of the song, read teacher-made questions or construct their own to be answered while listening.

      As you listen to the song yourself, logical ways to introduce it to your students will occur to you. A few weeks ago, we heard Reba McIntyre's new song, "Why Haven't I Heard From You?" while we were driving to work. We started thinking about ways to use the song with learners even before we heard the whole song. In the song, Reba gives a short story of the telephone, reviews a number of telephone services such as call-waiting and call-forwarding, then cites a number of natural disasters, all the time asking the question, "Why haven't I heard from you?" We might begin our song lesson by asking our students such questions as, "Why don't you return phone calls?" or "Who are some people you don't want to speak to on the phone?" Or we could bring in some copies of our phone bills with examples of various phone services and the related charges. Students could interview partners about the phone services they have or would like to have. Some teachers report that because telephone installation charges are so high, their students use less costly beepers or pagers in lieu of phones.

      Now that we've prepared students to listen to the song, the next step is naturally to listen. Again the options are many. Learners can complete forms or charts, circle or check key-words or phrases they hear, put pictures or words in order, fill-in blanks, answer multiple choice or true/false questions and so on. Even a beginning class can enjoy the music, catch a bit of grammar and a handful of vocabulary. There are many easy songs with simple lyrics. Charlie Rich echoes over and over his love for "The Most Beautiful Girl" and Alabama laughs at America's passion for speed in "I'm in a Hurry" with a simple, catchy chorus. Try tying a song together with pictures. In "Look Heart No Hands," Randy Travis sings about taking chances. "No chains, no strings, no fences, no walls, no nets, no hands." The students listen for their word and hold up a picture when they hear it. Of course, if the song is singable--sing it! After listening to the song as many times as it takes in order to complete the while-listening tasks, the learners are ready for one or more post-listening activities. One obvious activity for what we call "Reba's telephone song" is to put students in groups and ask them to brainstorm a list of reasons why Reba hasn't heard from the person she is singing to and share their list with the rest of the class. Beginners may simply have to decide who Reba is singing to and if she will hear from this person again. We might also ask the students to role-play a telephone conversations between Reba and the mystery person or write a letter to Reba explaining why she hasn't heard from me.

      On a more holistic level, students' response to the songs takes the form of stepping into American culture while bringing their own experiences and feelings. The responses can be a discussion or even a formal debate. Michael Martin Murphy and his son Ryan puzzle over women in "Talking to the Wrong Man." What do women want anyway? John Anderson mourns the destruction of the environment in "Seminole Wind." Is modernization and development necessary or should the "old ways" be maintained? The teacher may paste sheets of chart paper around the room and ask students to respond to questions while reading the responses of others. Or, in another version of the same thing, the text and song can be entered into a computer with a CD-ROM (or in less technically equipped classroom, a typed copy and a tape recorder). Songs also can be compared. Alabama's "Pass It On Down" which asks the older generation to preserve the world for its children can be juxtaposed with "Seminole Wind."Written compositions extend from comment and comparison to criticism and expressions of related ideas.

      A word of caution: If ways to use the song in your classroom do not automatically come to mind while you are listening to it, don't use it! Country music is valuable for more than culture and vocabulary. It is rich in idioms. This is language, away from the textbook, as it is spoken and heard. No listing of ways to say good-bye is as memorable as Gearge Strait's "Easy Come, Easy Go."

So long,
Vaya con dios,
Good luck,
Wish you well,
Take it slow,
Easy come, girl, easy go.

      A piece of a song to illustrate a piece of grammar gives the student and teacher grammar in context. Randy Travis uses the comparative structure as he contrasts a city singer's and country boy's list of the depths of love.

My love is
Deeper than the oceans,
Higher than the stars

...My love is Deeper than the holler,
Stronger than the river,
Higher than the pine trees
Growing tall upon the hill.

      How would students describe their feelings using the mood and world that they come from? Or take Diamond Rio promising and procrastinating in "A Week or Two":

      In a week or two I would have been ready; I would have known what to say.

      What is it that the class ( and their teacher) "would have done" and now regrets not doing?

      The grammar used in country music in not always that of English teachers. Country songs seldom use an "am not" where an "ain't" could fit and double negatives are popular. But the language of the songs is the language of the streets. It is what our students hear when they leave class and go home. We may not want then to use all of it, but they'd better understand it. It is important to be able to process language by responding to thought groups rather than piecing together individual words. An enjoyable way to practice quick recognition and response is through dialogues. Some country songs are set in this format. Gearge Strait tries out his line on a good-looking girl in "The Chair." He asks, waits for her answer, and then tries again. A class can write her half of the dialogue and then sing it in the pauses between George's questions. In other songs, students can write a new verse or even a whole new song on the same theme.

      Country music is especially well suited to practicing pronunciation. It is true that, in some cases, the farther south of the Mason-Dixon line that you live, the more precise the pronunciation practice will be. However, many singers such as the Judds, Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Doug Supernall have only a mild Southern accent. Ignoring Southern twang [nasalization], all songs imitate natural stress and intonation. Try speaking a song as you listen to it. You will find the pattern of your voice matches the melody. A question would not sound like a question in song or speech if it did not have the appropriate intonation pattern. Songs emphasize word stress by beat and volume. Pitch follows intonation. When a change of intonation and stress occur together, as in a question, it is emphasized by note length.

      Students should listen for patterns first. The teacher may point out stress and ask students to identify stressed words. A list of these words often is a list of the main ideas of the song. Listening a second time, the students might try to clap the stresses. They can sing along with the singer exaggerating his or her intonations. Have the class then speak as the singer sings. Finally, let them say the song into the tape recorder and listen again comparing their pronunciation to the singer's. The most difficult part of this activity is transferring intonation from song to speech. Students feel free to mimic American music as anyone visiting a foreign country these days knows, but they are less comfortable speaking with an American accent. Since many country songs are spoken stories, they translate into talk more easily than other American music.

      In fact that brings to mind some other factors to consider when selecting songs to use for language learning. The more of the criteria listed below that song meets, the easier it will be to use in an ESL curriculum.

* Is the song singable (whole or parts)?
* Does the instrumental music overpower the singer?
* Are the words intelligible?
* Is the accent comprehensible?
* Do the lyrics use natural speech?
* Does repetition of keywords or phrases add to the meaning or singability?
* Is the vocabulary too idiomatic or colloquial, or is it archaic, obscene, or nonsensical?
* Is the topic something students can relate to?

      A melody, a phrase from a song sticks to the brain. Think back to your foreign language classes in school. French students, may not remember much else, but they usually still can sing the opening lines of the Marseillaise. Music brings language alive. Songs provide chunks of language complete with shadings of meaning and emotion. They give context to grammar and syntax and purpose to speech. Songs release tension and allow students to enjoyably hear and repeat language again and again. Now just think what you could do with country music videos!


Songs to Get Started With:

"Cheap Seats"
"I'm in a Hurry"
"Pass It on Down"
"48 Hour Week"
"Seminole Wind"
"Learning to Live Again"
"The River"
"Cafe Down at the Corner"
"The Highwayman"
"It Sure Is Monday"
"Mercury Blues"
"In a Week or Two"
"All the Gold in California"
"I Love"
"I Know Where I Am Going"
"Love Can Build a Bridge"
"Come From the Heart"
"Why Haven't I Heard From You"
"Life's a Dance"
"A Little Good News"
"Easy Come, Easy Go"
"The Chair"
"Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good"



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