Song Interpretation for EFL Teaching

Dec 19,2014

This may have more to do with teaching than with intercultural relations, but since there is a bit of perspective involved that may relate to culture, I thought it might be a nice and festive holiday thing to include here right about now.

My university students are going through a unit on music now, and that connection it seemed fitting to have them attempt to decipher a set of song lyrics. They're already well-acquinted with middle-of-the-road fare like the Beatles and the Carpenters, so I didn't want to flog that horse any more, and I've heard way too much of it besides. I thought it should be something fairly melodic and easy enough on the ears to bear repeated listenings, with vocals enough to the fore that they could be understood to a fair degree. Folk music seemed to be a good bet, although most of the folk music I know tends to rely a bit too much either on dialect or specific cultural references, or both. Finally I decided on a disappointed Irish love song called 'I Courted a Wee Girl', which Mick Hanly sings beautifully for all to hear on YouTube:

I Courted a Wee Girl

I courted a wee girl for many's the long day
And I slighted all others that came in my way
And well she rewarded me to the last day
For she's gone to be wed to another

The bride and bride's party to church they did go
The bride she rode foremost she put the best show
And I followed after with a heart full of woe
To see my love wed to another

The bride and bride's party in church they did stand
Gold rings on their fingers, a love by the hand
And the man that she's wed to has houses and land
He may have her since I couldn't gain her

The first time I saw her she was all dressed in white
And the more I gazed on her she dazzled my sight
I lifted my cap and I bade her goodnight
Here's adieu to all false-hearted lovers

The next time I say her she was leaving down neat
I sat down beside her not a bite could I eat
For I thought my love's company far better than meat
Since love was the cause of my ruin

So let's dig me a grave and dig it down deep
And strew it all over with the primrose so sweet
And lay me down easy, no more for to weep
Since love was the cause of my ruin

First I had my students try to transcribe the words as they heard them, which went surprizingly well. They were able to catch many of the key words and phrases. Then I handed them a sheet with the rhyming words missing, to make them aware of rhyme--it's not something used in Japanese poetry, so most students tend not to notice it in song lyrics at all--and after they filled in the rhyming words I handed them a complete set for comprehension. I gave them a writing assignment in which they were to re-tell the story in their own words.

The compositions were quite interesting. One of the girls, not knowing the full meaning of the process of 'courting' pointed out that it was natural that the girl in the song didn't return the singer's affection, because he never bought her gifts or did anything particular to attract her attention. One of the boys opined that the singer was 'effeminate' and that he should just man up, forget about the girl, and get on with his life. Another boy said it reminded him of his own experience, and concluded his composition with 'OK, Mick Hanly, let's have a drink together'.

Love it.

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