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Understand Slave Culture Through Songs

Created by:
Richard Garbutt
Galloway Township Public Schools

Beth Perlman
Mullica Township Public Schools

Slavery in the 19th Century

Grade Level:
6 to 8


The purpose of this lesson is to help students develop an understanding of the cultural lives of American slaves during the 19th Century by listening to music created by the slaves. Music is a big part of people's lives, and allows people to get a glimpse into the many aspects of slaves' lives during this time period. Slavery is an institution that is becoming foreign to many people in the United States, because of the significance of time since slavery. Through this lesson, the students will be able to get an understanding of the impact the music had on the lives of slaves.

Historical Context

During the 1600's Africans were brought to the America's as slaves to work in what is now the Southern United States. Slaves were a very large part of United States history, and lasted all the way up through the Civil War. Slavery was a brutal institution. Most people understand the working conditions of the slaves. However, one aspect that has been explored more recently is the cultural and material lives of slaves. The slaves have used many aspects to convey a sense of culture whether it was through writing and trickster tales such as Br'er Rabbit, or through songs.

African Slave songs are a way to explore one aspect of slave life. Through these songs the slaves were able to communicate a legacy of their African culture brought with them from Africa and passed on to future generations. Slaves were not allowed to practice their traditions and needed to find new ways to express themselves. They used music and songs to do this. Many of the songs expressed sadness and a felling of blues. The songs would tell of the hardships through simple lyrics and melodies that were repetitive, which appealed to the educational levels of the slaves.

Over time, the slaves' songs have evolved to become more complex and incorporated many different emotions. These songs also started to contain hidden messages to allow the slaves to pass information to each other without the overseers knowing what was happening. Many of these songs allowed the slaves to discuss meetings, freedom, and other Underground Railroad information, especially during the Antebellum Era.


Slavery, Cultural Lives of Slaves, Music

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, the students will be able to:

1. Analyze African Slave songs in order to recognize the cultural lives of Slaves.

2. Identify hidden messages the slaves would relay to each other.

3. Create a song using a beat and lyrics to express a hardship from their daily lives.


STANDARD 6.4 (United States and New Jersey History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of United States and New Jersey history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and future.

F. Expansion and Reform (1801-1861) Understand the institution of slavery in the United States, resistance to it, and New Jersey's role in the Underground Railroad.

STANDARD 1.5 (History/Culture) All students will understand and analyze the role, development, and continuing influence of the arts in relation to world cultures, history, and society.

A. Knowledge 1. Reflect on a variety of works of art representing important ideas, issues, and events in a society.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Gullah Website (See Web Resources Below)

Computer with speakers

Internet Access


Paper and pencil to write songs

Michael Row the Boat Ashore Lyrics (See PDF file attached below)

Details of Activity

Part 1: "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" (10 min.)

Teacher and students will read and sing "Micheal Row The Boat Ashore" in a whole class setting. Many students should recognize the song. The teacher will analyze the many components that make up the slave song. Teacher will ask the students what they think certain lines mean to start a discussion of the song.

1. "I wonder if my maussa deh," This line shows the slaves concern for his owner, who was fighting during the Civil War. Why do you think that the slaves would be concerned about their owner fighting in the war?

2. Who is Micheal? There are a few ideas, Micheal was a particular person who rowed for one of the plantations in the Georgia Islands, or that he was the actual archangel Michael who slaves might have prayed to help them reach their destination in rough seas.

Part 2: Gullah Songs (30 min.)

Teacher will go to the Gullah site and project it for the class. Click on the activities link on the links bar of the website. The first activity during this section will be the Secret Code.

Secret Code: (10 min.): Teacher will lead the students through the presentation of the Secret Code. Students will read the different slides to gain a basic understanding of the secret messages hidden within the slaves' songs. Students will be asked to complete the comprehension questions from the presentation.

Praise House: (10 min.):Teacher will lead the students through the presentation of the Praise house presentation. This presentation will allow the students to learn how instruments were used for communication and to create beats for the slave songs. Students will volunteer to read the different pages of the presentation.

Got the Blues:(10 min.): The teacher will lead the students to the "Got the Blues" Presentation on the Gullah Site. This presentation will allow the student to understand why the slaves sang using this style of music. The students will also learn about improvisation, and how this became a way for the slaves to sing about whatever was on their minds at any point. The students will also learn the A,A,B format for writing the blues.

Practice and Reinforcement

Students will be given time to individually write lyrics for a work song describing a hardship in their daily lives. They can use either the hidden message or blues types of African slave works songs. The students that create a Blues work song can use the A,A,B format as well as the improvisational skills from the Gullah site. (Teacher can leave the slide from the presentation on the projector as a model for the students.) The students will also have to create a beat for their work song using the different techniques learned during the Praise House portion of the lesson. After 10-15 minutes, allow students to present and describe their work songs to the class. This activity can be given as homework if you run out of time, and presented the following day.


Allen, William Francis et al, ed., Slave Songs of the United States, (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971).

F,Jr., L.H. "Michael, Haul the Boat Ashore." The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol.43, No.2 (Winter,1959-1960), http://www.jstor.org/stable/4633479 (accessed July23, 2009).

Fisher, Miles Mark. "Negro Slave Songs in the United States." Network: First Carol Publishing Group, 1990.

Parrish, Lydia. 1992. Slave Songs of the Georgian Sea Islands. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

Web Links:
Gullah Music Site (Used in the Lesson).

An overview of the Gullah People.

Background for the "Micheal Row the Boat Ashore."

Background for the "Micheal Row the Boat Ashore."

An overview of Slavery in the United States.

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot," another work song.

Supplementary Materials

For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here