Exploring Work Songs

Many pieces of choral literature originated as work songs in the American south. Some of my favorite examples include arrangements of John Henry, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, and The Erie Canal. Students can perform with deeper understanding when they peek into the lives of the historic singers of such songs. Primary source recordings empower students to learn about the context in which these American musical gems were forged.

Here, find a variety of work songs from a variety of genres paired with a few discussion questions. These materials could be incorporated into a number of lesson formats for in-depth inquiry. Follow this link for a sample lesson plan, guiding students to use an Elements of Music framework to deepen their explorations.

Discussion Questions

  • What musical characteristics attract your attention when listening?
  • What musical characteristics unify the recordings within a genre? Why do you believe these characteristics occur in the songs?
  • Why do you think musicians created or performed these songs? Why did they make certain musical choices in their performance?
  • What can we learn about musicians' lives by listening to these recordings?
  • Do work songs exist in modern life? How do they compare to work songs of the past?

Music in the Fields

Music in the Home

Music on the Sea

Music on the Rails