This song, whose origins are shrouded in obscurity, was hands down the most popular song that I ever taught to children.
When I arrived at Blue Rock School to begin my tenure there in February 1991, Ho! Young Rider was already the student favorite, and in my memory, I learned this song from the students themselves within the first couple of weeks I worked there – in a bit of table-turning I asked the students to teach me songs they already knew so I could sing with them. Ho! Young Rider was first on that list. I soon added a guitar accompaniment and through repetitions in my music classes that spring arrived at the format in which I would teach this song to children for the next fifteen years.
I have sung this song with children many hundreds, probably a few thousand times. In many instances over the course of my K – 8 teaching career (1991-2007), a reputation preceded me, and when meeting a teaching colleague or parent of a student for the first time, I was greeted with something like “so you’re the one who taught my child/students Ho! Young Rider!” Yes, it was me.
Ho! Young Rider, apple-cheeked one,
On your steed so black and handsome,
What matter where I ride?
Slovak mountains are my pride!
Dusha moya! Dusha moya!
I do not know for certain, but I believe that Ho! Young Rider was brought to Blue Rock School by Margaret “Peggy” Flinsch. Peggy founded Blue Rock School in 1982 with a small group of interested parents and teachers, and it was Peggy who hired me to work there at the end of 1990. At that time she was already in her eighties. Peggy brought many aspects of school culture to Blue Rock from her own childhood – songs, stories, games, and a way of understanding childhood that predated World War One (Peggy was born in 1907). The songs I learned when I first began to teach there were either brought to the small school community by Peggy herself, or by other teachers inspired by her examples, and in a similar vein. Many of these songs are much older than Peggy was – like Fie, Nay, Prithee John by Henry Purcell, one of several songs that Peggy taught me herself.
Ho! Young Rider is magic. I never met a child who did not love to sing this song, and children often begged me to sing it when we were in class together. Generally speaking, this was the song I saved to sing last at any class or student gathering, morning or afternoon assembly – in any situation where I was the song leader (and for about fifteen years, this was something I did nearly every day). Ho! Young Rider was my signature.
I have been unable to find a source for it on the internet, and I do not know where the song comes from. I have a memory of coming across a version of Ho! Young Rider in a hardcover collection of children’s songs from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that I found in a used book store somewhere in New England in the early 1990s, but it was overpriced and I did not buy it. Now that memory is at least twenty-five years old, so I honestly do not know if it is accurate.
What I do know about Ho! Young Rider is this: it’s short and has only has one verse. It uses the entire melodic minor scale and mixed meter (4 + 5) to create an exotic, Eastern European atmosphere. In performance, by repeating the song several times, incrementally increasing the tempo with each repetition, Ho! Young Rider will cast a spell of excitement over you and any young singers who go along with you for the ride.
Ho! Young Rider PDF, free to download, print, copy
Ho! Young Rider performed by the Linden Corner School Chorus, Walter Bitner, director, voice, & guitar; Nashville, Tennessee, 2005. Linden Corner School was a small private K-6 school in 2005, and the unauditioned chorus consisted of every student in grades 4, 5, & 6.
You can teach this song in one go, and I always did. I never bothered with solfège for this one, but taught it on words directly through call and response, right from the beginning. You can go over the words and melody this way two or three times with most groups of children, and then simply sing it together.
Dusha Moya ( душа моя) means “oh my soul” or “soul of mine” in Russian. (The literal “my soul” in Russian reverses the word order to моя душа “moya dusha”.) I would always explain this meaning to students when teaching Ho! Young Rider for the first time – no matter how young they were, understanding those two words always seemed to make a difference in how they understood, performed, and experienced singing this song.
The allure and probably defining characteristic of this song is its use of cumulative accelerando. Increasing the tempo with each repetition builds excitement, and very young children can work themselves into a frenzy when singing Ho! Young Rider. Be careful! More than once, children have fallen out of their chairs when singing this song in my presence. I found it helpful to remind young riders singing along with me to hold the (imaginary) reins firmly in front of themselves with both hands, and not to let go until the song was over!
Sing Ho! Young Rider seven times, beginning at a very slow, deliberate tempo, accelerating slightly with each subsequent repetition. The final verse should feel like you are riding across the mountain ridge at breakneck speed, but it should never feel like your horse is out of control.
The most difficult part of leading this song is that children will (unconsciously) attempt to speed up the tempo while you’re singing it. Don’t let them! You are the leader. Sing the song seven times through, increasing the tempo slightly with each repetition, but do not speed up the tempo while you’re in the middle of singing a verse. Set a new tempo with each repetition, and stick to it. Having the guitar (or other instrumental) accompaniment can help with this a lot.
On the final, unpitched, shouted Hey! at the end of each verse, it is traditional to make a fist with your right hand and raise it in the air, with emphasis, on the beat.
New England children’s music performer Peter Allard visited Fieldston Outdoors one summer that I taught there (I think it was in 1995), where he learned Ho! Young Rider from us. Peter included this performance on a CD released in 1999 with Ellen Allard. Peter’s rendition is an interesting demonstration of the variety of interpretations that proliferate via oral tradition – while Peter’s performance and his guitar accompaniment are similar to the way I taught and performed this song in many respects, he changes the melody of the first and third bars substantially.
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