Philadelphia Folksong Society’s outreach to students


“Today we’re going to learn something we didn’t know before,” Principal Richard Raisman announced to a rowdy group of first and fifth-graders in the spacious, blue-curtained auditorium of Chew Street’s Emlen Elementary School. But it wasn’t until the first notes of folk musician Jay Smar’s slide guitar came over the young audience that the chatter suddenly died. At the end of Smar’s original song, “Socket To Me”, named in honor of the hand-held metal socket that coaxes the tangy glide from the guitar’s strings, the kids erupted in enthusiastic applause.

The event was sponsored by the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s educational outreach program, Odyssey of American Music, which provided its in-school program to over 7,000 Philadelphia-area children last year. Jeanette Yanks, attending with Folksong Society Executive Director Levi Landis, has helmed the Odyssey program since its inception in 1974. With a lifelong passion for music education, Yanks mourns the increasingly widespread budget cuts that rob students of a regular arts curriculum. Last school year, well over half of the 40 schools participating in the Odyssey program had no formal music program or no full-time music teacher.

“There’s more of a need for this than we can provide,” Landis said, noting that the Odyssey program makes up to 55 school visits per year. Participating schools choose their own musician from about 25 artists affiliated with the program annually, and schools’ only cost is a $25.00 travel stipend to the musician.

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Storytelling, history and audience participation are key parts of the folk music tradition, and this makes folk music a particularly valuable offering to students, not just to learn about the origins of much of today’s music and culture, but to explore pieces of the past and how they are remembered. Smar’s April 26th program at Emlen drew on his own roots in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining heyday. The songs he performed encompassed Native American legend, the famous Switchback Railroad (predecessor of the modern roller-coaster), life in the coalmine, and the 1897 Latimer coal-miners’ march. The Odyssey program’s folk songs and stories can offer curricular connections in history, social science, language and poetry, and ethnic traditions from Africa to Ireland.

In 45-minute sessions for first through sixth-graders, Smar, an accomplished and engaging musician, introduced the kids to the fiddle, the banjo, the slide guitar and the Neapolitan mandolin. In a presentation of surprising breadth, kids learned not only the sounds of the instruments, but their cultural history, including an emphasis on their original hand-made forms, before the availability of industrial materials. The lesson demonstrated the instruments’ anatomy as well as different styles of playing. As four volunteers took the stage with Smar to learn a traditional clog-dancing step, students in their seats tapped their heels and toes along with them.

Other children who could use their new knowledge to answer questions about the instruments got a coveted chance to come onstage and play a tune, strumming the strings while Smar worked the frets.

6th-grader Khadijah Morgan returned grinning from her turn with a Neapolitan mandolin – the first time she had ever had an instrument in her hands other than a drum set at her church, and her thrill was evident. When asked if she would like to hear more music like this, the answer was an emphatic yes.

Landis urges the importance of music in education, with its unique ability to integrate many topics and methods of learning, and its proven role in boosting social and academic engagement. “It’s not just a matter of self-preservation,” he said of the Folksong Society and the Odyssey program’s ongoing efforts in music education. “This is a good thing.”

For more information on the program or to book a school visit, call 215-247-1300 or visit

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