Assemblies and subverting songs; a ramble

There are some things that I miss about teaching: my colleagues, the children. There are some things that I am very glad to leave: the ever looming threat of OFSTED, marking.  I’m not sure which list primary assemblies come into. They were often boring, especially when I was delivering them, but occasionally inspiring. The singing could be pretty good, too. I am still in awe of the power with which my first deputy head pounded the piano.

In my experience (and just for once I can say this is considerable) children hate assemblies. I have sometimes been honoured to have children rushing up to me and thanking me for one; but too often they are bored and uncomfortable. All primary teachers will be familiar with the games of hairdressing and prodding the child in front of you which often go on. (While I’m about it, I have huge respect for all the children over the years who have sat and tolerated others being REALLY ANNOYING behind them, without turning round and clocking them one.) (Does anybody else still say clocking them one?) So perhaps my ongoing, protracted in-depth look at what I would do about education (‘So what would YOU do about education?’) ought to address assemblies at some point.

I did not originally mean to get onto the topic of assemblies here; I wanted just to reminisce about the wonderful ways I have heard children transform songs. When teaching in my first school, a primary, I heard infant children  change the words of that old favourite, ‘Who Built The Ark?’ It ended up as: “Who built the ark? No-one, no-one. Who built the ark? Brother No-one built the ark.”

At that time, a popular T.V. host called Larry Grayson had the catchphase: “Shut that door!” Inevitably, the juniors changed the emphasis of the aforementioned song so it went: “Now Noah said, GO SHUT THAT DOOR!”

One Christmas in this school each class presented a little piece to the rest of the children. My 10 year olds wanted to sing a song of which they were very proud:

“While shepherds and their flocks by night/ Were watching BBC/ The angel of the Lord came down/ And switched to ITV.” (Our channel choices were very limited in those days.)

800px-Haarlem_verzamel_Sunlight_zeep_pic2They were delighted when I taught them the version that either my father or my grandmother taught me (I forget which):

“While shepherds washed their socks by night/ All seated on the ground/ A bar of Sunlight soap came down/ And glory shone around.”

Photo of (Dutch) Sunlight Soap: AlfvanBeem (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I love the continuity here. Back to my own school days, we had a school song, written, oddly enough, by Ralph Reader, who was an Old Boy and wrote the Gang Shows for the Scouts and Guides. It had been neglected and another Old Boy got it sung again, much to the annoyance of the wonderful Jim Hodgson, our music master (and I believe a very good jazz pianist.)

We had another master called Mr West, so inevitably the song had an extra emphasis, sung lustily by 600 adolescent boys/ young men: “From North to South, from East to WEST!” Its “noble lessons…. of piety and learning” changed to those “of piracy and burning.” At this point, on Founder’s Day, Jim would go for maximum volume from the church organ, doing a pretty good job of drowning us out.

At junior school, we sang: “We three kings of Liverpool are are/ George, John, Paul and Ringo Starr/ George in a taxi, John in a bus/ Ringo and Paul by car.”

This tradition goes back a long way. My father sang ‘Hark the Herald Angels” with the words: “Hark the herald angels sing/ Mrs Simpson stole our king,” after the abdication of Edward VIII. And my grandmother’s version of the National Anthem went: “God save our old tom cat/ Feed him on bread and fat.”

Janet and Allan Ahlberg have a nice take on this theme from a teacher’s point of view in ‘The Headmaster’s Hymn’ from ‘Please Mrs Butler’. (Animated version)

Do children still do this? I can’t think of any from recent times. I’d love to know if anybody else can remember some, recent or past. I’d love any comments at all, even if correcting errors.



3 thoughts on “Assemblies and subverting songs; a ramble

  1. In the USA at our state (aka public) school, my children don’t sing hymns as church and state are separate. They don’t know carols either. It leaves me rather sad. Polly only knows carols because she’s learning the piano. Of Barney the Purple Dinosaur however, they sing ‘I love you, you love me, let’s get together and kill Barney, you take the gun, I’ll take the axe…’ Neither of them know the rest, I’m not entirely sure there is any more to it… Hmmmm!


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