Book Review: Wee Sing Around the World

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Wee Sing Around the World

Web site generated by this series:

Author: Pamela Conn Beall

Date: 1994

Publisher: Price Stern Sloan

ISBN: 0-8431-3740-1

Length: 64 pages

Illustrations: line drawings by Nancy Spence Klein

Quote: “We have stayed true to the overall meaning of the song even though each word is not always a literal translation.”

Songbooks used in elementary school music classes used to be notorious for appropriating the melody of a traditional love song or murder ballad and printing it above innocuous, instructive, relentlessly cheerful new words. Pete Seeger cited the example of an English song, supposed to be a murderer’s confession: “They call me Hanging Johnny, because I hanged my Granny,” which he said had been Americanized as “They call me Smiling Johnny, because my smile’s so bonny.” Bah. None of the music books or classes of my elementary school days wanted anything to do with that one…I can see why not.

Composing completely new words for traditional songs is an honorable American custom; since few publishers could print sheet music before the late nineteenth century, most of the songs published in the English language were sold as new words to sing to a familiar tune. That’s how “God Save the Queen” turned into “My Country,’Tis of Thee.” It’s also how songs that were written and sung to commemorate an event in a country’s history turned into dreary little ditties about the principal exports of the country. Someone decides that the battle was too gory, the death of the old horse was too sad, or the song about the jolly ride through all the places on the local map was too complicated for children of a certain age, and the children end up learning to sing a grocery list or a refrain that translates as “Dance, dance, dance, tra-la-la.”

Actual translations of songs tend to come out, well, different. In order to preserve the original idea and mood, translators find themselves using new words, sometimes new thoughts, new images, whole new stories. For an official, public-domain example, consider the difference between the English words, and the literal English meaning of the French words, to “O Canada Our Home Our Native Land.”

The songs in Wee Sing Around the World seem, so far as I can tell, to have been juvenile in their original languages, and they remain juvenile in English. Several choices seem to have been made by the desire not to duplicate more familiar, more popular songs that you might already have in some other collection; how else can one account for the selection of an obscure commercial jingle for “Coulter’s Candy,” to represent Scotland, over “Loch Lomond”? In preserving the same general theme and tone, Beall seems to have done about as well as the translators of “O Canada Our Home Our Native Land.”

However, everything about the Wee Sing collection, from the original pun forward, seems designed to appeal to very young adults who want everything they buy for children to scream “For Tiny Tots Only.” Three-year-old won’t mind this book’s nursery image, but if you want to include school-age children in family sing-alongs, it may be more profitable to buy a songbook aimed at the whole family and let the three-year-old grow into it.

Most of the songs in Wee Sing Around the World will be new to American parents. These songs are very easy to learn, sing, and accompany on whatever beginners’ musical instruments you may have. If you’re far out of practice, these songs will help you ease back in. This collection is warmly recommended to adults and to parents whose oldest child is under age six.

Beall and Nipp are alive and writing (when not translating nursery songs, Beall is a screenwriter) so this is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and I’ll send Beall and/or Nipp and/or a charity of their choice $1 per book. To buy ten volumes from the collection, send a total of $55, and the writers or their charities get to divide up $10.

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