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For the English Teacher: Roots of American Music: Lesson One: Pick A Bale Of Cotton

Handout One: The Work Song (making a list)

Handout Two: Pick A Bale Of Cotton (examining lyrics)

Handout Three: What is Rhythm?

Handout Four: Writing a song, and then an essay

Lesson One: Pick A Bale Of Cotton

To the teacher:

Lesson One uses four handouts. If they are going to be printed and handed out in class, print them back to back to save on paper. If the students look at this lesson online, Handout Three could still be printed for students to have in their hands to read and work on. But Handout Three could also be read online.


1. After closely examining song lyrics, students will become aware of musical rhythm and visual rhythms around them.

2. They will become aware of the rhythms in their own lives. They will talk about them and write about them.

3. A confident awareness of self is the objective of Lesson One. This self-awareness will help the students creatively in the lessons that follow.


Four handouts.
CD or Youtube: Leadbelly singing Pick A Bale Of Cotton
Cotton balls (optional): hand out balls of cotton for students to pass around and look at to begin this lesson.

Optional Introduction: Examining a ball of cotton

It is good to begin an ESL lesson with something tactile. Even for advanced students, the cotton ball sets a mood and brings the lesson to a human level. Cotton balls are cheap and can be handed out easily. As the students look at the cotton and feel the cotton, get them to talk about words in English that come to their minds. If the class is beginner, a discussion of adjectives associated with cotton works as an introduction to that part of speech. A cotton ball is white, soft, useful, etcetera. Out of this, a mini-lesson on the parts of an adjective is easily created: white, useful, soft (base), whiter, more useful, softer (comparative), whitest, most useful, softest.

Even at higher levels, tossing cotton balls to students can be fun and open up a discussion about other parts of speech. What nouns might students associate with cotton. What verbs? How in their own lives do they use cotton?

Handout One: The Work Song (making a list)

Write five words on the board:


If students are not familiar with the words, have them look them up in their dictionaries. Discuss the meanings.

Hand out Handout One. Students can read the handout silently to themselves and look at the pictures of workers picking cotton. The teacher can add a lecture to the reading expanding on what is written. Students read and listen:

“American music is a hybrid. A hybrid is something new created from two different things: European settlers and African slaves who arrived in the New World in the 16th century created American music. Although all immigrant cultures have influenced American music, Africans and Europeans fused their cultures to create what became the Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll. When Africans were brought to the New World, they brought their languages and religions with them; these were assimilated into the master’s language and religion, English and Christianity. Assimilate means to digest or absorb something, to become it and make it yours. African-Americans influenced American music in striking ways because they used music directly in their daily lives. African slaves sang in the cotton fields while they worked. African work songs are the roots of American music.”

To the teacher: the following Youtube of singing fishermen from Ghana can be useful at this point because it not only shows contemporary workers singing while they work, but it can generate a class discussion.

Ask students if people sing while they work in their own cultures. Is it common now? Was it common in the past?

Directions: Making a list. Why did the slaves wings while they worked? Students will make lists of their reasons. Put them in pairs or groups of threes to make their lists. Give them enough time to do this. After the groups have made their lists, they can write their lists on the white board or on newsprint. They will compare the lists and discuss them. The teacher can add to this discussion with a little more information prompted by what is on the lists.

“Singing was a way for slaves to communicate and freely express themselves while they worked. In a time without telephones, slaves could relay messages by singing for miles across the cotton fields. The work songs were sung not only in English, but with words from their own native languages. What they sang could be a secret. In English they could sing that they were getting married or just had a baby; using words from their native languages, they could warn others working down the line that the master was coming with words he did not understand. This gave them solidarity and was one way of getting over on the master.”

A list of reasons:

Freedom of expression
To feel happy
To keep the rhythm of the work
To make the work light
To communicate
To pass the time
To spread news
To support the group
Strength in numbers
To be a part of something
To keep their traditions
To get energy

Handout Two: Pick A Bale of Cotton (examining lyrics)

This activity is in two parts. Before listening to the song sung by Leadbelly, have the students look at the lyrics and discuss any patterns, repetitions, and rhythms that they see in the song.

The word “bale” will probably be a word they don’t know. Have them look the word up in their dictionaries and discuss it. Students can do this in pairs or groups of three.

After examining the lyrics and discussing them, students should know that:

1. The words are simple, not complex.

2. The words are repeated so they are easy to remember.

3. The song is divided into stanzas of four lines.

4. The first and third lines end with the word: cotton. The second and fourth lines end with the word: day. With the repetition of cotton and day we have the real sense of working and picking cotton every day.

5. The verbs are verbs of action and work: pick, jump down, spin around.

6. There is a joke in the song. Nobody can pick a bale of cotton a day. The song is ironic. Picking cotton is a job that never ends.

7. Although God is mentioned, it is more of an exclamation than a prayer. God might be “almighty,” but he isn’t doing anything to help the slaves. They have to work, not rest. This is also ironic.

While discussing the patterns in the song, the teacher add to the discoveries with a short lecture:

“The song has a lot of energy. It has a chorus. What is a chorus? A chorus is many voices singing together. It has a lot of rhythm. What’s rhythm? Rhythm is a regular pattern. It’s repetition. It repeats itself in a way that makes you want to dance and move. African-Americans used the song to pass the time and make a bad situation better. Their defiant optimism would be a great force in American music. What does it mean to pass the time?

After listening, let students stalk about their impressions of the song.

There is a chorus.

One stanza gives directions. One stanza tells the listener who the singer is working with. In the cotton fields, the slaves could add the names of those who were present, who were working.

The song was also a way to send messages through the fields. When the master was coming, the slaves could sing:

You better jump down, turn around. Start to work faster!
You better jump down, turn around. Here comes the master!

The slaves didn’t have phones or the Internet, but they could relay messages for miles across the fields by singing from one group to another.

How can singing while you work help pass the time?

It gives you energy.
You don’t feel alone.
You have something else to think about.

Handout Three

Before Reading, A Spelling Test:

Before the students read What’s Rhythm? by Alfred Corn, give them a spelling test.

Make sure all students are ready with pencil and paper.

Read about twenty words of your choosing from the text. Say each word, repeat it several times, and use it in a sentence.

Here is the selection I’d use:

measured motion
regularly recurring sequence

When the dictation is over, there are several ways to check the spelling. You might have students come up and write several words on the board the way they spelled them. When all the words are written, there can be a class discussion on the correct spellings. If a word is misspelled, do any other students know the correct spelling? The teacher writes the words correctly spelled.

When all the words are spelled correctly, pick out several words to talk about.

If students don’t know a word, have them guess what part of speech they think the word is? Noun, verb, adjective or adverb?

Assign each student, or groups of students, a word or several words to look up in the dictionary to find out the meanings. As a speak exercise, students should get up to give the definitions of the words. They should read the word and write a definition on the board with a sentence that uses the word.

After each presentation, the class discusses the word if need be.

If the class is lower level, it would be good to have students write out on newsprint each word’s definition, defining it and telling what part of speech it is. And write a sentence.

If the class is higher, use this exercise as a speech. Each student gets up, explains the word and gives a sentence.


When the students are familiar with the words, have them read What’s Rhythm? with these directions. “Don’t use dictionaries. If you don’t know a word, try to figure out its definition by looking at the words around it. Decide what part of speech it is and decide from your observations what the word’s meaning might be. No dictionaries!

After Reading:

Let students look at FOLI, the Youtube video below:

Handout Four

Students will follow the instructions on Handout Four.

First they will write a song lyric modeling Pick A Bale of Cotton emphasizing the verbs in their lives.

Second, the students will write an essay, after making a list of the rhythms in their lives, have them put their lists into three sections: what they do in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening.

The structure of this essay will be that of the five paragraph essay, beginning with an introduction, a body of three paragraphs, and a conclusion.

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