Skin and Bones

Around Halloween, children are often introduced to the startling folk song “Skin and Bones.” Music teachers especially appreciate how the song’s call-and-response form and minor pentatonic tonality invite participation. The response’s pure vowel and descending melodic line encourage healthy vocal production. It’s a pedagogically sound, seasonal choice, and a closer look through Library of Congress primary sources can captivate revelers of all ages this Halloween.

The standard classroom song resembles Jean Ritchie’s version, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1949. The recording, held at the Library of Congress, is digitized and available through the Association for Cultural Equity. In a different, 1951 reel-to-reel recording at the Library, Jean Ritchie changed the refrain from “ooo” to “mmm” in the later verses. The shift in dynamic and color draws listeners, priming them for the fright at the end. In fact, as the recording concludes, she laughingly apologizes for startling Lomax! Many teachers will identify with her experiences introducing the song to new generations of children.

The American Folklife Center blogged about scary songs, including “Skin and Bones,” and featured a less-familiar setting collected by Anne and Frank Warner in 1941, playable above. Pairing the two versions provides opportunities for standards-based musical exploration.

  • Respond: Compare the recordings. What similarities and differences do students notice? Which recording seems scarier, and why?
  • Perform: Draw upon students’ prior experience with call-and-response form and the Ritchie version to make musical predictions about the less-familiar Warner melody. Challenge students to sing the response, even upon first listen, guided by their prior knowledge.
  • Create: Encourage students to notice similarities in the pieces’ composition. Inspired by the meter, lyrics, melody, and form of the original works, students might create a contemporary “Skin and Bones.” What settings or plot developments would frighten a modern listener? What melodic shapes would complement the ideas? Invite students to share their work as a soloist or small group while the class supports the responsorial refrain.
  • Connect: In Ritchie’s song, the narrative wanders. The climax leaves the listener in suspense, wondering what will emerge from the broom closet. In the Warners’ recording, the narrative follows a more direct path to the graveyard. Rather than wondering, the old woman is overcome with dread when she realizes exactly what’s in store. Which kind of fear do students find more terrifying: the unknown or the inevitable? How might different fears be communicated differently through musical performance?

I agree with Jean Ritchie: “Skin and Bones” will forever delight children. Deeper analysis of the piece has the power to keep on haunting. What frights and delights does “Skin and Bones” hold for your students this season?