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This lesson looks at Appalachian Folk Music and Culture


Music, Social Studies  


4, 5  

Title – Appalachian Folk Music

By – Carmen Billings

Primary Subject – Music

Secondary Subjects – Social Studies

Grade Level – 4 – 5

Appalachian Folk Music Unit

Grades 4 & 5

Goal: To broaden the students appreciation of Appalachian Music and Culture


1. The students will identify characteristics of folk music

2. The students will sing simple traditional folk songs

3. The students will be able to compare folk music to other styles of music

4. The students will be able to identify parts of a dulcimer and play simple melodies on one

5. The students will recognize Bluegrass music as a descendent of folk music and know the characteristics of Bluegrass music.


1. To introduce the unit, read “Appalachia – the Song of the Sleeping Birds” by Cynthia Rylant. Discuss Appalachian culture and what makes it unique. Discuss similarities of today’s life in Appalachia to the life and times of the book.

2. Watch “Old Music for New Ears” (contact KET/PBS) parts 1-4. Discuss the folk music played in the video. Talk about the instruments seen in the video (what they are and what family of instruments they come from) and start a list of instruments used in folk music to be continued through the unit.

3. Go over parts of a dulcimer and let students label a diagram of a dulcimer (see attached diagram). Explain how to play a dulcimer: lay the dulcimer flat on the table or on your lap, hold down the melody strings on the number of fret that you want to play, and strum the strings with your dominant hand. Practice playing the dulcimer by strumming a steady beat of different notes.

4. Review melody by going over names of notes on the staff. Give out music for the song “Boil Them Cabbage”. Have students label the names of the notes. Also, discuss the direction of the melody. Review the rhythm of the song by discussing the value of the notes and clapping the rhythm. Students will then practice playing “Boil Them Cabbage” on the dulcimer.

5. Show different versions of the song “Boil Them Cabbage” on the overhead. Discuss the differences in the lyrics and melodies of each. Use this discussion to point out how folk songs are passed down from generation to generation and sometimes the lyrics change from person to person. Play the telephone game where you whisper a phrase to one student and let them whisper it down the row until the last person says it out loud. See how it changed from the original phrase to demonstrate how easily lyrics and melodies can change as it passes from one generation to another.

6. Have each student bring in the lyrics to a folk song that they learn from someone in their family. Share these songs with the class and try to sing as many as possible. Be prepared to share some other folk songs with the class such as: Ida Red, Go tell Aunt Rhodie, Skip to My Lou, and Paw Paw Patch.

7. As an introduction to Bluegrass music and how it relates to folk music, watch the video “High Lonesome”. Discuss the history of Bluegrass music and the characteristics of this style. Play some examples of Bluegrass music, both old and new.

8. To relate Appalachian music to dance, teach the students simple Appalachian dances such as Virginia Reel and The Patty Cake Polka. You may also invite someone in to teach simple square dances.


1. The students will write a letter to a friend telling them about the dulcimer. They need to include what the dulcimer looks like, how to play it and some of the history of the instrument.

2. The students will work in groups to complete a project about Bluegrass music. They need to include a brief history of bluegrass music, instruments used, some famous artists and some popular songs. They receive bonus credit if they provide an example of bluegrass music.

3. The students will successfully complete an open-ended question comparing folk music to another style of music.

Culminating Event:

          Give the students a chance to perform the songs and dances they have learned in this unit. Use the program that I wrote which follows or make up your own program adding songs and dances to a story such as “When I was Young In the Mountains” by Cynthia Rylant.


          If possible invite a folk or bluegrass musician to come to your class to demonstrate their music to your classes. You can also collaborate with your Social Studies teacher about the Appalachian Mountains and the PE teacher about dance.

Appalachian Program


Oh the stories Granny used to tell me about growing up in the hills of Kentucky. That was when times were simple, people were plain, and life was different. Those were the good ol’ days.

Song: “Blue Moon of Kentucky”

Religion was very important in Granny’s family and she would often tell us stories from the “Good Book” which she had learned as a little girl at church. On Sunday mornings her family would walk across the holler’ to the little white church. They would sing many songs and then the preacher would preach about fire and brimstone. Granny was expected to sit still and listen the entire time, even in the summer when it was really hot in that little church and the women would use hand fans from the local funeral parlor to try to keep cool. If the children acted up they were liable to get swatted on the leg with one of those fans.

Songs: “Amazing Grace” & “In the Highways”

After church many times the families would get together to have a big dinner on the ground. The ladies would cook foods like fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed taters, dumplings, and corn bread. They would put all of the food on a big table so everyone could go by and fill their plates and then sit on the ground under the sycamore trees to eat. After dinner the children would run around and play games while the men would toss horseshoes or sit around whittling. The women would clear away the dishes and clean up before they would sit down to talk and maybe crochet.

Song: “How Many Biscuits

Dulcimer: “Boil Them Cabbage”

In those days people worked hard just to have food and shelter. Granny would get up at dawn to feed the chickens, gather the eggs, and milk the cows before she went to school. After school she would clean the chicken coop and the barn and the work in the garden until it was dark. Then it was time to go to bed so she could start again the next morning.

Song: “Ida Red”

Dulcimer: “Shady Grove”

Granny loved to tell about walking to school. The distance she walked go longer each time she told it but she always included the part about walking barefoot, even in the snow, and sometimes uphill both ways. At school Granny learned the three R’s, readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic, but her favorite subject was history. She would tell about the lessons she learned about the civil war and slavery in Kentucky.

Song & Dance: “Little Johnny Brown”

Granny had many tales to tell about growing up in a large family with seven brothers and sisters. They loved to play in the woods around their home. They would run around and pretend they were Native Americans that lived on the land long ago. Sometimes they would even find arrowheads or other artifacts in freshly plowed ground.

Song: “Go My Son”

Dance: “Rain Dance”

One of my favorite things to do with Granny was play games. She would tell me about the games she played with her brothers and sisters while she taught me to play some of those games. My favorite game was checkers, which we would play on an old metal board that had regular checkers on one side and Chinese checkers on the other. She would help me win while I was little, but the older I got the harder it was to beat her. If it was pretty outside she would draw a hopscotch board on the sidewalk to teach me to play hopscotch. Or sometimes she would turn the jump rope from me while she taught me knew jump rope rhymes.

Games: Checkers, marbles, hopscotch, jump rope, & jacks

In Granny’s times people worked hard and there wasn’t much time to play, but on some occasions people would gather together to have a barn raising or a quilting bee. Often after the job was done someone would break out the fiddle and banjo and start to sing. Most everyone would join in and an area would be cleared for some dancing to take place. They would often play dances called mixers so the young people could meet each other and do a little courting.

Dances: “The Virginia Reel”, “The Patty Cake Polka”, & “The Big Set – Square Dance”

Granny’s life was very different from mine. We have all of these “convenience” items like TV’s, cars, and computers but she seemed to have more time to enjoy life and do the things that were important. How I miss the times that I would visit Granny, sitting on the porch telling stories about growing up. When it got dark I would pile into her feather bed and listen to the quiet sounds of crickets chirping and Granny humming a familiar tune as I drifted off to sleep.

Song: “Grandma’s Feather Bed”


Carmen Billings


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