Wendy A. Miller

Wendy A. Miller

Stripes Okinawa

Stearley Heights Elementary School on Kadena Air Base begins the celebration of African American contributions to our wonderful country’s rich history of music on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on the third Monday in January.  Students listen to excerpts of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech and discussions take place about why freedom songs were written during the 1960s.  Various freedom songs are sung by the students with emphasis on the chosen lyrics.

National African American/Black History Month continues into February with learning about spirituals and the impact these early American songs had on future musical styles.  Students are able to incorporate their classroom history studies with facts about how spirituals were derived and how these songs influenced gospel, jazz, blues, R&B, and hip-hop. Students are introduced to a variety of African instruments: conga drums, shakeres, and cowbells, to name a few.  We honor the many talented African American musicians who have provided us with listening, singing, and dancing enjoyment.

The Underground Railroad known as the freedom train inspired numerous songs that included key words for escape and movement to the North in the lyrics.  Follow the Drinking Gourd is an excellent example of how the big dipper was referred to as the drinking gourd to guide towards Northern freedom.  Many runaways traveled in the dark at night using the North Star to direct their escape.  The song includes other secret codes including quail calls, river bank road, and peg foot symbol.  The network of black, white and Native American abolitionists used these songs to convey messages.  Important African Americans included Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.  Students learn about these influential abolitionists and how the songs assisted in this journey of freedom.

Early rock ‘n roll music was influenced by gospel, jazz, and blues.  This music was sometimes referred to as soul music.  During the 50’s and 60’s, this style influenced the civil rights movement and provided emotional appeal for those working towards change.  Songs like You Send Me by Sam Cooke, Respect by Aretha Franklin, and Say It Loud. I’m Black and I’m Proud by James Brown sent positive statements for lessening racial tensions.

Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston provided extremely popular songs and brought in a new way of listening with Music Television Video (MTV).  Elementary students have heard these artists’ songs and enjoy singing them in class.  The technology advancements from the 80s to today have opened up a world of music through computers, not only for listening to the many styles and artists available but for creating original compositions as well.  The music classroom at Stearley Heights Elementary School incorporates discussions of historical influences and technology advancements for learning and appreciating various examples of instrumental and vocal songs.

The Ballad of the Underground Railroad
By Charles L. Blockson

This song is not a spiritual, but tells the story of the Underground Railroad through music. As the song traces the slaves’ flight to freedom, it refers to the spirituals the slaves used to communicate information on the Underground Railroad to each other. There are references to “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” , with its emphasis on following the North Star.

The Underground Train,
Strange as it seems,
Carried many passengers
And never was seen
It wasn’t made of wood,
It wasn’t made of steel;
A man-made train that
Ran without wheels.
The train was known
By many a name.
But the greatest of all
Was “The Freedom Train”
The Quakers, the Indians,
Gentiles and Jews,
Were some of the people
Who made up the crews.
Free Blacks and Christians
And Atheists, too,
Were the rest of the people
Who made up the crews.
Conductors and agents
Led the way at night,
Guiding the train
By the North Star Light.
The passengers were
The fugitive slaves
Running from slavery
And its evil ways.
Running from the whip
And the overseer,
From the slave block
And the Auctioneer.
They didn’t want their masters
To catch them again,
So men dressed as women
And the women dressed as men.

For more information about the songs used in the Underground Railroad and more visit the Owen Sound Web page “Songs of Freedom” at www.owensound.ca/live/songs-freedom

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