Dyan Branstetter | February 2016

Music and the Underground Railroad

How did music play a part in the Underground Railroad? How did slaves express forbidden feelings and desires such as anger, resentment, or a longing for freedom?

These are the essential questions explored in this short unit, which was taught in collaboration with the music teacher in my school. Our goal was to try and integrate the arts into the regular classroom setting, and through a guided reading book we settled on the subject: The Underground Railroad. This lesson can be taught exclusively in language arts, or in music class. The Underground Railroad is such an important piece of our history, and who could have guessed music was such a huge part of it. I cannot even imagine teaching it without.


Session 1: (Taught as a joint lesson with both teachers)

  1. Activate prior knowledge of the Underground Railroad with a quick review discussion.
  2. Introduce the lyrics to the song Harriet Tubman, by Walter Robinson (Lyrics:https://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/~/media/ArtsEdge/LessonPrintables/grade-3-4/harriet_tubman_song_lyrics4.ashx)
  3. Teach the song “Harriet Tubman”
  4. Have students perform the song.

Session 2: (During music class)

  1. Learn the lyrics and music to 4 spirituals.
  2. Perform each spiritual.
  3. Listen to an authentic example of each spiritual.

Session 3: (During Language Arts class)

Show students a list of the following words:

  • Freedom train
  • Gospel train
  • Conductor
  • Station
  • Station master
  • Agent
  1. Review by listening to each spiritual again while reading the lyrics.
  2. Have students brainstorm to decide what the words have in common. (What does the Underground Railroad have to do with trains???)
  3. Explain that many words used during communication of slaves were codes, used so that the slave masters would not understand their plan for escape. Slaves were not allowed to talk, but they were allowed to sing, so they did a lot of communicating through song.
  4. Break the students into 4 groups. Give each group the lyrics to one of the spirituals and one recording sheet. Groups should discuss the lyrics, and decide what words might be code, and what secret message the song may have.
  5. Collect lyrics and recording sheets for discussion during the next session.

Session 4: (During Language Arts class)

  1. Have students return to their group from the previous session. Distribute lyrics and recording sheets again.
  2. Have each group review what they discussed during the last session.
  3. Have each group share the code words/hidden messages they found.
  4. Play the recording of that spiritual for the class. Discuss the music, and decide if/how it helped get the message across. Did listening change that groups ideas?
  5. Repeat this procedure for the 3 other groups.

Extension: Students can write coded messages and include interpretation. In addition, students could look at primary documents related to songs of slavery. Find an additional unit plan here, where our essential question and lesson outline originated: http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/2920.


Find a printable lesson plan and student recording sheets here:

Music and The Underground Railroad

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.