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American Music: Lesson One: Pick A Bale Of Cotton. What is Rhythm? Template for Writing a Five Paragraph Essay

Lesson One: Pick A Bale Of Cotton

To the teacher:

Lesson One uses five 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.


Five 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.

Here is a PDF of the Five Handouts:

Five Handouts

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 form), whiter, more useful, softer (comparative), whitest, most useful, softest (superlative).

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 do they use cotton in their own lives?

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?

1. The Worksong

American music was created by Africans and Europeans who began coming to the New World in the 16th century. They combined their cultures to create what became the Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll in the United States. In Brazil, the Samba, and in Cuba, the Son, are also good examples of this combination. The African slaves sang while they worked in the cotton fields. Cotton was a major part of the early colonial economy. The word ”cotton” in English comes from Arabic: al qutun. Picking it wasn’t easy because the pickers had to bend over constantly as their loads got heavier in the hot sun.

Why did the slaves sing? Did the singing help them? Write down five reasons why slaves would sing while they worked.






Directions: Making a list. Why did the slaves sing 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.


Great God almighty gonna pick a bale of cotton*
Great God almighty gonna pick a bale a day.
Great God almighty gonna pick a bale of cotton
Great God almighty gonna pick a bale a day.

chorus: Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton
Oh Lordy, pick a bale a day.
Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton
Oh Lordy, pick a bale a day.

You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton
You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.
You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton
You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.

Me and my wife can pick a bale of cotton
Me and my wife can pick a bale a day.
Me and my wife can pick a bale of cotton
Me and my wife can pick a bale a day.

Me and my gal gonna pick a bale of cotton
Me and my gal gonna pick a bale a day.
Me and my gal gonna pick a bale of cotton
Me and my gal gonna pick a bale a day.

Me and my buddy can pick a bale of cotton
Me and my buddy can pick a bale a day
Me and my buddy can pick a bale of cotton
Me and my buddy can pick a bale a day.

Me and my partner can pick a bale of cotton
Me and my partner can pick a bale a day.
Me and my partner can pick a bale of cotton
Me and my partner can pick a bale a day.

You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton
You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.
You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton
You gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.

Great God almighty I can pick a bale of cotton
Great God almighty I can pick a bale a day.
Great God almighty I can pick a bale of cotton
Great God almighty I can pick a bale a day.

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. A bale of cotton weighs about a quarter ton. 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 can 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: What’s Rhythm?

Before reading:

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 speaking 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 for 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!

3. What Is Rhythm?

What is rhythm? It is the general term we use to describe the patterning of accents (or beats or stresses) in time. It comes from the Greek word rhythmos, “measured motion,” derived ultimately from a word meaning “to flow.” To experience rhythm, the ear must hear a recurrent sequence of accents at predictable intervals. For many reasons, human beings find this experience pleasurable and deeply engaging. Why? Partly because the principle of regular recurrence is found in non-artistic contexts as well, some of these primary in the formation of consciousness. Before an infant is born it develops a sense of hearing, and the first thing it hears is the heartbeat of the mother—a heartbeat perceived in regularly recurring sequence. The steady rhythm of the mother’s daily walk must also be experienced by the child as a physical sensation of gentle rocking to and fro. Eventually the child develops its own heartbeat, in counterpoint to the mother’s. At birth another primary rhythm is established, the intake and exhalation of breath. When the child begins to see, visual equivalents of rhythm emerge: the regular alternation of night and day; a series of steps from the ground floor to the next level; the regularly repeating patterns of textiles and wallpaper.

As adults we are at least partly conscious of all sorts of sonic and visual rhythms at many junctures of our lives. Given room to walk without hindrance, we naturally fall into a precise rhythm as we move through space. We observe waves breaking on the shore of large bodies of water, and we note high and low tides in the ocean. We watch the moon rise and fall and move through several phases in a month, before the same cycle returns again. Each year we experience the turnover of four seasons in a dependable sequence. In sports like rowing or running, children’s games like jump rope, in dancing, in sexual relations, in singing or playing an instrument, we respond to rhythmic directives. If we are scientists, we observe and quantify rhythms at the subatomic level all the way up to the operation of the solar system and the interaction of galaxies throughout the universe. If we are painters, we may use regular rhythm as a design element in our paintings. And if we are poets, we will write poetry that draws on the human sense of rhythm to achieve an expressivity that we have felt intuitively.

—from The Poem’s Heartbeat by Alfred Corn

After Reading:

Let students look at FOLI, the Youtube video below:

Handout 4: Write Your Work Song (optional)

Students will follow the instructions on Handout Four.

This part of the lesson, can be a class discussion and a review of Pick A Bale of Cotton. The action verbs in the song were jump down, turn around, and pick. Each student must think about the verbs that make up their lives and share them with the class. This can be a class discussion. Students writing work songs is optional, but it could be a lot of fun as well.

4. What Is Your Song? Write It.

So, rhythm is a regular pattern that repeats itself in a pleasurable way. It often makes you want to sing and dance. The ocean’s waves crashing on the beach are rhythm. The rising and setting of the sun are rhythm. The moon, day and night, and life and death are rhythms. Breathing in and out is rhythm. A heart beating is rhythm and so are hands clapping to a beat. When humans create music they surely express the rhythms in their lives and the rhythms of the world around them. Music makes us a part of things. Is there anyone who doesn’t like music?

What are the rhythms in your life? When do you wake and go to sleep? When do you eat? When do you work? When do you rest and when do you play? What makes up the parts of your day? What would your main verbs be?

If your life were a song, what kind of song would it be? Would your song be fast or slow, loud or soft? Would someone sing? Would it be a simple guitar or an orchestra including violins?

Everybody works including you. Think of your work song. The slaves called their work song, Pick A Bale Of Cotton. What would the title of your work song be? How would its lyrics express the rhythms of your life?

Write your work song. Write it with your rhythms. Sing it.

Handout 5: Writing a Five Paragraph Essay

The students will write an essay. The structure of this essay is already laid for them in a template of five numbered series if questions. Following the five numbered questions, it will be a five paragraph essay, beginning with an introductory paragraph, a body of three paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.

Let the students follow the template below. Let students take notes answering the questions, and then form the essay out of their answers.

5. What Are the Rhythms of Your Life? Writing an Essay

Directions: Answer questions 1 through 5 below. From your answers, write a five paragraph essay entitled “The Rhythms of My Life.” Starting with 1 and its questions, continue until 5 and its questions, and you will have your five paragraph essay.

1. The world is full of rhythm and every individual has his or her own rhythm. What are your rhythms? Which rhythms make you particularly you? What makes you unique?

2. Do you think your rhythms are like the rhythms of most of the people from your country, culture and language or are your rhythms more reflective of you as an individual?

3. Music is the most shared rhythm in the world, and every country has developed its own unique forms of rhythm and expressions when it comes to music. In what ways do you think your culture has contributed to world music? Has your culture’s music affected you? Explain.

4. Are you more influenced by the music of your culture or the music of the world? If one song was going to represent you what would that song be? If there are words, include them and if they are in your language, translate.

5. Do you think the particular rhythms in your life right now will continue or do you believe that in time your rhythms will change? Explain.

What follows is an essay written by a student, Erdem Bektas, from Turkey. Enjoy.

The Rhythms of my Life

Every individual has his or her own rhythm. We all live through a different beat and that makes us all unique and different. Our lives are like a song that no one else can sing or copy. The rhythms of my life are all different, there’s not one but many rhythms that make up my life and all these rhythms make me.

My rhythms are socializing, helping people and trying to live life to the fullest. I believe our time in this world is limited and we need to meet people of all races and backgrounds because that helps us grow and learn. Helping people is one of my rhythms and it’s one of my biggest rhythms. I always love to reach out a helping hand either to a friend or stranger in need. Whenever I help, I feel like I am making someone’s life better and that makes me feel good. Also, living life in the moment is very important for me. Life shouldn’t be taken for granted so every moment should be spent wisely and should be cherished.

My rhythms are more reflective of me as an individual because my country and culture has a lot of closed-minded people. They feel like they are obligated to obey certain strict laws and regulations that don’t make sense to me. They live in fear and don’t cherish the moment but think too much of the future and are always feeling anxiety. My rhythm is open minded, laid back and fearless. I don’t feel the need to follow strict laws that don’t make sense. I follow and do what I know is best and right in my heart.

My country has contributed a lot to world music because my country’s melodies are very soulful, rhythmic and instrumental. My country’s most popular instrument is the Saz; most of our music is with this instrument. The sound of this instrument is very soulful and spiritual. My culture’s music has affected me greatly because it made me open up to spirituality, empathy and love. My country’s music rhythm is all about empathy and love and I am all about that. My culture’s music also helps me connect with my country and its history. I am more influenced by my country’s music because it brings me back to my childhood, my traditions and my family life. Whenever I hear my country’s music it brings back great memories, it makes me proud to be Turkish, and it gives me the strength to know that we all share one god and we have to put all our trust in god and not worry about the future.

I do believe the current rhythms in my life will change because we change and grow everyday. I am a different person than I was last month. We learn a lot of things throughout our lives and that wisdom makes our rhythm change. My rhythm will definitely be different a year from now. I am obtaining knowledge now and I will be a much wiser and mature person with age. Overall, the rhythms of my life are growing and changing each day. And I’m proud to be moving throughout life with the rhythm I currently have.

The Five Handouts

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