Soundings Soundings

Songlines

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.324.7353.1591/a (Published 29 June 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1591
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care
  1. University College London

    The kids are back from camp, and don't we know it. There is mud in their sleeping bags, nits in their hair, and tall stories at the dinner table. And as the neighbours have reminded us, they have knocked up some musical instruments and filled the air with song.

    They are mostly the same catchy tunes (“Gimme crack corn, and I don't care …”; “In Dublin's fair city …”) that you and I sang to hand clapping, thigh slapping actions with our youth groups so many decades ago. I remember my mother saying at the time, “Good grief, I used to do that one with the Girl Guides before the war.” Then, as now, the tune evoked memories of powerful peer group bonding in a primordial campfire context.

    The best songs aren't (and never were) in the songbook. Despite the mushrooming of technologies for recording, reproducing, indexing, and distributing text, little of what we place on file today will be accessible in its present form by our children's children. It is not the written word—and still less the formatted and processed word—but the chanted, sung, and collectively enacted word that passes faithfully down the generations. Our great grandchildren won't know or care about The NHS Plan, but they'll still be singing “Ging gang goolie goolie” as they toast their marshmallows.

    A few years ago, when my children were tiny, I started to teach them what to do if approached by a stranger in the street. “Oh, we already know that,” they said confidently. “A policeman came to the playgroup and taught us a song.”

    They launched into a perfect duet of the dealing-with-strangers song, checking off each verse on a different finger, and vigorously shaking their heads to accompany each chant of “No” in the refrain.

    Surely this is an idea we should capture? Research on educational interventions in health care focuses heavily on structured handouts. But text and pictures may ultimately prove less effective than engaging in a communal singsong.

    Let's take a leaf out of the policeman's book. I need a volunteer to redraft “Green grow the rushes-O” as an aide-mémoire for the lifestyle measures for cardiovascular health. And another to adapt “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly” to address the questions teenagers daren't ask us about sexual health. We'll soon be humming the winning entries.

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