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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Music Idea File

Grades:

5-8

Idea File:

Symbolic Songs of Freedom

Gospel Train

Students research “code” songs that were sung by slaves and find the symbolism in one of the songs.

Resource:

"Gospel Train" performed by Rhonda and Sparky Rucker

Teaching Concepts:

  • Slaves sang songs as a way to remember their homelands, to worship, and to talk in code so that the slave owners would not understand.
  • Some of the songs slaves sang were code for ways to escape the plantations where they worked.

Academic Content

  • Music and Social Studies: cultures/periods (early American through Civil War)
  • Music: purposes of music

Lesson Idea

Open: Introduce students to the life of slaves before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, and the importance of music to slaves. They sang songs as a way to remember their homelands, to worship, and to talk in code so that the slave owners would not understand. Some of the songs were code for ways to escape the plantations where they worked.

View: Sparky and Rhonda Rucker sing “The Gospel Train,” a song from the Underground Railroad. It told slaves when to leave and what to look for on their journey north.

Research: Have students research the Underground Railroad and how music kept it running. Ask them to find other songs sung about the Underground Railroad. They can start their research at KET’s web site for the documentary Kentucky’s Underground Railroad—Passage to Freedom. Then, working in small groups, students should pick a song and find the symbolism within it that would have been used by slaves on their journey north. Have students sing their songs, talk about the lyrics, and decode them for the class.

Extend: Have students research African-American stories and quilts that also were used to help slaves escape their owners.

Author: Sara O’Keefe

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