Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Old Betty Larkin": A Kentucky Folk Dance

Greetings, from Kentucky! We just finished a lesson introducing the mountain dulcimer, Jean Ritchie, and a Kentucky folk dance, "Old Betty Larkin." The dulcimer is Kentucky's state instrument, so I always make sure to expose my students to our Kentucky heritage at least a couple times throughout the school year. "Old Betty Larkin" is a game song that any age will enjoy. I teach this lesson to 2nd-5th grade every year and it is a favorite the kids remember from year to year.

The song and dance can be found in "120 Singing Games and Dance For Elementary School" by Lois Choksy and David Brummit. This is a great resource and I use it often. If you don't currently own a copy, I promise it will be worth your investment! On, this retails for $162.00. I know I paid more than $100 for my copy several years ago when I purchased on  I did a quick search and found it at for only $68! What a deal!

The song is in D dorian, but the kids usually pick up on the melody very quickly. (It's actually refreshing to get out of the world of C Major pentatonic!) I usually accompany the song on my dulcimer just playing a drone throughout the song without worrying about the melody string because I have zero skills or training in actually playing the dulcimer. There are chord changes you could choose to play if you were accompanying the song on piano, guitar, or even Orff instruments. (I've always wanted to make an Orff arrangement for this song but haven't gotten around to it yet!)

We repeat the song several times. Usually we try to give everyone a turn, but sometimes we just run out of time. If you have an even number of students, we have 2 people in the middle to be Betty/Billy. I just remind them to go to opposite sides of the circle to start the weaving so that they don't end up stealing 2 people from the same couple. This is a time saver to allow more kids to have a turn. The older kids could handle 3 in the middle if you are adventurous!

Dance Connections

Here are a few questions I usually ask the kids to include dance vocabulary in the lesson: 
In verse 1, who was locomotor? Everyone except Betty/Billy
In verse 2, who was locomotor? Only Betty/Billy
In verse 3, who was locomotor? Only the new Betty/Billy
In verse 1, what kind of pathway did you travel? Curved
In verse 2, what kind of pathway did Betty/Billy travel? Zigzag
In verse 3, what kind of pathway did the new Betty/Billy travel? Straight (to go to the center)
Which verse(s) had a double circle formation? Verse 1
Which verse(s) had a single circle formation? Verse 2 & 3
In verse 1, did our circle move clockwise or counter-clockwise? (counter-clockwise)

I always encourage students to use the dance posters for help answering these questions. If you missed my post talking about these fabulous dance posters, click this link.

Historical Connections

This year, I saved the last 10 minutes of class to talk about Jean Ritchie and show a video of her playing "Old Betty Larkin" on the dulcimer. The video comes from a radio show that is televised on our local PBS station, "Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour." Their website has video and audio archives of all their shows. The episode I use is #450. A direct link to the video can be found by clicking the picture below. The video opens in Windows Media Player.

You can cue the video to 18:10 to show only the song "Old Betty Larkin" but before she plays she talks about being a young child sneaking to play her father's dulcimer when he was out working in the fields. She also talks about going to New York straight out of college. When people saw her carrying the dulcimer on the subway, they would beg her to play it because they had never seen an instrument like that before. She began playing in clubs and is credited with bringing the sound of the dulcimer to the world-wide audience. Jean also talks briefly about the tuning of the instrument. It is a wonderful interview, very insightful and informative. The interview begins at cue mark 11:40.

After the video, I usually ask the kids to compare and contrast her version of the song to our version. Jean skips the verse that says "Needle in a haystack" but also includes another verse that says "You take mine, I'll take another." Jean's version can also be found in her book "Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians." "Old Betty Larkin" is on page 15 and can be viewed in the preview on The book is $15.91 on Amazon.

I'm sure your students will enjoy this game song. If you have any other activities or suggestions to accompany this lesson, please share your ideas!

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