As I Went Over Tawny Marsh

SBO Staff • ChoralMarch 2020Off The Podium • March 18, 2020

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This gem, beloved by my choirs, was one of my favorite canons to teach to and sing with children, and a staple of my children’s choir repertoire for many years. I first came across it in the early 1990s in a book I can’t find right now, a little red book of traditional songs in English used for students of English as a foreign language at schools in twentieth century continental Europe. I taught As I Went Over Tawny Marsh to my students at Blue Rock School and at most of the other elementary schools I taught at afterwards.

My students always called this song Tawny.

As I went over Tawny Marsh,
There I met with a tawny lass.
Tawny hose and tawny shoon,
Tawny petticoat, tawny gown.
Tawny brows and tawny face,
Her tawny eyes put me in my place.

The simple lyric conjures up the image of a beautiful young woman making a strong impression on the singer, the marsh providing a vast open setting for the tiny drama. A few words of dialect and the lilt of the melody evoke Scottish Highlands, and imbue the song with a stark and arresting melancholy.

Tawny evokes a kind of pathos in the singer (and the listener) from the song’s use of the descending harmonic progression known as the chaconne for the first four bars of each eight bar strain. A slow dance in triple time – like Tawny – the chaconne has been used as a vehicle for deep and heartfelt emotions by a diverse array of musicians from baroque composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach to Pink Floyd, who used it for the final climactic track Eclipse on their 1973 masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon.

With many of my elementary school choirs, it was common for us to spend the last ten minutes of rehearsal each week singing songs and canons already mastered or well-known together for fun, one after another in quick succession, and Tawny was a popular feature in these end of rehearsal mini songfests.

I always taught this song by rote to my elementary school choirs. Years later in 2011, I wrote it down to include it in a small repertoire of canons I selected for my high school choirs at Nashville School of the Arts.

The guitar chords are:

||: Am | G | F | E | Am | Dm | E | Am :|| 

I did a little research recently and discovered that this song – or a version of it – dates back to at least the seventeenth century. Wit and Mirth, An Antidote Against Melancholy, Compounded of Ingenious and Witty Ballads, Songs, and Catches, and other Pleasant and Merry Poems was printed in London in 1682.

The origins of Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy, the most famous song book of its day, may be traced back to a single volume of witty ballads, jovial songs, and merry catches by an earlier generation of lyricists, published without music in 1661 under the title An Antidote against Melancholy: made up in Pills. For the third edition, still without music but livened up by more recent songs, the title was changed to Wit and Mirth: An Antidote against Melancholy (1682), and in 1699, still in one volume, it was published by Henry Playford with music. ~ English Song-Books (1940)
Cyrus Lawrence Day and Eleanore Boswell Murrie Day 

I was able to consult a copy of the third edition printed in 1684. A new Catch appears on page 141 of the third edition (there is no music printed in the early editions of this book, only text). The words of the first five lines are nearly identical, but the sixth and final line is substantially different, and bawdy, although it preserves the repetition scheme of the word tawny. No doubt the charm of the melody and the mood of Tawny when sung in canon contributed to its preservation, and the last line was “scrubbed” for its inclusion in songbooks intended for students by later, more conservative generations.

Teaching by Rote Using Solfège

Tawny is a fine song to use as an example of how I taught unison songs by rote to elementary school students using solfège and Curwen hand signs. I would often use this song to introduce the raised seventh scale degree in minor, its solfège syllable si, and its accompanying hand sign.

Standing in front of the choir, I ask them to repeat back each phrase after me, and I sing each phrase one at a time on solfège syllables, using my right hand to express the hand sign for each syllable as I sing and in positions higher or lower in correspondence to the rising and falling pitches of the melody.

WB: do re mi re do ti do la mi!
Choir: do re mi re do ti do la mi!

I insist that every child use their hands to express the Curwen hand signs just as I do. Most are used to this process by now and have already learned many songs this way. If the group falters in repeating a phrase accurately, we patiently repeat that phrase a few times until everyone gets it.

Tawny has six phrases – two phrases in each “strain” of the three-part catch. Still continuing this “call and response” method of teaching by rote, once we have sung every phrase individually this way, we repeat the entire song again, in the same way. After we have done this, if the group seems ready to move on to greater complexity, we do the same activity but this time I sing each entire strain individually (two phrases each), and they repeat after me. (If not, we repeat the previous activity.)

WB: do re mi re do ti do la mi, do ti la do la si la mi.
Choir: do re mi re do ti do la mi, do ti la do la si la mi.

Once we have sung through the entire song this way a couple of times, I might do one of a couple of different things. Depending on:

  • the tempo of the class
  • the experience of the group
  • the time of day
  • what point we are at in the rehearsal

I might:

  • leave it to come back to at the next rehearsal
  • ask them to stand, if they are sitting
  • ask them to sit, if they are standing
  • ask them to listen to me sing the entire song on solfège, while they audiate (“sing along in your head with me”) without singing themselves
  • ask them to sing the entire song along with me on solfège syllables

If rehearsal is going well, if the group’s energy is good, and everyone seems ready to press on, in most cases I would do option four followed by option five. We might sing the entire song together on solfège syllables two or even three times, and then usually I would stop working on this song and move onto something else.

When we return to Tawny at our next rehearsal, after reviewing the canon on solfège syllables, I teach them the words in the same manner (call and response) one phrase at a time, then one strain at a time, then finally singing the entire song on words in unison, before moving on to dividing the choir into sections. For a thorough rehearsal with less experienced singers, we might have each section sing Tawny alone first before attempting to combine them in canon, but with more experienced singers (or a choir that includes some students who already know Tawny), we might just go for it.

Making Music With Your Students

Like many of the songs I taught to elementary school students, I accompanied Tawny on guitar. But if you don’t have access to a guitar or you don’t play it, so don’t let that dissuade you from singing this song with your students! At Blue Rock where I began teaching elementary school music, I didn’t have access to a piano for my music classes, and even at other schools where I taught later in my career where I did, I felt that guitar accompaniment was more suitable to the character of many of the songs I had collected into my children’s choirs repertoire.

I learned to play guitar specifically to accompany my music classes at Blue Rock School – although I had learned a few chords and how to play a few rock songs on guitar as a teen, it wasn’t until I began to teach elementary school that I really began to play guitar every day. Motivated by the need to have an instrument to support me when I was teaching singing, I practiced guitar every day, learned different styles of accompaniment, and used the guitar to support classes and rehearsals the way a piano accompanist does for a children’s choir, when possible – to give notes, context, and play melody or harmony parts that students are learning. Playing guitar allowed me to stand closer to the choir during rehearsal and performance or sit closer during class than playing piano did and making music with students in this way felt more like an activity we were doing together than just something I was teaching them how to do.

This approach to teaching music was an attempt to bring my students along with me in the shared activity of making music. I taught them how to make music by practicing my own art with them, and including them in the activity. This was always an important perspective to me, for my entire teaching career – I always wanted to feel this way about making music with my students, and I wanted them to feel this way about the experience too. For this reason, I almost always accompanied my students myself when there was need for accompaniment (never resorting to prerecorded accompaniments or “tracks” except in rare circumstances), or I taught them how to do it themselves. Many of my student performances over the years featured students accompanying choral performances on strings, recorders, Orff instruments, and more.


The arrangement of Tawny I arrived at for performance with my choirs at Blue Rock School was the same I was to use for the remainder of my teaching career. (To listen to a recording of this arrangement performed by my students at Linden Corner School in 2005, visit

We followed the practice of singing the canon as many times as there are parts. This is a good rule of thumb for performing canons with your choir, and I rarely departed from it when we sang them either in rehearsal or for public performances. As I Went Over Tawny Marsh has three parts, so we sang it three times in total.

After a brief guitar introduction (five chords) the entire choir sings Tawny in unison, in a slower and more deliberate tempo than we will sing it next in canon. After we sing the entire song once, I set the new tempo by strumming four bars on the tonic A minor chord, beginning with the downbeat of the last bar of the song sung by the choir on the word place sung on la, and we’re off.

The choir (which has been previously divided into three more or less equal sections) begins the canon one section at a time. Each section enters in turn, and each section sings the entire song twice in canon. When the section that began reaches the final la on the word place, those singers hold the tonic pedal tone while the other two sections sing the next strain, the second section in turn joining the first when they get to the last bar and holding the pedal tone for one more time through the last strain as the third section finishes, and everyone holds a fermata on the tonic at the final double bar! Bravo!

Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as director of education & community engagement for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about music and education on his blog Off the Podium at

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