Boys, Choir and the War

Edith Foster

March 1, 2004

If you’re like me, your school or community choir is the only forum in which your children memorize any amount of great poetry. My experience is that the kids remember the music and the lyrics of the songs long after the rehearsals and concerts are over. It is, therefore, especially important to know what kinds of poems and songs they are learning at choir practice. To illustrate this point, allow me to briefly describe my experience with two choir concerts: last year’s spring concert, sung as the campaign in Iraq was in progress, and this year’s.

I help out with the choirs, and part of my duties for last year’s concert was to care for a table of kids at lunchtime. In a cafeteria, beneath a huge television screen showing coverage of the ongoing war, I sat with several boys, aged between 8 and 11. I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought about the war. Predictably, they didn’t know very much about it. Some said they hated Saddam Hussein. Others were more excited by the technology of the war. But one said the following in response to my questions: Only heaven was good, he said, earth and hell were both bad. I tried to suggest that earth might be somewhere between the two extremes, but he stuck to his opinion, and then we had to go rehearse.

In this concert the children also sang a song that referred to war and its place in human life. It was called “Magic Song.”

Now, the Magic Song has a pretty melody, but these are the words:

If I could write a magic song

That everyone could sing,

I’d write of love

And hope and joy

And things that peace could bring.

And when we sang my magic song,

All hate and war would cease…

(the rest is similar: here’s the chorus:)

One song for all of us

One song could bring us peace

One song could make a miracle

For all of us…a song of peace.

I know all the people who run this choir, and I know how deeply and honestly they want to help the kids. Nevertheless, I must suggest that the Magic Song probably did not serve the boys who sat at my lunch table very well. It is just a fact that one song cannot bring peace. Imagining the opposite does not help kids think about their hatred for Saddam Hussein or anyone else. It does nothing to address the sense of power that arises from watching television displays of impressive technology, and neither does it address the sense of weakness, or even dread, that comes from a child’s fear that the evils of war are too large to grasp. On the contrary, by proposing impossible solutions, the Magic Song, and the thousands of songs like it, reinforce a sense of helplessness, and a feeling, all too prevalent among our children, that “fantasy world” is the only good world.

All of this can be avoided. Vocal music in particular, which, in the tradition, has been nothing else than great poetry set to great music, can play an important role in giving our children a way to think about the war and all the events that are now following as a consequence. After all, serious music looks at hard issues—love, nature, family, war, death, etc. from an eternal and poetic perspective. This perspective, combined with the beauty of the music, can give us relief from ourselves, and help make it possible for us to confront some of the hardest facts.

In order to accomplish this aim, the music we sing must be thoughtfully chosen. Allow me now to briefly describe the preparations for this year’s spring concert. Imagine: you are the mom. Your 9 year-old son comes skidding out of his Saturday morning choir rehearsal, ready for lunch and trouble. “Mom,” he yells, “we’re singing the best song in the galaxy.” You question him, but you can’t get anything else out of him, except that “the song sounds so great” when all the boys (it’s a boys’ choir) are singing together. Before bedtime, however, you find him sitting in front of his window, singing, over and over, “where is that glory gone?”

A line from the “best song in the galaxy,” of course. What’s the song?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul he sailed on a day,

Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern,

Rum on the port,

Eigg on the starboard bow;

Glory of youth glowed in his soul:

Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul he sailed on a day,

Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,

Give me the sun that shone!

Give me the eyes, Give me the soul,

Give me the lad that’s gone.


The poem, Sing Me a Song of a Lad that is Gone, is by Robert Louis Stevenson. The accompanying music is energetic, but serious. My son knows (because the conductor told them) that Skye, Mull, Rum and Eigg are Scottish islands. It’s a manly song, there’s no other way to describe it, attaching itself both to the present energy of a boy’s youth and the mature consideration of the potential transience of that happiness. Furthermore, the poetry does not evade the fact of death, or the problem that the cost of one’s efforts during life might be high.

This poem isn’t a work of supreme genius or deep philosophy. But it makes a really good song, and the boys who learn this song by heart are being introduced to some valuable tools for thinking about the real world; furthermore they’ve had the experience of acquiring those tools together with others.

There’s no way past the real world, for us, or for the kids who are living through present events with us. It’s our job to talk to them as much as we can, and when it comes to choir, to choose music that gives them something solid to work with.

Alternatively, we can indulge in momentary relief from reality. I argue, however, that such relief is purchased at our children’s expense. In a difficult world, we should not neglect the opportunities to provide food for the thoughts that can make the difference. Is the world the same as hell? Is it a place you just have to suffer through, unless you can escape to some impossible fantasy? We can affirm the opposite.

Edith Foster holds a PhD in Classics from the University of Chicago and writes curricula for the National Endowment for the Humanities.