Finding the Story in the Song
The following lesson is designed to be used after viewing Episode One of American Roots Music, but can be used independently as well. The lesson deals with the song "Barbara Allen," a folk song of European ancestry, widely sung and collected in the U.S. It can be used in Music, Social Studies or English classes.
Students will be able to:
Identify and discuss themes expressed in song lyrics.
Analyze the social use and historical meaning of a song.
Write a verse of a song drawing on contemporary events.
Two 40-60 minute class periods
NCTE and IRA
Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning
- Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
- Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- Understand the relationship between music and history and culture (Music).
Lyrics to "Barbara Allen"
Discussion of "Barbara Allen" in Eternal Songs section
Ask students the following questions:
- In what ways is a song like a story?
- What are some songs that have lasted across generations?
- What themes do these songs deal with?
- Why do such themes remain relevant today?
Distribute copies of the lyrics of Barbara Allen to the class.
(printable text version)
In London town where I was born,
And where I got my learning,
Sweet William Green took to his bed,
For love of Barbara Allen.
He sent her letters with his man,
She read them small and moving,
No better shall ye be,
Ye'll not have Barbara Allen.
As she walked down the road to home,
She saw his hearse a-comin',
"Oh, lay him down upon the ground,
That I may gaze upon him.
Oh, mother, mother make my bed,
Oh, make it long and narrow,
Sweet William died for love today,
I'll die for him tomorrow."
They buried her by the old church tower,
Him they laid beside her,
And from her grave grew a red, red rose,
And from his grave a briar.
They grew to top the old church tower,
They could not grow no higher,
And there they twined in a true lover's knot,
Red rose around the briar.
Have students read the lyrics aloud to the class. Ask the following questions:
- What is the song "Barbara Allen" about?
- What themes does the song deal with?
- What does it tell you about the times in which it was popular?
- Why are the themes it expresses still relevant today?
- Why would songs like these be important before television and radio were around?
Have students break into teams of four. Each team will come up with an idea for a song that tells a story about contemporary times in modern language, which draws on some enduring themes identified earlier by the class.
Have each team share their idea - or "plot line" - with the class.
Each team reconvenes, and makes an outline of the story the song will tell. Each team distributes sections to write among the four members. Each member writes their part (either as homework or in class).
Team meets and puts the song together, does some editing if required.
Each team presents their song to the class. If time permits, class members can discuss the themes they see in the song being presented, or ask the presenting team about how and why they came up with their song.