To use a phrase from the ’60s, Fabulous Folksongs Every Girl Should Know is “right on.” Susie Coleman has created a set of songbooks that include familiar songs in keys that suit most women’s voices and has provided ample instruction on use of capos for those who can’t sing in those keys.
I like the way the books help you learn to play guitar while singing. I first learned to play guitar then had to struggle to sing while playing. Not so with Fabulous Folksongs…
After 15 pages of information that you can skip if you want, Susie has you playing and singing fairly simple songs, made easier because the chord shapes are clearly given at the top of the page and chords are given above the words in each verse, not just the first.
However, if you skip those first pages, you’ll probably want to go back to them later because they are full of great information, including a good explanation of the alternating bass strum which goes well with folk songs and old-time fiddle tunes.
Three cheers (in alto and soprano voices) to Susie Coleman for her clear thinking about guitar instruction and the huge amount of work she put into Fabulous Folksongs Every Girl Should Know.
Author | Music Producer | Performing Artist
Alabama Folklife Association Executive Director 2000-2010
Presented with 2011 Governor’s Arts Award, Alabama State Council on the Arts
Susie Coleman’s a widely experienced singer and a solid rhythm guitarist, well-known at acoustic jam scenes and fiddle-contest vocal competitions around Nashville. She’s done more than her share of time as a “chick singer” among male pickers who are accustomed to playing standard numbers in keys not suited to her vocal range. The boys – as any female bluegrasser will tell you – sometimes need socialization on this point, and a gal’s just got to call her key, hold her ground and deliver the goods. As a performer, Susie learned that lesson with confidence a long time ago.
As a music teacher in recent years, she’s revisited the lesson from the perspective of today’s women students. And she found little help from available instructional materials in teaching it. Most entry-level “how-to” books on traditional music don’t address gender differences in vocal range, and they rarely contain song charts pitched in female-friendly keys. Susie started working up her own teaching aids, one student at a time, and drawing on her other skills as a web designer, she soon laid plans for producing her own publications to meet the learning needs of girls with guitars.
Thus began the series Susie calls Fabulous Folksongs Every Girl Should Know. So far there are three volumes, and two more are projected. Together, they make up a well-integrated system or method to help a beginner find both her voice as a singer and her fingers as a guitar accompanist without reading musical notation. Each volume begins with the same remarkably concise and well thought-out text about the basics of chords and keys on rhythm guitar. In about ten pages, it manages to cover such topics as timing, chord basics, strumming and alternating bass, shifting keys and use of the capo–and even the Nashville number system–in surprisingly simple explanations and with many practical observations. Teachers can repeatedly mine this section in lessons, but as they gain confidence, go-getter students will likely come to digest a lot of this on their own as well.
The song content is just as carefully prepared, and that’s what gives each volume its own identity and stand-alone value. Volume One is entitled “Traditional Treasures,” with a general selection of numbers to appeal to aspiring folksingers. Volume Two is “Family Favorites,” with children’s songs. Volume Three is “Gospel Goodies.” Coleman’s philosophy is to mix together very familiar material along with lesser-known gems, giving every student a chance to discover some songs that strike their fancy as numbers to master. Each volume contains 40 songs set in appropriate keys. Notes summarize information about the key and chord family, capo position, time signature and simplified timing count-out, with a set of reminder chord diagrams as well as a number chart. Composer information and a note on the song’s history give the beginner just enough background to start developing a sense of where traditional tunes come from and what styles and singers particular pieces have been associated with. Lyrics are presented in easily readable, larger bold-face type, and—of critical importance—chord symbols are carefully and exactly placed above the lyric lines to avoid confusion about guitar timing. Anybody who’s printed chord-lyric charts off the internet lately can appreciate the importance (and increasing rarity) of precise typographic spacing on this point, and why beginners especially need reliable placement of such information.
The other component of the series involves online reinforcement at the associated www.folkslingers.com website. To insure support for independent students, they can check in here to bring up video files of all the songs in the books. This strikes me as a particularly flexible resource that students are free to use in their own ways, for careful listening to catch exact melodies or make sense of charts and changes, for singing or playing along with in privacy, or for revisiting in eventually developing their own styles and arrangements.
Susie’s done a thorough job in conceiving and executing this project. She’s exceedingly committed to her core female student audience, and it shows in the various details that have been built into her series. Here’s hoping that word about Fabulous Folksongs Every Girl Should Know gets out promptly to both teachers and aspiring gal singer-guitarists. They deserve the kind of help Susie’s set out to give them and Susie deserves a large following of new songbirds for the fine work she’s put into this.
Dr. Robert “Roby” Cogswell
Author | Photographer | Performing Artist
Director of Folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission 1984-2014
Presented with 2014 Benjamin A. Botkin Award, American Folklore Society
Susie Coleman’s trilogy, Fabulous Folksongs Every Girl Should Know, is the most user-friendly, entertaining, and inspiring collection of Americana songs I’ve ever found, probably because Susie has lived the music all her life. She first followed her family tradition of singing and playing Gospel and other music. Then, over the years, she worked her way through all the Americana genres as a singer and player, and as a teacher. In her life, she has learned hundreds of songs.
The songs in this collection, all in the public domain, are old songs that are still being recorded and performed, with a few that are always popular sing-alongs. Susie writes in the introductions, “There seems to be a certain sentimentality about them, perhaps because our great-grandmothers knew them or because singing them is like flipping through a history book.” These are songs that are singable, that sound good with relatively simple rhythm accompaniment, and that have a place in American culture. They’ve all lasted a long time – some for hundreds of years – because they speak to the human condition by making us laugh or cry or by just telling a thumping good story.
These books, however, are much more than a collection of great songs. Susie has distilled her decades of experience as a player into a practical perspective on the guitar as an accompanying instrument that frequently sets both tempo and dynamics in an ensemble (formal or informal). She makes it clear that reading music is optional for success as a back-up player, imparting clear information about basic skills and aesthetic choices. She covers all the basics from strumming patterns and bass strings to reading chord charts and changing keys in an economic and entertaining style that moves the reader straight to music-making.
One more thing – just because the keys are appropriate for women’s voices and for boys and girls, doesn’t mean that men won’t also adore and make great use of these anthologies. Just whip out your capo or transpose into a friendlier key. As Susie points out with great humor, women and children have been dealing with arrangements for the deeper male voice for generations.
These books are meant to be well-used and will be well-loved. They are an invaluable addition to any experienced player’s library – or a foundation for those who are new to folk music. Fabulous Folks Songs Every Girl Should Know will be around for a long, long time. Thank you, Susie, for giving us the gifts of history and music together.
Author | National Teaching Artist Fellow | Performing Artist
Consultant, Education through the Arts in 1990