(Beginning of Class One)
Step 1. Pass out a copy of the "Sweet Betsy from Pike" song lyrics (click here to download) to each student. As a class, read Verse 1 of "Sweet Betsy from Pike" aloud. Ask your students if there are any terms or names in the verse that they do not understand. (Most likely, your students will be a bit mystified by the references to "Pike," a "yoke of oxen," and a "Shanghai" rooster.) Ask your students how they could determine the meanings of these terms or place names. (By using the dictionary, atlas, or the Internet.)
Step 2. As a class, define the difficult terms in Verse 1 of the song. (Pike is the name of the place from which Betsy and Ike leave. There are several Pike Counties in the United States, including ones in Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Illinois. Most likely, Sweet Betsy and Ike are from Illinois or Missouri. A "yoke" is a wooden bar that is used to join cattle, horses, or oxen together at the neck for the purposes of working together. A "Shanghai" is a type of rooster that originated in the Far East.)
Step 3. Ask your class if it would be possible to write a one-sentence summary of Verse 1 of the song. What is happening? Who are the characters? As class, write a one-sentence summary of Verse 1. (A one-sentence summary of Verse 1 could be: "A woman named Betsy and a man named Ike went across the plains with several animals.")
Step 4. Divide your students into groups of 4 or 5. Assign each group one or two verses of the song. Instruct your students that for each verse their group has been assigned, they must complete the following tasks:
a. READ the verse and discuss what is happening in the song.
b. FIND the definitions of any terms or place names they are unfamiliar with using their dictionary or atlas.
c. WRITE a one-sentence summary of each assigned verse.
Allow your students 10-15 minutes to analyze their verses of the song.
(Some of the terms and place names your students may be unfamiliar with include:
Verse 2. The Platte: a river which the Oregon and California Trails followed.
Repose: rest or sleep.
Verse 3. Tight: tipsy or drunk.
Verse 4. Horde: a wild gang.
Musket: a type of gun.
Ball: the type of ammunition fired by a musket.
Verse 7. Salt Lake: Salt Lake City, in the modern-day state of Utah.
Brigham: Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon Church in the 1840s.
Steer: a type of bull.
Verse 8. Alkali: an irritating, salty mineral found in the deserts of the American West.
Lurked: to lie hidden.
Verse 10. Peaks: mountains.
H-or high water: "hell or high water," difficult circumstances.
Verse 12. Placerville: a city in northern California, near the end of the California trail.
Hangtown: a nickname for Placerville.
Verse 15. Lummox: a large, clumsy, and often stupid person.)
Step 5. Ask each group to 1) read aloud the verses that were assigned to their group, 2) explain any of the difficult terms or place names in the verses, and 3) share their one-sentence summaries of the verses.
Step 6. Ask your students if they think "Sweet Betsy from Pike" is a ballad, or a song that tells a story. Why do they think so?
Step 7. Log on to the Popular Music in American History: "Sweet Betsy from Pike" Web site at http://www.contemplator.com/folk2/betsey.html, and play the MIDI file of the song again. Ask for volunteers to try and sing the song, or sing the song as a class. It's a pretty catchy tune!
(End of Class One)