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Work Songs of Enslaved African Americans


Work songs played a vital part in the lives of enslaved African Americans and continue to influence African American musical traditions to the present day. Although captive Africans brought very little material evidence of their cultures to America, historians agree that these African musical traditions help them maintain their cultural identity and memory in America. New music was created to represent their new experiences as a slave in a new world and was the foundation for the creation of a new African American cultural tradition. The songs provide insight into the daily realities of slave life, with lyrics, melodies, and rhythms reflecting death, the master's whip, their lack of food, and the rhythm and pace of exhausting field work. Some songs were satirical contained innuendo and double and hidden meanings. Music such as this offered a means of cultural resistance to the institution of slavery.

In this lesson, students learn about and journal on enslaved African American work songs, and then analyze the lyrics and structure of the work song "Shuck That Corn Before You Eat."


In this lesson, students:

  • Write an interactive notebook entry predicting why slaves would use work songs as they labored.
  • Read a short description of the historical importance of African American work songs and the importance of this music.
  • Write a short reflection, using the notes from the guided reading activity, on the importance of work songs in relation to survival, morale, regulating the pace of their labors, and entertainment.
  • Analyze the lyrics and structure of the slave work song "Shuck That Corn Before You Eat."



  1. Ask the class if they know what a 'work song' is and what purpose it may have. To stimulate this discussion, remind the students of "The Clean Up Song," which was popularized by Barney and they may have sung in grades K-2, repeating until the chore is complete:
    Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere,
    Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.
  2. Provide each student with the template for the Interactive Notebook entry. For the "In" portion, begin the discussion of the term "work song" by asking students to brainstorm ideas for why slaves would use work songs as they labored.
  3. After a brief discussion of their ideas, students should read the selection "Reading: Works Songs of Enslaved African Americans." Explain to students that some of the language in the readings is historical, for instance Booker T. Washington using the word "Negroes" to mean African Americans. Either working independently or with a reading partner, students should make notes on the reading in the 'Through' portion of the template on the purposes of work songs for enslaved African Americans.
  4. Discuss briefly the class' ideas generated from the reading.
  5. Provide each student with the lyrics to the song "Shuck That Corn Before You Eat." Define the word "shuck" to the class. (Shuck is an older term for husking—removing the papery outer shell from ears of corn.)
  6. Individually or with their partner, students should make notes on the message of the song. Ask students, "Why do you think the song would inspire the slaves to work hard?" Note to teacher: this song provides the message that slaves who work hard at harvest are rewarded with special treats and privileges for their efforts. This was intended to raise morale and productivity.
  7. Discuss briefly ideas generated by the students from reading the song. You may wish to write student responses on the board.
  8. For the culminating activity, students are to write a reflection or question about what they have learned about African American work songs.

Lesson Extensions

  • From links in the featured article, play some or all of the work songs for the students. Compare the lyrics to the notes students previously completed in their interactive notebooks.
  • Music from enslaved African Americans provided the basis for development of distinctive African American musical expression in jazz, blues, and spirituals. Investigate how these contemporary musical forms are based on early African American musical expression.
  • Early African American music traditions included much more than work songs. Investigate how African American music played a significant cultural role in community, celebrations, religious practice, and ceremonies.
  • Read excerpts from interviews of former slaves who, from their memories of slave days, describe the situations in which they would sing work songs. (When using these transcripts, please note that the language is appropriate to the era and may be offensive to modern readers.)

This lesson was written by Shawn Cunlisk, Vancouver, WA, and Bill Neer, Baldwinsville, NY.