K.M.Lockwood takes a look at, or perhaps has a listen to, the role of song in children's books. How could we use song to develop character and plot? Musicals do it all the time  . . .

In last month's post (featuring Dance) there was a strong folk influence. There will be a little more of that this time. But be re-assured there will not be any elves twittering:

Oh, tra-la-la-lally
Here down in the valley, ha! ha!

or any ditties from Tom Bombadil:

Tom Bombadil by Adam Koford CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Still, silly songs can have their place. You might have to fit lyrics to an old tune or make one up but fun can definitely be had.

Boggis and Bunce and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean,
These horrible crooks,
So different in looks,
Were none the less equally mean.

from Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl, 1970

Indeed, song can be a source of humour: karaoke parents, anyone? Or in school plays  — that kid that belts it out tunelessly but with great enthusiasm. As in all comedy, you're only seconds away from tragedy.

A word of warning to contemporary writers — avoid modern song lyrics unless you can afford to pay the rights-holder for the use of them. Here's a handy link in case you need permission — but it can be complex and costly.

Of course, one way to avoid that is making up your own. You could even go to an Arvon course with Sir Ray Davies of the Kinks! If you're not so musical, leaving the tune to the reader is OK. Alternatively, you could use much older songs. Anything in the Public Domain is ripe for the picking — and this is where my historical/folky enthusiasm comes rushing in again.

Two geisha playing shamisen by Joi Ito from Inbamura
 CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In eras and cultures without recorded music everywhere, song was more frequent. I remember in my childhood plenty of singing on my dad's building site until the transistor radio became popular. Even then, singing along was the norm. Likewise, a coach journey to the Dales was accompanied by a rollicking mix of Methodist hymns, parlour songs and traditional favourites. (I know all the words to On Ilkla Moor Bah't At) In Shakespeare's time, an educated person would join in a four-part madrigal when the sheet music was presented to them. Geisha in Japan were skilled at improvising on the shamisen to make a song out of their clients' poetry. Rap continues a long tradition in many cultures of topical protest.

Woody Guthrie, playing a guitar that has a sticker attached reading: This Machine Kills Fascists
Public Domain

And should you need a starting point for fantasy for any age, why not look at lullabies, nursery rhymes and ballads? Almost all lullabies in any language (especially if you look at older versions) contain an element of threat. What about Rock-a-bye Baby — in a tree-top?

Nursery rhymes often have darker undercurrents (even if the legends about plagues and ring-a-ring-a-roses etc. are debatable). As for traditional song, you need look no further than the Child Ballads. 305 story songs from England and Scotland (with variants from North America) with themes such as romance and enchantment, loyalty and dishonour, revenge, half-human beings, bold outlaws and the supernatural. Endless material for many a writer or illustrator.

By Arthur Rackham - Twa Corbies from “Some British Ballads” (1919), Public Domain

In short, song can bring an extra dimension to your work — from tiny children making up their own ditties to a source of sophisticated world-building.

'Stage Photo' by Hafizh Armynazrie, Jakarta, Indonesia, via  Unsplash

*Title image Young Singer by Yingnan Lu

 K. M. Lockwood writes and edits in The Garret.
 Once downstairs, she runs a tiny writer-friendly B&B or wanders off  looking for sea-glass on the Sussex coast.
 Twitter: @lockwoodwriter

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