The Court of King Caratacus – A Cumulative Song
If you’ve never sung or taught the Court of King Caratacus then you NEED to give it a listen and see what you think! This is one of my all-time favorite cumulative songs and is such a blast to teach to little people. This song introduces kids to such vivid and rich vocabulary and is like a sung tongue-twister. It’s a challenge for kiddos and requires some major focus, but also leaves them smiling! I start this with 2nd grade but I think you could teach it all the way up to 5th and beyond if you really wanted to.
Not only does this song use incredibly rich vocabulary, it gives you a chance to address a variety of musical concepts as well. You could easily talk about accelerando as the song begins to speed up near the end. You could absolutely spend time trying to write out the rhythm of the words and phrases. The song repeats a little in the middle, so that might make it easier to listen to and write down. You can also let students do a bit of improvisation if you like and after a time or two through the song, let them come up with their own actions for all of the words. Lots of opportunities!
King Caratacus – The Backstory
The Court of King Caratacus is a song I learned from my amazing mentor teacher, Debbie Gray, when I was student teaching a few years ago. The song comes from an artist called Rolf Harris, who is Australian born but lives and works in the UK. Rolf is a singer-songwriter, composer, painter, and television personality. What doesn’t he do! I’m not sure if he came up with this song but he definitely recorded it and made it famous.
The song revolves around a King named Caratacus (can be spelled Caratacus or Caractacus). Now, the real Caratacus was a British chieftan who lived in the first century and resisted Roman conquest. He was King of the Britons and King of the Catuvellauni. King Caratacus was a real person (or so the stories tell us) but this song is not based on any real life adventures of any real king. Something tells me that Caratacus was pulled out of the air because his name is funny and adds to the enjoyment of the song. For instance, in the lyrics of this song he has a “harem” which would never have really existed in his first-century British lifetime or kingdom. He also interacts with witches: fascinating witches… who put stitches in britches. So yeah, probably this story is not based in real life but it’s fun to sing! For more on the complete inaccuracy of the Caratacus song read this delightful ranting article.
When I teach this song, I make it into a story. The lyrics are pretty complicated and I’ve learned that when you make a story out of something kids are more apt to remember and understand. So, I came up with a narrative that explains away the various elements of the song that wouldn’t necessarily go together. Without the story you’ve got some pretty funny, tongue twister lyrics, but not much to hold them together or to make sense. Make it a story and it makes more sense to everyone involved.
Teaching the Song – It’s Cumulative!
Kids love learning cumulative songs (songs that add and retain new elements on every verse) like the “12 Days of Christmas,” or the “Green Grass Grew All Around”, or “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” With this kind of song it’s always best to start slow and add just a little at a time. Make sure that kids really understand the fundamental melody or hookline so that they can feel some accomplishment even if they can’t add in all the new and crazy lyrics. I spend quite a while on just the first phrase before I start adding anything. The first time teaching this is slow… but that reinforcement is totally worthwhile.
King Caratacus is the ultimate cumulative song because each verse includes new and hilarious elements to make the singing even more complicated. First you start with the “Court of King Caratacus” which isn’t necessarily easy to say or sing. Then comes, “The Ladies of the harem of the court of King Caratacus.” Then “the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caratacus” and on and on until you get the final phrase: “If you’d like to take a picture of the fascinating witches who put scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses of the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caratacus…” See what I mean? Complicated and hard to say/sing and so much fun! The kids love learning some new vocabulary and love the challenge of remembering all the words and actions.
I often teach this song unaccompanied and then move to piano when I know that they’ve really learned it. I start unaccompanied so that I can sing along and show them the actions as we go through it (otherwise it’s just a lot to remember and is pretty hard for them). If and when you’re ready HERE is a place to get chords so that you can easily play on piano or guitar.
I’ve also created a resource to go along with this song. I wanted a PowerPoint to help teach the song because I find with my English Language Learners that they really do benefit from an image that accompanies the words (especially with these hard, new vocabulary words). Below you’ll see a sneak preview of some of the visuals that are included in the PowerPoint I made.
As I said earlier, this song makes so much more sense and is so much more memorable when you teach it as a story. Well, the idea that all of these odd components might come together doesn’t really make sense. The story I crafted and included in the TPT kit tries to fit together all of those odd elements (harem, witches, King) and really makes the experience less about just singing and more about storytelling, plot, and backstory. I know that my classroom teachers appreciate when I make a song into a story since they work so hard to get kids to understand plot, character, setting and so forth. I feel like the more we can do to create stories when singing songs the better! Crafting a backstory for this little ditty was a challenge, but it’s helped out tremendously and my ELL students remember it so much better!