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Decipher Freedom Songs

Students will analyze the lyrics of a Freedom Song to decipher its hidden meaning. They will provide historical evidence that supports the connections they see. They will discuss the impact Freedom Songs had on the Civil Rights Movement.

PROCESS:

  1. Inform students that songs have a long and important role in African American history. Slaves weren't allowed to read and write. So they expressed themselves through song. Often the words had a hidden meaning. It would have been dangerous for slaves to sing about their anger, resentment or desire to be free in a way their owners could understand. 
  2. Explain that sometimes songs were also used as codes. Harriet Tubman, for example, sang different songs to relay messages to runaway slaves as she ushered them along the Underground Railroad. One song meant it was safe to emerge from hiding. Another song told them that slave catchers were in the area and they should stay put.
  3. Remind the class that songs also played a big role in the protests for Civil Rights in the 1960s. Display Carl Benkert's recording "Freedom Songs: Selma Alabama" on the Smithsonian Folkways site. As a class, review the song titles. Encourage students to identify common themes in the title names.
  4. As a class, in small groups or with a partner, invite students to listen to one or more of the song tracks. If you wish, download and display the PDF "Linear Notes," which accompanies the track listing. Have students follow along with the text as they hear the songs play. Challenge students to decipher the meaning of each song they hear.

ASSESSMENT: 

Invite students to share their interpretations with the class. Encourage them to identify any hidden meanings they think the songs contain. Challenge them to provide historical evidence that supports the connections they see.

CUSTOMIZE THE LESSON:     

Grades 3-4:
Select one song for students to decipher. The song snippets on the Smithsonian Folkways site are brief. So you may wish to conduct research to find a longer version of the song and its lyrics. Read aloud the song title. Discuss what the title might mean. Then display the lyrics and play the song for the class. As a class, analyze the song and its lyrics. Challenge students to identify historical events that support their interpretations. Discuss reasons why the song was important during the Civil Rights Movement.

Grades 5-6:
Divide the class into small groups. Then assign one song from the Track Listing on the Smithsonian Folkways site to each group. Instruct groups to conduct research to find a longer version of their assigned songs and the lyrics. Give groups time to analyze their songs. Then challenge each group to explain what their song means. Challenge students to identify historical events that support their interpretations. Discuss reasons why each song was important during the Civil Rights Movement.

Grades 7-8:
Divide the class into pairs. Instruct each pair to select one song from the Track Listing on the Smithsonian Folkways site. Have partners conduct research to find a longer version of their songs and the lyrics. Give partners time to analyze their songs. Instruct them to explain how they felt when they heard the song and why they think the lyrics made them feel this way. Challenge them to identify any hidden meanings they think the song contains and to provide historical evidence that supports their opinions. Discuss the impact of songs like these during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Grades 9-10:
Divide the class into pairs. Instruct each pair to select one song from the Track Listing on the Smithsonian Folkways site. Have partners conduct research to find a longer version of their songs and the lyrics. Then give partners time to analyze their songs. Encourage them to explain what they think the song reveals about the composer and how the composer felt about his or her situation. Instruct them to identify specific lyrics in the song that they think may have hidden meanings. Challenge them to supply background knowledge that supports the connections they see. Compare and contrast the interpretations of pairs that studied the same song. As a class, discuss the impact songs like these had on the Civil Rights Movement.