Folk Music Unit Plan

My 8th graders start their school year learning about American Folk music for a lot of different reasons. It leads to country music which leads to rock and roll, so it’s the start of the pop music canon in this country and the melodies and accompaniments are easy to perform. It’s the perfect jump start to our pop music curriculum.

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The Slides presentations gives an overview of the basics of the style and historical key points. If you’re looking to truncate a few decades into one post, the playlist encompasses the progression of folk music to country and western in a few videos.


The first composition assignment I do with my students each year requires them only to write lyrics. It serves several purposes; it helps me get to know something about each one of my students while teaching them how to write lyrics on the staff and teaches them about song parodies, which were a very popular form of song writing in the U.S. prior to 1900. While my students that have come through our general music program are well-versed in writing music on a staff, they’ve never added lyrics.


I like to get everyone on the same page at the beginning of the year so we focus on two just chords with the baritone ukulele. (It would also work with the guitar if you’d prefer.) Folk music is known for simple accompaniments and it’s a great place to start brand new students. I use Tom Dooley because of the extreme simplicity. Returning students get to focus on technique while the new students learn the chords and everyone is playing something that sounds like an actual song. Giving them that success early helps prevent frustration from taking over.


If you’re looking to reinforce the concepts of pre-1900s folk music, a great way is to compare a traditional version of a song with a more polished version. I use the Kingston Trio’s number one hit from 1959 for the latter and have used a couple different performances for the former. The performance I use now is this performance on upright bass, guitar, and banjo. I like to highlight the differences in the performance more so than the lyrics (though it’s certainly a big part of folk music). We talk about what it means to be rehearsed vs. unrehearsed and what cues we get from the performers that inform us it’s not perfect and they are making changes on the spot. We also highlight the added and polished parts of the Kingston Trio version that differentiate it from a traditional performance. Using “Tom Dooley” reinforces our performance track but you could use a whole host of different songs if you desire.

Over the course of a couple classes, you can comprehensively teach folk music, basics on the guitar, how to write song lyrics, and assess listening responses all at the same time. Try it!

images (1) @MattWarrenMusic

Folk Music Unit Plan

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