Time for a Song

By Peter Viney

My first teaching job was during the summer holidays when I was at university. I taught a group of eight German sixteen year olds who were all at an intermediate level, and who were perplexed by the issued copies of Present Day English For The Foreign Student Level 2 which were way below their standard. The only other materials supplied by the school were a few dog-eared sets of lists of animals; duck - drake - duckling. You probably know the kind of thing. We used to call it 'English for Zookeepers'. I was desperate for materials and quickly found out that they would rather be taught from Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles or Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. It seemed to work.

Three years later when I started teaching English as a Foreign Language as a full time job, I found that songs were still seen as a major source of authentic English input by many students. This seemed quite natural. After all, everyone in the world listens to English-language pop and rock songs. In those far off days of 1971 the language laboratory used to resound to eighteen or twenty voices working their way relentlessly and tunelessly through El Condor Pasa (If I Could) and Nowhere Man. I suppose listening to music through headphones was still a novelty. We only used authentic materials, and I soon worked up Paul Simon's America into a party piece, complete with vocabulary exercises, follow-up written work and even structural exercises. The popular authentic songs divided into two groups. There were songs which could be seen as a literary text, i.e. they had good lyrics, such as America, and Blowing in the Wind . There were songs which had some kind of extractable teaching point, such as Simon and Garfunkel's El Condor Pasa (would, could), The Beatles' Nowhere Man (indefinite pronouns) and Elvis Presley's Return to Sender (simple past - including gave, put, brought, wrote. ) You notice that I don't quote the actual lyrics. Permission for doing so is (a) hard to get and (b) often expensive. The material used was primarily pop/rock of the singer / songwriter type, although some teachers - especially those who could play the guitar or the piano - tended to prefer traditional folk songs. One teacher I knew at that time even specialised in Gilbert and Sullivan (that was Gilbert AND Sullivan's light opera, not Gilbert O'Sullivan) with his advanced classes! However, authentic songs are copyright, and though your school may have a performing rights licence allowing you to play songs to a class, this will not allow you to photocopy lyrics.  

The only specially written material available was an EP (for those who remember what an EP or 'Extended Player' was) which accompanied the language laboratory course English Fast. I don't remember any of the songs, but I still recall the excruciatingly out-of-tune guitar solos. Specially written ELT songs could easily be summed up as sounding like Peter, Paul and Mary on a bad day. The first successful set of ELT songs was Ken Wilson's Mr Monday (and other songs for the teaching of English) (Longman). Mr Monday and the subsequent Goodbye Rainbow were both full of irritatingly catchy songs with a teaching point that shone through loud and clear. Students loved them. Ken Wilson could be seen performing the songs live with The English Teaching Theatre. ELT songs had firmly establishedthemselves as part of the language teachers' repetoire.  

My own favourites from the 1970s period were Roy Kingsbury and Patrick O'Shea's songs, which appeared on Sunday Afternoons (Longman) and Seasons and People (OUP). Both collections have long since been deleted by their publishers, but I loved the Elvis spoof If I Were You on the former and the very catchy Where Were You Yesterday? on the latter. They are worth looking out from your school's dustier store cupboards. At that time we were doing our own weekly 'sketches and music' shows for students at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, with regular audiences of 300 to 400 students. The shows had been a feature of the school in 1971 when I started teaching there, and in fact Karen and I met while performing in a show. In the first year the basic line-up of performers consisted of Colin Granger, Guy Wellman and Karen and me. Roy and Patrick joined us a few years later, but interestingly the high point of the musical side of the evening tended to be Patrick and Guy singing Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Boxer. The Simon and Garfunkel factor in ELT songs had not gone away!  

Towards the end of the 1970s songs were beginning to be incorporated in secondary and adult courses. They had always featured in primary materials. Strategies (Longman) had an accompanying set, Skyhigh in 1975, and Starting Strategies added Cloudsongs in 1977. The most ambitious project was Guy Wellman and Tony Lloyd's Street Life (Evans 1980) which was a course where songs formed the initial context for each unit. At the beginning of the 80s, there seemed to be a move back towards real songs. English Visa (OUP) somehow managed to obtain permission to incorporate early Beatles songs in the first level, and the Cambridge English Course (CUP) used both specially-written and authentic songs, (with a strong preference for Woody Guthrie).  

My first attempt to incorporate authentic songs into my own materials came with Streamline English Directions. I had wanted to use two songs in a unit about prejudices, and spent months trying to get permission to use Randy Newman's Short People and Paul McCartney's Ebony and Ivory. We never managed to get any kind of reply from Randy Newman, his record company or his music publishers. Strenuous efforts with Paul McCartney (we were trying to by-pass the blanket refusals from his staff) resulted in a reply which simply said 'No. No. No.' I wrote the unit without any songs. I had also wanted to use Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues in a unit on the kind of language used in rock songs (e.g. gonna, gotta, wanna, ain't). Time went on and we got nearer and nearer to publication without a reply. When the reply arrived it was simply an exorbitant demand for huge sums of money. I had resigned myself to scrapping the unit - you can't talk about the language of rock songs without having a song, and we couldn't afford the sum they wanted - when my editor said 'Why don't you write a song with all the examples in it?' I got in touch with Guy Wellman; he put my lyrics to music, and Rock 'n' Roll Is Dead finally appeared in Directions.  

When Karen and I started work on Grapevine we wanted to have songs throughout the course. We wanted to avoid the 'Peter, Paul and Mary on a bad day' syndrome, and we wanted to maintain a little humour by largely making the songs into pastiches of various styles. It was fun, and we have been delighted with the music, performances and arrangements which have been put to the lyrics by Vince Cross, who as well as singing on several of the songs, produced and played all keyboards. Like all of the Grapevine audio recordings, the songs are recorded in stereo. Thirteen of the fourteen songs were specially written, and Grapevine 3 also includes Julie Gold's From A Distance, a song which has been recorded by Nanci Griffith, The Byrds, Cliff Richard and Bette Midler. We bought and listened carefully to five different versions of the song. None of us liked the Cliff Richard version, but we did adopt his slight change to the lyrics. He changed It's the song of every man to It's the song of everyone, and we felt that we preferred the 'inclusive language' version! Our fondest hope is that students will go home singing the songs - whether they like them or loathe them!  

Most of the Grapevine songs were adapted for use in the American English course Main Street. Sometimes there were no changes at all. On most occassions we had to put on a new vocal track to cope with changes of vocabulary or structure. Many of the songs were already sung in 'Mid-Atlantic.' The one song we did change altogether was Mickey Can't Dance - which had been used as an introductory context in Grapevine One. In Main Street Two (which is equivalent to the second half of Grapevine One ) we replaced it with a new song, You Can Do It.  

I'll finish with some general advice on using songs in the classroom.  

• It doesn't matter whether you can sing or not. Neither of us can sing a note, but we play the cassette recorder very well. Don't let your own lack of singing ability inhibit you. The students will be doing the singing.  

• There are many reasons for using songs in the classroom. They provide excellent practice in stress, rhythm, intonation, catenation and practice in simply keeping up the pace with natural speed English. They can be used to reinforce structures. They can be regarded as short poetic texts. They can be regarded as part of the variety that students need. Most of all they're fun.  

• Don't use material just because you like it. I often made this mistake in my early years of using songs. I love The Band's records and Robbie Robertson's lyrics. I tried to communicate my enthusiasm to advanced classes with negative results! Use a song because it's got a wonderful melody or lyrics which will give you something to teach. This need not be structure. You can regard a song as a short authentic text, and exploit the lyrics in any of the many ways that you might adopt with other texts. A very good reason for using a song is that it's in the top 10 this week, it's sung in English and everyone in the class is humming it.  

• This is a piece of advice for would-be textbook authors wishing to use authentic songs. Try, try and try again for permissions - but expect disappointment. Music publishers and record companies will nearly always refuse permission. If they do give permission, this may allow you to re-record the song but not to use the original recording. If you can get permission to use songs by Paul Simon, Bob Dylan or any of the Beatles, you've succeeded where we have failed many times.  


Peter Viney


For information on authentic songs which may be of interest, go to the
Music in Education Site


  • Some notes on the songs included in Grapevine and Main Street follow.


    Song Unit Structure



    Hello 1 Numbers, Greetings, To Be. A novelty song sung by two Martians who are greeting a petrol pump (!)
    Tall Thin Annie 13 Adjectives, To Be - present tense. A send-up of the early days of rock 'n' roll when there were songs about Long Tall Sally, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Short Fat Fannie, Bony Moronie and a host of others with similar names.
    Mickey Can't Dance 21 can. This goes with a story in the course about a rock group composed of disabled musicians. It's supposed to be their hit record. The style is AOR - 'album orientated rock'.
    Let's Go To A Movie 39 will, won't, shall, let's. Cheerful and bouncy - the style influence was Eurovision Song Contest.  


    Nothing to do 2 Indefinite pronouns. This is the first of the rap songs. Rap is great for those who are embarrassed by their own singing voices.
    Hot Air 9 The past continuous, indefinite pronouns. A dreamy relaxed song. We tried hard not make the structure too obvious here.
    Have you heard the news? 17 The present perfect. The style is folk-rock with prominent electric guitars - Peter, Paul and Mary on a good day, if you like. So far this has proved the most popular song of all.
    Rules & Regulations 25 must, mustn't, have to, can't etc. A rap song with a melodic chorus. This is my personal favourite.
    I used to be a star 37 used to do. This is a deliberate pastiche of a certain singer/ songwriter style. It has a very definite Elton John feel.  


    Telling each other lies 2 Reflexive & emphatic pronouns. Vince had a tremendously diffult task here. We had asked for a melody which might be sung as a duet between an imaginary ageing soul singer and a younger female singer. We told him that we wanted the kind of record that would be a number one hit in the USA. A romantic dramatic ballad.
    Give me Time 12 Rules, warnings let / make someone do. Rap with a melodic chorus again.
    From a distance 18 Simple form verbs, quantity. By Julie Gold. It has a lovely, slightly folky melody. Authentic.
    Ballad of the Outlaws 29 Past tense; would / used to. We wanted an outlaw song, and listened to a large number of authentic ones. The lyrics always proved too difficult, and we wanted several well-known outlaws to be mentioned. It has a country and western feel.
    Sometimes I wish 38 Wishes & regrets. The style can best be described as 'like Rod Stewart'.  


    You Can Do It 1 can. We had fun with this. We wanted it to sound like early 1960s surf music complete with a cheap Farfisa organ sound. This is surprisingly hard to re-create on an elaborate modern synthesizer.

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