Country: America's Music Early Influences and Instruments In continued exploration of the cultural roots of popular music in the United States, these two fifty-minute lessons have been developed by Stephanie Michelle Feder for use in conjunction with unit lessons in Mapping the Beat: A Geography through Music Curriculum suitable for Fifth Grade.
Early influences on modern American country music. How the migration of instruments of the Scots-Irish immigrants to Appalachia combined with those of the Atlantic slave trade influenced regional music.
For samples of traditional Celtic tunes visit: http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/worldmusic/view/page.basic/genre/content.genre/celtic_703
For samples of modern African music visit: http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/worldmusic/view/page.basic/genre/content.genre/african_pop
For samples of "old time" country music visit: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/lomaxbib:@field(DOCID(@range(l1+l4)))
To visually recognize and describe instruments commonly associated with country music (namely the fiddle, guitar, and banjo), to recognize audio samples of music played by each instrument, and describe from where each instrument originated.
- Standards Addressed
Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places.
- How: Students identify and compare music and instruments of Scotland, Ireland,
and Africa with that of American Appalachia during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Standard 9: The characteristics, distribution and migration of human populations on earth's surface.
- How: Students describe how Scots-Irish immigrants and African slaves influenced
the development of Appalachian folk music.
California Content Standards for Music-5th grade
Standard 3.4: Describe the influences of various cultures and historical events on musical forms and styles.
- How: Students learn how the fiddle, guitar, and banjo influenced American
musical styles as a direct result of Scots-Irish immigration to America and the Atlantic Slave Trade.
- Teacher Prep
- Familiarize oneself with discussion information
- Copy overheads to transparency film
- Prepare listening samples of fiddle, guitar, and banjo
- Plan to include vocabulary list in other daily lessons and activities
- Locate a VHS or DVD recording of musicians playing these three instruments,
or arrange for a guest performer who plays any or all of the above!
- Supplies Needed
- Lined paper for writing assignment
- Overhead Transparencies
- Diagram of Fiddle
- Diagram of Banjo
- Diagram of Guitar
- Map of American Appalachia (circa 1800)
- Overhead projector
- Wall map of The World
- Video or DVD sample (see Suggested Listening)
- CD musical samples (see Suggested Listening)
- VCR/DVD player
- CD player
Banjo: A five-stringed instrument with a drum-like head (or body), no sound hole,
fretted.Fiddle The fiddle is a violin played as a folk instrument. It is a four-stringed instrument made from wood, without frets. Guitar A six-stringed instrument with a fretted neck and a hollow wooden body.
String is the vibrating element which is the source of vibration in string instruments, such as the guitar, harp, piano, and members of the violin family. They are lengths of a flexible material kept under tension so that they may freely vibrate.
Bow Modern bows are used to play string instruments of the violin family (the violin, viola, cello and double bass) are usually made of wood from and are strung with horsehair.
Fret A fret is a raised portion on the neck of a stringed instrument that extends generally across the full width of the neck.
Old-time music A form of North American folk music, with roots in the folk music of many countries, most notably: England, Scotland, Ireland, and the African continent. This musical form developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance. The genre also encompasses ballads and other types of folk songs. It is played on acoustic instruments, generally centering on a combination of fiddle and banjo.
Bluegrass music Considered a form of American roots music with its own roots in the English, Irish and Scottish traditional music. Like jazz, bluegrass is played with each melody instrument switching off, playing improvised solos in turn while the others revert to backing; this is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carried the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment.
Country music Also known as country and western music or country-western, is a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the Southern United States. It has roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, blues, gospel music, and old-time music and evolved rapidly in the 1920s.
Lesson 1 40 min Lecture/Discussion Background information for instructor: Though most consider Appalachia to be primarily of the southeastern region of the United States, this 1500 mile stretch of mountains actually encompasses as many as eighteen states! From as far north as Maine to as deep south as Georgia, the Appalachian Mountains span into the Green Mountains of New Hampshire, the Catskills of New York, the Berkshires of Connecticut, the Blue Ridge of Virginia, and the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. While the fiddle, with its Irish and Scottish foundation, does play a prominent role in American country music both historically and presently, in truth, Appalachian music is a blend of a number of influences, including the African-Arabian born banjo and the European guitar.
- Begin lesson by having students listen to a brief audio example that combines the
use of all the instruments to be discussed.
- Ask the students to describe what they hear: Can you identify what music you were
listening to? Is it Irish music? Folk music? Country music? Is country music uniquely American or did it come to America from another country (like so many other musics we know and listen to today)? Can you identify any of the instruments you heard? Write the names of the instruments they identify on the board: banjo, fiddle, guitar... Have you ever seen any of these instruments before? Lead answers into discussion as follows on the three specific instruments being explored in this lesson.
- Display overhead diagram of the banjo and discuss its construction point out
specifically that it has 5 strings stretched over a drum head, no sound hole, it is held on the player's lap, etc.
- Play a listening sample of the banjo ask students to describe the sound of the banjo
(tinny, metallic, abrasive, loud, etc.)
BANJO Banjos belong to a family of instruments that are very old. The banjo is widely known to have originated in Arabia and brought to western Africa with the spread of Islam, though drums with strings stretched over them can be traced throughout the Far East, the Middle East and Africa. Like the banjo, these instruments of influence could be played, bowed or plucked like a harp depending on their development. These instruments were brought to Europe through the Arab conquest of Spain, and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The banjo as we know it today, was made by African slaves based on their instruments and using materials that were indigenous to their parts of Africa. These early banjos were spread to the colonies by those brought over from the countries engaged in the 19th century Atlantic slave trade.
- Using World Map, point out the traveling route of the banjo from Arabia to West
Africa and over to the U.S.
- Ask review questions aloud: how many strings does the banjo have? What is the
banjo made of? How is it held when played? Where does it come from?
- Display overhead diagram of the fiddle and discuss its construction point out
specifically that it has 4 strings, is made entirely of wood with two sound posts on either side of the bridge and strings. It is held on the player's shoulder, there is no difference between a violin and a fiddle it is just what the violin is called by popular/country musicians. I once saw a bumper sticker that read "a fiddle is a violin with an attitude"
- Play a listening sample of the fiddle ask students to describe the sound of the fiddle
(high, smooth, plucked, etc.) FIDDLE The fiddle was an instrument played and used by the Scots and indeed brought over to the U.S. by the Scots-Irish immigrants as early as the 1700's. With its four strings, a fiddle is exactly the same instrument as a violin. However, for playing fiddle music, the instrument is generally set up and played differently. A fiddle player will often rest the strings on a slightly flattened bridge thus making it easier to "double- stop" (to chord or bow upon two strings at once) and to change strings quickly. For better balance, the bow is typically gripped higher up and firmer than the classical bow- holding position. This also makes it easier to play fast tunes with more control. Fiddle players generally do not use vibrato (a sustained undulating/wavy sound), except on an occasional very slow tune. Early vocal songs tended to be accompanied by just fiddle alone. Being a small instrument, it was quite mobile and therefore often used by early bards and wandering musicians throughout small towns in Scotland, Ireland, and ultimately in Appalachia.
- Using World Map, point out the traveling route of the fiddle from Scotland to the
- Ask review questions aloud: how many strings does the fiddle have? What is the
fiddle made of? How is it held when played? Where does it come from?
- Display overhead diagram of guitar and discuss its construction point out
specifically that it has six strings, is held on the lap when played, plucked or strummed (not bowed), has a sound hole in the center of the body, is made of wood, etc.
- Play a listening sample of the guitar ask students to describe the sound of the guitar
(low, loud, strummed, etc.)
GUITAR The guitar has six strings. Although its roots lie in Spain, a smaller bodied version of the original instrument was suitable for accompaniment of Irish and then American country music. Though introduced in the 1800's, the guitar did not really gain popularity in the U.S. until around 1910 when players realized that adding a chord structure to the traditional songs evened out irregularities and encouraged a measured structure to the songs backed up by an even/steady beat pattern! This made it much easier for singers to sing their melodies and instrumentalists began developing an ear for improvisational versus set song structure that would influence later American music like jazz.
- Using World Map, point out the traveling route of the guitar from Spain to Ireland
over to the U.S.
- Ask review questions aloud: how many strings does the fiddle have? What is the
fiddle made of? How is it held when played? Where does it come from? Etc.
- Display World Map and Map of Early America overhead
- Ask students to identify and name the countries from which each of the instruments
- Ask students to identify the states to which the Scots-Irish emigrated and where the
slaves were likely taken to. [i.e. Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Georgia, etc.]
5 Minute Wrap Up
- Ask students to identify and discuss the similarities and differences between these
three instruments? [i.e. they are all string instruments, the guitar and fiddle have wooden bodies, etc.] Which does not have a sound hole? Which do you play with a bow?
- Review Questions:
Fiddles have how many strings? [four] Where do they originate from? [Scotland] How do are they played? [rested on shoulder, bowed or plucked] When was it introduced to the U.S.? [18th century] Etc.
Banjos have how many strings? [five] Where does it originate from? [West Africa via Arabia] How are they played? [held in lap, plucked or strummed] How do they sound? [tinny, metal] Etc.
Guitars have how many strings? [six] Where do they originate from? [Ireland via Spain] When was it introduced to the U.S.? [19th century] How are they played? [held in lap, strummed] Etc. 5 Minute Connections Section How is the geography and music of this lesson relative to the present day?
- Play sample of modern country music (Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, etc.)
- Ask students to identify the instruments they hear being played and compare and
contrast the earlier music examples with that of the modern.
Lesson 2 50 min Project/Activity
- Play a 10-minute segment of video or introduce guest artist to play an example of
Recalling the similarities/differences and histories of the three instruments in question:
1. How do the banjo, fiddle, and guitar sound similar?
2. In what ways do they sound different?
3. Why was the fiddle such a popular instrument for traveling musicians?
4. Why might the African slaves have chosen drums to build the banjos from instead of wood?
- Divide classroom of students into three small groups. Assign each group one of the
three instruments and [using Activity Sheet] have them work on the project of creating a written list identifying the key characteristics of their instrument and describing its journey to the United States.
- Bring class back together and have each group share what they outlined from their
discussions. 5-10 Minute Wrap Up
- Play three to five random audio samples and have students identify the instrument
- Review key elements of each instrument:
- location of origin
- time period introduced to the U.S.
- make up of instrument's body
- number of strings on each
Students should be able to identify and describe three key instruments of significance to American country music: the fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Students should be able to discuss the origin of each instrument and timetable for introduction of that instrument into the U.S. and Appalachia.
- Suggested Listening
31 Banjo Favorites, Vol. 1, Raymond Fairchild
July 3, 1997, Rural Rhythm ASIN: B000002NVA
American Fiddle Tunes, Various Artists
January 1, 2000, Rounder Select ASIN: B00004TDOL
Appalachian Stomp: Bluegrass Classics, Various Artists
February 28, 1995, Rhino / Wea ASIN: B0000033GO
Bluegrass Fiddle Album, Aubrey Haynie
March 11, 2003, Sugarhill [Country] ASIN: B00008BRAT
Brave Boys: New England Traditions in Folk Music
January 1, 1995, New World Records ASIN: B0000030FD
Celtic Dances: Jigs & Reels from Ireland, Various Artists
August 10, 1998, Easydisc ASIN: B000003ODD
Classic Irish Dance Music, Various Artists
February 1, 2000, Atlantic / Wea ASIN: B000046S04
Classic Old-Time Music, Various Artists
April 22, 2003, Smithsonian Folkways ASIN: B00008OM0A
The Essential Willie Nelson Willie Nelso
n April 1, 2003, Sony Records ASIN: B00008BXK3
Irish Traditional Fiddle Music (Reels, Jigs & Polkas), Various Artists
July 18, 1994, Legacy ASIN: B000002NQ8
Old-Time Mountain Guitar
May 19, 1998, County Records ASIN: B00000609Y
Wide Open Spaces Dixie Chick
s January 27, 1998, Sony Records ASIN: B000002BZ0
Legends of Old Time Music [Vestapol ASIN: 6303476120]
Southern Old-Time Fiddle Tour [Homespun Tapes ASIN: B0002KWSK8]
Old-Time Banjo Clawhammer Style [Homespun ASIN: B000BJS4OE]
Further Exploration of topics presented above:
Out of Ireland - Irish Emigration to America [Koch Vision Entertainment]
The Celts - Rich Traditions & Ancient Myths [BBC Video ASIN: B0000WN10E]
- Web Sources/References
- Banjo diagram:
- Fiddle diagram:
- Guitar diagram:
- Map of America: http://www.nypl.org/research/midatlantic/refs/434889s_ref.html
- Banjo Reference & Timeline: http://bluegrassbanjo.org/banhist.html
- Vocabulary definitions pulled from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
- MP3/Video resources online for classroom use
Video Demonstration of clawhammer style of banjo playing:
Old Time banjo music examples: http://www.banjofrailer.com/