When I was at junior school in the 1950s, a highlight of the week was when we gathered in the hall and waited for a teacher to turn on the radio, tuned to the BBC Home Service. An announcer would say ‘And now, Schools Broadcasting: Singing Together’. For half an hour we would learn and sing traditional British and Irish songs, many of which stick with me today: The Ash Grove, Molly Malone, Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron. Looking back, a lot of them dealt with heartbreak and early death but I don’t think we noticed. After a short break, another programme called Music and Movement followed, in which we were encouraged to be trees or rabbits.
Singing Together was launched just after the start of the war in 1939, and it lasted for nearly 60 years. The programmes were accompanied by pamphlets with the words and music of the songs. These were little gems in themselves – you can see an archive of the delightful covers here. It carried on going strong with the advent of rock and pop in the 1950s and 60s, but at some point around that time the BBC developed modernising mania. Some think the catalyst was the so-called satirical programme That Was The Week That Was, which in reality was a vehicle for privileged Oxbridge types to poke superior fun at targets who could not answer back, such as the Queen and the prime minister.
Anyway, the BBC determined that Singing Together must keep up with the times. First it introduced folk songs from around the world, then it added pop songs. The BBC says that ratings fell (though as a state broadcaster it has no obligation to achieve high ratings) and after drifting along in some sort of limbo of world music and third-rate pop, Singing Together was put out of its misery in the mid-1990s.
The really sad thing is that the lovely tunes which were familiar to everyone when I was at school must now be close to extinction. Mine could be the last generation who know them. Does anyone, anywhere, now sing Green Grow the Rushes O? A part of our culture and heritage is just about to vanish.
It is also sad that this would have been a wonderful way to integrate children from other cultures into British traditions and society, better than trying to teach diversity and tolerance. It is interesting to imagine what might have happened if the BBC had stuck to the original format of Singing Together and not tried – and failed – to be all things to all children.
I thought readers might like to be reminded of a few of the old songs. There are apparently only three Singing Together programmes in the BBC archives, and you can be sure the corporation will not be re-broadcasting them now, but thanks to the miracle of the internet and YouTube, I have dug up some that I remember. Readers may have other favourites.
Dashing Away With the Smoothing Iron
Green Grow the Rushes O
The Ash Grove
The Owl and the Pussycat
Early One Morning
Skye Boat Song