Visit Your Local Station PBS Home
PBS Home Search Programs A to Z TV Schedules Shop PBS Station Finder
Continental Harmony
Continental Harmony
Sound Lounge
Teachers Guide
Online Toolkit
Film and More


Plan: Music, Slavery & the Civil War: Exploring the Spiritual

Subject: Music/ History

Grade level: 3-8

Estimated Time of Completion:

Students will explore the role of the spiritual played during the period of slavery and the Civil War. They will listen to and analyze various forms of spirituals They will gain an awareness of how music reflects cultures and social issues. Students will use the Harmonic Convergence interactive of the Sound Lounge to become familiar with spirituals and as springboard for further online research on the topic. The lesson will culminate with the composing of an original spiritual.


  • Students will sing with others a varied repertoire of music.
  • Students will compose and arrange music within specific guidelines.
  • Students will listen to, analyze, and describe music.
  • Students will gain an understanding of music in relation to history and culture.
  • Students will improve their reading and writing skills.
  • Students will use the Internet to do research


Lyrics for " Low Down the Chariot and Let Me Ride"

1. Oh, let-n me ride, oh, let-n me ride,
Oh, let-n me ride, oh, let-n me ride,
Oh, let-n me ride, oh, let-n me ride,
Oh, low down the chariot, let-n me ride.

2. Got a right to ride, oh, let-n me ride,
Got a right to ride, oh, let-n me ride,
Got a right to ride, oh, let-n me ride,
Oh, low down the chariot, let-n me ride.

3. Got a ticket to ride,
4. I'm humble to ride,
5. I'm beggin' to ride,
6. I'm a soldier,
7. My mother done rid,
8. Train's comin',
9. I'm a warrior,
10. I'm prayin',
11. Prayin' to ride,

From: Lomax, A. & Lomax J. (1941). Our Singing Country: A Second Volume Of American Ballads And Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan Company.

Computer(s) with Internet access will be used for online activity and research
Bookmark the following websites:
Available pitched and unpitched instruments


  1. Introduce the lesson with a discussion on slavery. Use the various questions below as springboards for this discussion.
    • - Who were the slaves in our country?
      - In what area of the country did they live?
      - What do you think it felt like to be a slave?
      - What kind of work did they do?
      - Who were their owners?
  2. Access Harmonic Convergence in Sound Lounge. Click on Work Songs. Share the origin of the work song that is detailed in the text. Play it a second time having students raise their hands when they hear the response sections being sung.
  3. Click on Spirituals and listen. Share the lyrics for " Low Down The Chariot and Let Me Ride" with the students.
  4. Listen a second time and sing with the audio clip. Divide the class into two groups. Have one group sing with the male voice (call) and one with the female voice (response) along with the audio clip in call and response form.
  5. Access and share the information under Before 1865 giving further explanation of the origins of work songs and their place in slavery.
  6. Click on Songs and examine the lyrics of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".
    • - What coded messages are found in this spiritual? (i.e. "home" as a safe haven while escaping, etc.)
      - Could this song be performed in call and response form?
      - Which part would be the response? (Coming for to carry me home)
  7. Read the lyrics to "Slavery Chain" and compare/contrast it to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".
    • - What differences in form do you see?
      - Which of the two spirituals uses more repetition in the lyrics?
      - What do you notice about the language? (grammar)
      - Why do you suppose it is written as it is? (Discuss that slaves were not educated and this is close to the actual way it would be sung)
  8. Access the Scroll to Free At Last. Listen to "Father How Long" while reading the lyrics. Have students tap the beat to the song as you listen. Examine the lyrics and melodies of other spirituals in the section while tapping, patting or clapping the beat as you listen and analyze them as has been done previously in the lesson
    • - What similarities do you fine in the lyrics?
      - What differences do you find in the lyrics?
      - Do all the songs use the same tempo?
      - Are there any that use call and response form?
      - Are there any coded messages?
  9. After researching and analyzing spirituals online, students should have a good understanding of the role that spirituals played in slavery and how they evolved. Students will now draw upon this knowledge to compose a spiritual. The song should be in call and response form and should include a coded message in the text referring to the slave's struggle for freedom and/or continued hope. When completed, the students should be divided into two groups, one functioning as the call and one functioning as the response. Perform the song and switch parts. (This is a good opportunity for a solo singing experience, with one person serving as the leader to sing the call). Create unpitched and pitched ostinati to accompany the song on available pitched and unpitched instruments.


    - Students should have completed all assignments and actively participated in all discussions.
    - Teacher assessment of class discussion through observation and anecdotal notes.
    - Student group reflection/ evaluation discussion following the activity.
      - Did the spiritual contain coded messages?
      - How did the class spiritual reflect the struggles/feeling of slavery?
      - What area of the composing process was most challenging? Why? How could this be improved upon in the future?

Extensions and Adaptations

    - If multiple workstations are available, have students break into smaller groups and create their compositions using available music sequencing and notation software. Access www.Notationstation for this online and post the piece on their site.
    - Students could illustrate their spiritual and use the illustration as one slide in a multi-media presentation (such as a slide show in Kidpix, ClarisWorks, Hyperstudio, etc.) showing the evolution of African American music in the United States. The spiritual can be imported in various ways depending on available technology.
    - Explore the websites used within this lesson to further research and understand the role music played in the Civil War.
    - Create a partnership with a local high school, college or community ensemble and have them orchestrate and/ or arrange the piece. (This works well with the high school that the lower grades will be feeding into) and perform the piece jointly on a community concert.


Lomax, A. & Lomax J. (1941). Our Singing Country: A Second Volume Of American Ballads And Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan Company.

Igus, Toyomi. (1998). i see the rhythm. San Francisco: Children's Book Press

Relevant National Standards:


1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

Language Arts

- Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
- Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
- Demonstrates competence in speaking and listening as tools for learning.


- Understands the folklore and other cultural contributions from various regions of the United States and how they helped to form a national heritage.


- Knows the characteristics and uses of computer hardware and software including the Internet.

Related websites

Information about the author

Tara Hofmann has been teaching music for seventeen years. Her experience includes vocal and general music for grades K-5 and she now specializes in music technology and the integration of classroom curriculum for Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Virginia. Tara holds a BA in music from St. Mary's College of Maryland and an MA in New Professional Studies-Teaching from George Mason University.

In 1990, Tara wrote, recorded and produced Vegetable Blues and Other Tasty Tunes, a children's cassette tape and coloring book set. She has directed children's musical theatre and was President of Cracked Egg Productions, her own production company. A 1997 recipient of an Impact II Disseminator Grant focusing on "Integrating Music Technology In The Elementary School Setting", Tara has conducted workshops at Gettysburg College and been a speaker for the Greater Washington Reading Council. Currently she is the vocalist for Tara Hofmann & Friends, a jazz ensemble that performs regularly in the Washington D.C. metro area.

  pic2  pic3