A New Day for Old Time Music from the South

Designed by: Peggy Benkeser
Cliff Valley School, Atlanta, GA

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In this introductory lesson students will discover the string band music of the southern Appalachian Mountains, which evolved during the reconstruction period following the Civil War, 1864 - 1880. Students will explore "Old Time" music through listening to archival recordings, dancing to the music, playing guitar and singing a song from the period.

Suggested Grade Levels: 6-8
Country: United States (with references to England, Ireland, Scotland and Tanzania)
Region: Southern Appalachian Mountains from Georgia through Virginia
Culture Group: Anglo-American, African American
Genre: indigenous, ballad, lament, dance
Instruments: Fiddle, banjo, guitar, lap dulcimer, mandolin, voice and a variety of percussion instruments.
Language: English
Co-Curricular Areas: American History
National Standards:
1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
5. Reading and notating music.
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.
Prerequisites: If the guitar extension is done students will need to know G, D, and A major chords on guitar.


  • Developing critical listening skills
  • Singing historically relevant repertoire
  • Accompanying music with instruments
  • Understanding of the evolution and significance of Old Time music in the culture of the southern United States following the Civil War.
  • Exploring the difference between common time and cut time.
  • Creating new lyrics and a musical accompaniment.


Old Time String Bands




Dance Music

Variations on Jenny Jenkins:

For Extension Activities you may consider:

  • Lap Dulcimer: Kevin Roth Sings and Plays Dulcimer CD - Soldier's Joy
  • Mandolin: Bill Monroe and Doc Watson
  • World Map
  • Map of United States
  • Guitars (if doing extension)
  • Images of a fiddle, banjo, guitar

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Lesson Segments:

  1. What is Old Time music? (National Standards #6,9)
  2. Meet the fiddle. (National Standards #6,9)
  3. Here's the banjo! (National Standards #6,9)
  4. Don't forget the guitar. (National Standards #6,9)
  5. Let's meet Jenny Jenkins (National Standards # 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9)

1. What is Old Time music?

Click to view recording details

“Listen to the Mockingbird”
from Down Yonder: Old Time String Band Music from Georgia (1982) | FW31089

  1. Play "Listen to the Mocking Bird" for the students as they are arriving in class. After they settle into their seats turn off the music and ask them to listen again to discover information regarding what instruments they hear [fiddle, banjo, guitar], where they believe the music is from [North Georgia Mountains] and if they've heard this kind of music before.
  2. After listing the students responses on the board share with the students the photo of the band and ask them to again identify the instruments in the picture and heard on the selection. Share with the students background information regarding "Old Time" music:

Background Information on Old Time Music:

According to Wikipedia Old Time Music is defined as a genre of North American folk music, with roots in the folk music of many countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland and countries in Africa. It developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance, buck dance, and clogging. 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 plucked string instruments, most often the guitar and banjo.

"Old Time" music appears to have it's roots just following the American Civil War. According to Mike Seeger in his liners notes from the CD "Early Southern Guitar Styles"

"The turmoil following the Civil War was transforming Southern life. Industrialization was beginning, leading to urbanization and giving former rural dwellers money in their pockets. For those who remained on the farm, cash crops established their part of the dollar economy. Traveling salesmen and general stores were becoming active in small towns. Towards the end of the century, railroads and a postal system made possible mail order of almost anything, including guitars.

Emancipation gave African Americans some measure of freedom of movement and liveli- hood for the first time. It freed black musical creativity. General consciousness of black music and singing could be less subject to white interpretation than in the heyday of the minstrel shows... Community-made music continued to be popular in rural areas, especially throughout the South. Musical tastes were evolving.

Factory production made possible the very inexpensive guitars that were offered by mail order houses and furniture or music stores from about 1890 onward. The advent of the three-dollar guitar put the instrument into the hands of a player for the equivalent of three or four days' wages rather than the month's required for a Martin or Haynes. These instruments ...could compete and mix with a banjo or fiddle.

Evidence of working-class playing of these guitars is sparse during this period. I came across one intriguing, reliable report by writer Lafcadio Hearn describing an African American string band consisting of "a cracked violin, a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol" at a lively 1875 waterfront square dance in Cincinnati. (On another occasion the band there consisted of fiddle, banjo, and bass viol.) I think it's significant that this combination of instruments appeared at an African American dance only a decade after emancipation. Such a band would have likely also played for European American dances. This suggests that the guitar was beginning to enter Southern working-class music by that time, at least in some commercial river towns. A photograph of a three-piece group of African American musicians—fiddler, banjoist, and guitar player—at an 1895 outing in the Virginia mountains suggests a more rural style. A group of late 1920s Ohio Civil War-period soldiers, posed for a photograph in a field with instruments that included guitar, violin, banjo, triangle, and bones, probably played minstrel-based music, but we can barely imagine their sound.

I've asked many old-time musicians from the upland South when it was that they first encountered a guitar. More often than not the answer has been the late 1920s, sometimes on record or on radio. The musicians they might have heard were the early Southern professional "hillbilly" or "country" musicians such as Riley Puckett or Sam McGee, some of whom, like McGee, learned from both parlor and African American musicians. Banjoist Dock Boggs's first remembrance, from about 1910, was typical: a youngster then, he admired an itinerant black guitarist walking along a railroad track.

European Americans of the early 20th century tended to use the guitar for chord accompa- niment of songs or fiddle tunes. Maybelle Carter's use of the guitar as a melodic lead instrument for songs instead of the more usual fiddle was a departure, and was very influential, not only because she was first but because she played with such solid musical grace.

It's interesting to ponder the reasons why the banjo—which came into general popularity from the enslaved African Americans in the South in the mid-19th century, about the same time as the guitar appeared up North from middle-class Europe—became so popular in both cabin and parlor, while the guitar had to wait until after 1900... Elizabeth Cotten and John Hurt, African American players from North Carolina and Mississippi, respectively, and many other players talk with affection of their first guitars, acquired just after the turn of the century. Ms. Cotten told me of learning a few pieces from older men about 1905 to 1910, which would put the genesis of some black solo guitar styles well back into the 19th century...

The mixing of European and African musics by African Americans over the past 150 years has produced much of what we now know as American music: banjo music, spirituals, jazz, blues, on up to the present. When I listen to the 1920s recordings of black guitarists such as Blind Blake or Lemon Jefferson, their sophistication and depth of feeling suggest many decades of creative development as well as demonstrating their genius. The white styles sound to me younger, some based on parlor playing, some from banjo patterns, and, in many cases, styles picked up from black players.

Based on these kinds of observations, it seems to me that black musicians were early, late-19th-century creators of distinctive vernacular styles of guitar playing, likely built on earlier parlor guitar, banjo, piano music, and vocal musics. It seems likely that most white players adapted the guitar from similar sources as well as from black players, apparently several decades later during the early 20th century.

African American guitarists have played a vital creative role in the development of America's guitar music, especially in the South. So many old-time and recent country Southern musicians and singers have told their stories of learning their first guitar licks from itinerant black guitarists that it makes one wonder: was the black players' role in creating new ways of using the guitar centrally vital to its stylistic development?

I believe so. I believe that the most important single element in the creation of American musics has been the interaction between the European and African cultures. The contribution by African Americans to guitar playing has been every bit as significant as the contributions they have made to banjo playing, ragtime, blues, jazz, and so many other forms of American people's music."

  1. Ask a student to identify the Appalachian Mountains on a map of the United States and explain that this is the region in Georgia where Old Time music has been played for over 150 years. If teaching this as part of an integrated unit with American History relate this time period to the unit being studied - ex. Post Civil War / Reconstruction and identify the time-period on your time-line for the unit. Re-read Mike Seeger's notes and identify dates he mentions in his notes on the time-line as well.
  2. Listen to the musical example again and ask students to listen for the bird call and what instrument is being used to make that sound [Fiddle]. While students are listening lead them in tapping the pulse in 2 beats per measure, 4 beats per measure and 1 beat per measure. You may choose to have the students put the beat in their feet as they move around the room.
  3. View the video of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys playing "Little Birdie". While viewing the video ask students to identify the banjo, guitar and fiddle - the three most important instruments in Old Time Music. Ask students to also identify the two additional instruments used in the ensemble (bass and mandolin). Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys - video

2. Meet the Fiddle

Click to view recording details

“Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On”
from Classic Old-Time Fiddle from Smithsonian Folkways (2007) | SFW40193

Click to view recording details

“The Sligo Maid / The Woman of the House / The Sailor's Bonnet (medley)”
from Kevin Burke: Sweeney's Dream (2001) | SFW40485

Click to watch video

Video: Video: Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys perform "Little Birdie"

  1. Explain that today's lesson will be focused on the fiddle. Ask students another name for the fiddle (violin) and why they think the instrument is called a fiddle in Old Time music rather than violin. Explain the two instruments are the same physically - but it is the way in which the instrument is played and the style of music being played that determines if the instrument is called a violin or a fiddle. This would also be a good time to show the students a picture of a violin or an actual instrument and review the number of strings on the instrument as well as the use of the bow and fingers (pizzicato) for making sounds.
  2. Ask students to identify the instrument they hear [fiddle] and where it is from [Ireland] in the following example: Kevin Burke: Sweeney's Dream - The Sligo Maid. After listening to the example tell the students the music is from Ireland and have a student identify Ireland on the world map. Ask why they believe the instrument is called a fiddle in this example and not a violin.
  3. Play for the students another example of fiddle music - this time from an Old Time player in the U.S. : Doug Wallin - Classic Old-Time Fiddle from Smithsonian Folkways. Ask students to identify ways the two pieces are similar and different.
  4. Explain that Irish and Scottish fiddle music played a big role in the creation of Old Time music. Explain that many people in the southern United States had immigrated to the Appalachian region from Ireland as early as the 1700's and brought their music and instruments with them.
  5. Play the Irish example again and ask the students to tap or clap along to the beat or you may choose to use the music as an accompaniment for an earlier learned contra or line dance.
  6. Ask students if they have heard or seen this style of music being performed (example: in the movie Titanic, River of Dance, etc.)

3. Here's the banjo!

Click to view recording details

“Down South Blues”
from Dock Boggs: Legendary Singer and Banjo Player (1964) | FW02351

Click to view recording details

“Bwana Moshi ufunguo nakupa wasia”
from Topical and dance songs from the Swahili-speaking people of Tanzania (1950) | ILAMTR170

Click to watch video

Video: Video: Banjo great Tony Trischka discusses his early introduction to the instrument

  1. Explain to students that the fiddle and the banjo are the two most important instruments in Old Time String Band Music. Other instruments may be added to the ensemble - but most Old Time Music groups will have both the fiddle and banjo. Today's lesson is about the banjo. Ask students what they already know about the banjo - number of strings? How is it different from a guitar? What is the head made of? Show students a picture of a banjo or the real thing. After this introduction students will view the banjo video of Tony Trischka.
  2. Ask students again where they believe the banjo originated [East Africa]. After listing their answers tell them to listen to the next example to see if they believe their guess is correct. Play African Topical and Dance songs from the Swahili speaking people of Tanzania. After listening ask the students if they believe this is a banjo playing and where they think it is from [Tanzania]. Tell them the instrument is a banjo and show them an image of an African banjo. Compare and contrast the number of strings, the head, etc. (Additional information on the African roots of the banjo can be found in the book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, Cecelia Conway, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1995, ISBN 0-87049-893-2. A pod-cast on the subject can also be found at NPR's All Things Considered, "Bringing the Banjo from Africa to Appalachia".)
  3. Listen again to the example and ask students to keep the beat quietly on their body or to put the beat in their feet (if students have learned previous African dances steps that would work with this music these could be utilized here as well). Ask students to pay particular attention to the syncopations that occur in the music.
  4. Identify Tanzania on the map and show illustrations of the African banjo again and compare them to illustrations of the American banjo.
  5. Ask students why they believe an African instrument would end up in music from the Southern Appalachians [While originating in East Africa, with possible roots in Arabic culture, the instrument made it's way to West Africa and then to the United States through the Slave Trade. Additional information on this journey can be found on the DVD "Throw Down Your Heart: A Documentary by Sascha Paladino" with Bela Fleck]. Explore together the significance of the fiddle and banjo being the foundational instruments in creating "Old Time" music. Explain that in the Southeastern United States freed African slaves and rural,working class Irish and Scottish immigrants lived and worked closely together. In the process the African musicians taught the banjo to interested white musicians who combined the sounds with the music of the Scottish/Irish fiddle music of their own.
  6. Listen to Dock Boggs - Legendary Singer and Banjo Player. Ask students to compare and contrast the playing of Dock Boggs on banjo with the banjo music from Tanzania. How are the musics similar/different? Which style does the student prefer and why?

4. Don't Forget the Guitar!

Click to view recording details

“Freight Train”
from Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1989) | SFW40009

Click to watch video

Video: Video: Elizabeth Cotten performs "Freight Train"

  1. Tell students that while the violin and banjo were the two most important instruments in Old Time music, the guitar was (and still is) a third instrument of importance to the genre.
  2. View video of Elizabeth Cotten playing "Freight Train." Ask the students to observe the way in which she is playing the guitar. Share more information about Elizabeth Cotten from the liner notes of her CD "Freight Train". Explain that while many of the Old Time String Band recordings and photos are of white people playing together there were also many black musicians who played these songs. In fact, when a famous band, The Carter Family, went out looking for new songs to learn they frequently went to black churches throughout the south to find musicians willing to share their music with them.
  3. Listen to Elizabeth playing again: Elizabeth Cotten Freight Train CD. Ask students to listen to how the instrument is being played - Is it being strummed? Is it playing the melody? Is there a bass line?
  4. Observe the video of Mike Seeger. Share more information about Mike Seeger from the liner notes of his CD "Early Southern Guitar Sounds." Initiate a discussion about the playing styles of each guitarist and compare and contrast their lives. Explain that in the early days of Old Time music white folk often learned how to play banjo from itinerant black musicians. Discuss impressions of the segregated south following the Civil War. Discuss the impact of socio-economic status on the ability of blacks and whites to collaborate musically (note: this needs to be supported by the classroom teacher as part of a cross-curricular study of the post- civil war era in the south.).
  5. Review the parts of a guitar. Show students a picture or the real thing. How many strings does it have? What is the instrument made of? How is it similar or different from the banjo?

5. Let's meet Jenny Jenkins!

a. Jenny Jenkins Activities: The following activities are based on the recording of Jenny Jenkins from Old Timey Songs for Children by New Lost City Ramblers. A transcript of the melody is included in this unit plan. Share with them the following description about this song:

John and Alan Lomax in "Folk Song USA" (1947) described the song, Jenny Jenkins as follows: Jenny Jenkins is among the most sprightly of the old dialogue songs which were sung at social gatherings such as apple-peelings, quilting bees, and church socials. On these occasions much entertainment was provided as the young folks teased each other through the medium of answer-back verses, some of which, depending upon the song, had to be improvised on the spot.

Young people of our own day seem to find as much amusement as their great grandparents did in challenging their partners to match colors in rhyme. Urban youngsters take particular delight in proposing certain colors fro which there are no obvious rhymes, as for example: magenta, purple, turquoise, and chartreuse. In one recording a group of fifth graders proposed and rhymed the following colors: green/bean, magenta/despise-eyes, orange/porrange (porridge), blue/shoe, pink/sink, gray/hay, flesh/mesh.

The activities below have been broken down by elements of music including: pulse, meter, rhythm, melody and harmony. This is also a section on creating an original arrangement of the piece.



  • Listen to the song and tap the main pulse (2 beats per measure) on your body.
  • Listen to the song and tap along to the macro and micro-beats (ex. 2 beats per measure or 4 beats per measure or 8 beats per measure or one beat per measure.)
  • Choose your favorite pulse and listen again and play your pulse or switch in and out of different pulse groupings.

Meter: Common Time versus Cut-Time

  • Listen to the music and tap along first with two beats per measure and then with four beats per measure. Discuss the different way each grouping feels.
  • Play the melody at different tempos and decide which grouping feels better at which tempo (4 at a slower tempo, 2 at a quicker tempo).
  • Look at the notation for Jenny Jenkins written in cut time. Explain the meaning of the notation - 4/4 time but with 2 main pulse per measure instead of four. Ask the students what other time signature could be used to write music when there are two main beats per measure (could be a variety of answers including 2/4, 6/8, 2/2, etc.)
  • Look at the Jenny Jenkins rhythm notated in 2/4 and compare it to the rhythm written in cut time. Have the students clap and count the rhythms. Ask the students which way feels easier for them. (Answers will vary).
  • This lesson could be extended by playing a variety of music in 4/4 and 2/2 and having the students conduct in four beat patterns and two beat patterns to the same music and compare their preferences to the notated scores.

Rhythm: Syncopation and notation in 2/2 versus 2/4

  • This arrangement of Jenny Jenkins contains one example of syncopation that catches the listener off guard. Syncopations are emphasized sounds in the music that are not on the beat. Have students listen while following the score and identify one syncopation. ( m.11-12). Ask students how they feel when this section of the music is played (surprised, off guard).
  • Have students work with a partner to play the syncopation. One student will keep the pulse (using two or four beats per measure or alternating between the two) while the other taps or claps the rhythm in measures 11 - 12. Students should then switch so each has a turn keeping time and clapping the rhythm.
  • Ask students why they think the New Lost City Ramblers played Jenny Jenkins using this syncopation. (To make it more interesting, add humor, catch the listener off guard...). Explain that in Old Time music musicians would sometimes add syncopations to familiar songs as a way to "spice them up" or make them their own.
  • Students could create a 16 beat rhythm including syncopations and notate the rhythm in cut time and then in 2/4 time.

Melody: Singing the song

Listen to a number of versions of the song Jenny Jenkins from Old Timey Songs for Children by New Lost City Ramblers as well as others. [Note: This could be set up at a listening center for students to explore on their own while taking notes about each version they are listening to.]

Jennie Jenkins by Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Jennie Jenkins by Jim Douglas
Jennie Jenkins by Robin Christenson
Jenny Jenkins by Harry and Jeanie West
Jenny Jenkins by Jean Ritchie, Oscar Brand and David Sear

Click to view recording details

“Jennie Jenkins”
from Old Timey Songs for Children (1959) | FW07064

Click to view recording details

“Jennie Jenkins”
from Smoky Mountain Ballads (1953) | FW02040

Click to view recording details

“Jennie Jenkins”
from Peddler's Pack: A Collection of Early Colonial Songs (1979) | FW32319

Click to view recording details

“Jennie Jenkins”
from You Can Sing It Yourself, Vol. 1 (1960) | FW07624

Click to view recording details

“Jennie Jenkins”
from Songs of the Southland (1963) | FW02352

Click to view recording details

“Jennie Jenkins”
from A Folk Concert in Town Hall, New York (1959) | FW02428

  • Have students compare and contrast the arrangements. In what ways are they similar and in what ways are they different. Ask which is their favorite arrangement and why.
  • Listen again to the New Lost City Ramblers version and try to sing along (w/o lyric sheet)
  • Ask students how the words are organized (question, followed by answer, followed by a nonsense line).
  • Using the music provided, divide the group into two parts (for example, with boys questioning and girls answering). Have one group sing the question (What will you wear... Jenkins?) and the second group sings the response (No I won't wear...) and then have both groups sing the third part (I'll buy me a ... to the end).
  • Switch parts and have the second group sing the question.
  • To learn the third phrase divide into four groups and assign each group one beat of the non-sense line (ex. Fol-de, rol-de / till-de toll-de / seek a double / use a cause a. While playing a slow steady beat at 8 parts per measure, have the students say their part in time to the drum one after the other. After doing this successfully a few times have students switch parts and try again. After this is comfortable combine into two parts (fol-de rol-de till-de toll-de / seek a double use a cause a. Repeat the process with the students divided into 2 groups. Switch parts when it becomes easy. Then have students try the entire phrase by themselves - slowly at first and gradually increasing in tempo. Finally put the entire 3rd phrase back into the song and sing the song from beginning to end.
  • Students could convert the song into solfege and sing and handsign in solfege.

Harmony: Strumming Along

  • Have students listen to the piece and identify places in the song where the chords change. (This will be easiest to do if the teacher plays a very simple chordal accompaniment while singing the song at a slower tempo for the children to listen to. The teacher should play the piece with a capo at the second fret and play as if playing in D using D, G, A chords) After the students identify the chords (if they have been studying guitar previously) ask them to look at the notation and identify what key the piece is written in (E major).
  • Ask the students how it is that the chords you are playing (D, G, A) fit into a piece written in E major (because of the capo). Explain that the Capo allows you to play chords in the key of D - but make them sound as if they are in the key of E by rising the pitch one-half step for each fret. In the key of D one need to go up two half steps to get to E. The idea of half steps and frets should be familiar to students to make this connection.
  • Ask the students to write the chord changes into their copy of the score using tabs or letters.
  • Have students practice the chord changes independently for a while. Then have students select one chord to play while listening to the recording. The next time they should select a different chord, etc. They can practice the changes slowly and work up to being able to play the changes at tempo using a simple down-up strum pattern.
  • Listen to the recording again with an ear towards the guitar. Watch the videos by Elizabeth Cotten and Mike Seeger to learn more about finger picking style used in Old Time Music.

Creative Work:

  • Students should compose their own verses to be sung to the song using the rhyme scheme and colors or articles of clothes (Ex. Will you wear socks, etc). Again refer to the various versions of Jenny Jenkins. Students can also create their own lyrics for the nonsensical third part. Have students work alone or with a partner to come up with their lyrical variations and allow them to share their creations with the class.
  • Create your own ensemble inspired by Old Time String Band Music. Allow students to select the instrumentation. This selection process could be based on research (listen to other Old Time Music recordings to see what other instruments are included in ensembles) or based on their individual skills and interests. Guitars may be used. Orff Instruments can also be utilized by having the students play the bass note of the chords on the beat (two beats per measure) while playing through the piece. Alto xylophones can be added on the off beats (in the style of the mandolin in Old Time) utilizing the 3rd and 5th of the chord tone. The melody could be played by a soprano xylophone by a more advanced student. Percussion instruments such as spoons or bones could be added to the arrangement as well playing a simple repeating rhythmic ostinato of a quarter followed by two eighth notes. Washboard could be added as well as a "bucket bass", etc. Be creative!
  • Combine your lyrics and instrumental arrangement in a performance for your classmates or school!

Extension Activities:

There are a variety of other instruments that have been included in Old Time Music. Consider listening to additional examples including the lap dulcimer: Kevin Roth Sings and Plays Dulcimer CD - Soldier's Joy and mandolin: Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. Other examples could also be found that include a variety of percussion instruments, wind instruments (the jug) and additional string instruments including string bass. Have your students do a research project listening their way through the extensive Old Time music collection at Folkways.

Cardboard kits for building lap dulcimers are also available. Students can build their own lap dulcimer and learn to play it.

Musicians from the community who play or sing Old Time music can be invited into the classroom to share their music and stories with the children.

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