AppLit Lesson Plans

Unit Lesson Plan on 
The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb
Songcatcher directed by Maggie Greenwald

By Judy A. Teaford 
Mountain State University
Beckley, WV


It is a most fortunate coincidence that Sharyn McCrumb's novel The Songcatcher and director Maggie Greenwald's Songcatcher came out within a year of each other. Both the novel and film are excellent! I knew that I could use the two together to help my college students learn more about their Appalachian heritage, about folk songs, about literature and film, about life.  The class in which I chose to share these two works was my Fall 2003  Humanities 100 class. It was an extremely successful unit. Students were appreciative, learned about their heritage, and had a great deal of fun while doing so. My non-Appalachian students were equally impressed, learning about Appalachia and contributing stories from their own unique backgrounds that were often very similar to those of the people in the novel and the film. It was a truly universal experience for all.

Grade Levels:  10-College

Subjects: Literature, Film, Folk Music, History

Time Frame: Public School: Approximately fifteen class periods (45 minutes each) or eight to ten block classes (1 hour and 30 minutes each). College: Eight to ten classes, including two for viewing the film (1 hour and 15 minutes each) – Approximate times – Times indicated after Procedures are for public school block classes and college classes.

Learner Outcomes: 

  1. The student will gain an appreciation for the role that picture books play in preserving our traditional cultural heritage.

  2. The student will use the Internet to locate movie reviews and critical essays and to conduct general research pertaining to Appalachian folk music, folk music history, and folk music collectors ("songcatchers").

  3. The student will employ critical thinking skills through discussion and writing.

  4. The student will explore his or her own ideas about the book and movie.


  • Classroom with TV and VCR or DVD

  • Computer lab with Internet access; 1 station per 2 students

  • Following film and texts: 
  • Songcatcher. Dir. Maggie Greenwald. 2000. 109 minutes. (Filmed in Asheville, NC.) Not based on McCrumb's novel. Summary: "After being denied a promotion at the university where she teaches, Doctor Lily Penleric, a brilliant musicologist, impulsively visits her sister, who runs a struggling rural school in Appalachia. There she stumbles upon the discovery of her life–a treasure trove of ancient Scots-Irish ballads, songs that have been handed down from generation to generation, preserved intact by the seclusion of the mountains. With the goal of securing her promotion, Lily ventures into the most isolated areas of the mountains to collect the songs and finds herself increasingly enchanted–not only by the rugged purity of the music, but also by the raw courage and endurance of the local people as they carve out meaningful lives against the harshest conditions. It is not, however, until she meets Tom–a handsome, hardened war veteran and talented musician–that she's forced to examine her motivations. Is the 'Songcatcher,' as Tom insists, no better than the men who exploit the people and extort their land?" (Internet Movie DatabaseSongcatcher – Summary Accessed 04/11/2004). For more information on the film, see Internet Movie Database
  • McCrumb, Sharyn. The Songcatcher. New York: Dutton, 2001. Sixth in McCrumb's Ballad series. A successful modern folk singer, Lark McCourry, traces the history of a song that was passed down through generations of her family until she learned it from her North Carolina relatives as a child. The story of young Malcolm MacQuarry, who was kidnapped in eighteenth-century Scotland and brought to America, is based on McCrumb's ancestor. The British ballad collector Cecil Sharp is part of the story in the early twentieth century. (Notes by Tina L. Hanlon)
  • Birdseye, Tom and Debbie. She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain. Illus. Andrew Glass. New York: Holiday House, 1994. When Birdseye's family sang this folk song during a visit from his daughter's playmate, they got the idea that it is about old friends getting together. The comical illustrations for this combination of song lyrics and story depict Tootie arriving to visit the Sweet family. Birdseye's version of the song with music and his new lyrics about Tootie are given after the story. More background and two illustrations at (Notes by Tina L. Hanlon)
  • Frazee, Marla. Hush, Little Baby: A Folk Song with Pictures. Illus. Marla Frazee.New York: Harcourt, 1999. A traditional lullaby illustrated with images from the Appalachian mountains.
  • Gray, Libba Moore. When Uncle Took the Fiddle. Illus. Lloyd Bloom. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. The entire family is tired, even the dog. But when Uncle starts playing a tune, the others join in. Soon there is dancing and company. Folks down the hollow hear the music and come to join the jubilation. 
  • Lambert, Paulette Livers. Evening: An Appalachian Lullaby. Illus. Paulette Lambert. New York: Rinehart, 1995. Two young boys are lulled to sleep by the sounds of the Appalachian night and their father's fiddling. This story is based on a traditional Kentucky lullaby in which a father tries to persuade his two small sons to come in from the wilderness.
  • Swain, Gwenyth. I Wonder as I Wander. Illus. Ronald Himler. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2003. In this fictional work, Swain tells a story of young Annie, a motherless child, who travels with her preacher father throughout the Appalachian region of North Carolina. As he preaches, Annie wonders about the death of her mother during a time of beauty and new life. The story begins in spring and continues through winter. That winter, while her father preaches on the courthouse square in Murphy, North Carolina, a man asks Annie to sing her song, offering her twenty-five cents each time she sings it for him. He scribbles away on a piece of paper while Annie sings. In the Author's Note, Swain remarks, "Of all the folksongs collected and recorded by John Jacob Niles, none is as haunting and beautiful as the Appalachian tune 'I Wonder as I Wander.'" Niles collected three lines of this song in 1933 in Murphy, North Carolina, from a young girl by the name of Annie Morgan. He completed the song himself. The book also contains the music and verses for the song, "I Wonder as I Wander."
  • Raschka, Chris. Simple Gifts: A Shaker Hymn. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. "Pete Seeger sang this old Shaker tune as part of his folk song revival in the 1950s and '60s. At the same time, a journalist named Sydney Carter, who had made a name for himself singing religious protest songs, put new words to the tune, which then became popular as 'Lord of the Dance.'  The tune itself was labelled [sic] a 'Quick Dance' in several Quaker manuscripts of the 1840s. Aaron Copland, the American 20th-century composer, especially renowned for his music for the ballet, found the tune in a book about Shakers and used it as a theme for variations in the seventh section of his Appalachian Spring. This was a ballet that portrayed pioneer life in Pennsylvania and was first danced in 1944 and subsequently won both a Pulitzer and a New York Music Critics' Award the following year" (Access the Second Grade Lesson Plan for additional information and the words to "Lord of the Dance"). NOTE:  While Pennsylvania is not part of southern Appalachia (and not used in this specific Lesson Plan), I have included it for those who might wish to expand this Lesson to include other parts of Appalachia.

Teacher's Notes:

Excellent resource: Holloway, Kimberley M., ed. From a Race of Storytellers: Essays on The Ballad Novels of Sharyn McCrumb. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003. 

Most students should be familiar with the elements of a novel and have competent knowledge of film techniques based on their history of viewing films. Most students should also have a general familiarity with Appalachian culture. 

Defining the term folklore is a complex task, still very much debated in the scholarly community. This debate should be shared with the students. However, students also need some basis from which to work. I recommend a simple dictionary definition: "Folklore: the traditional beliefs, legends, customs, etc., of a people, tribe, etc." A folklorist, then, is an expert in the study of folklore. Folk music is music originating and handed down among the common people" (From Scott. Foresman Advanced Dictionary by E. L. Thorndike and Clarence L. Barnhart. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1988). 

Ballad is another term that students need to understand. See Ballad (Univ. Penn.) for a good discussion of the term. Dr. Susan Wittig Albert's "The Art of Sharyn McCrumb" (which students will be reading at the end of this unit) provides an interesting analysis of She Walks These Hills by comparing the structure of a ballad to the structure of McCrumb's Ballad Series.

Students should also be made aware that folk songs, like folk tales, come from the oral tradition, hence the variety of versions of the same song. 

A version of this Unit Lesson Plan was first used at Mountain State University, Beckley, West Virginia, in my Fall 2003 Humanities 100 class. The following student responses to the novel and essays from the Internet may be added here later.

  • The Songcatcher -- Response Paper to novel

  • "Appalachian Breakdown" -- Response Paper

  • "Appalachian Protest Song Writers" -- Response Paper

  • "Keepers of the Legends" by Sharyn McCrumb -- Response Paper

  • "The Liminal State of Franklin:  Magic Realism in Appalachia" by Sharyn McCrumb -- Response Paper

Procedure: Reading McCrumb's The Songcatcher

Students should read these essays (all available from Sharyn McCrumb's web site) before or along with their reading of the novel The Songcatcher

Procedures: Introduction to Folk Songs (2 Class Days and Homework)

I.  Teacher-Led Introduction

       A.  Read aloud to students the picture book I Wonder as I Wander.

       B.  Lead discussion toward the unnamed man who collected the song from Annie.

       C.  Ask students if they are familiar with folklorists (see above notes). Explain that folklorists also collect songs and are sometimes called songcatchers.

       D.  Read Author's Note on the song at beginning of the book.

       E.  Continue discussion.

 II.  Homework

  1. Have students conduct Internet research on John Jacob Niles. A good starting place is  

  2. Have students write a 1-2-page critical response comparing and contrasting the fictionalized characters of the book and the real-life characters.

  3. Allow time for students to share responses during next class period.

III.  Homework

A. Put the following picture books on reserve for students to read and critique (2-3-page response that includes all titles). Ask students to discuss what they learned from these books about how folk music is passed through families and communities.

  1. Birdseye, Tom and Debbie. She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain

  2. Frazee, Marla. Hush, Little Baby: A Folk Song with Pictures

  3. Gray, Libba Moore. When Uncle Took the Fiddle

  4. Lambert, Paulette Livers. Evening: An Appalachian Lullaby

B. Allow time for students to share critiques during next class period.  

Procedures: Background on Appalachian Folk Songs (2-3 Class Days and Homework)

  I.  Read, Reflect, and Discuss

  1. Have students read the following general introduction for Appalachian folk songs: Christal Presley, "Appalachian Folk Songs."

  2. Discuss Presley's essay. This is the perfect time to find out what your students know about folk songs in general and Appalachian folk songs specifically. Ask whether any students are singers or musicians, or whether their families have a tradition of sharing and performing folk music. 

 II.  Read, Reflect, and Discuss

      A.  Have students read "Appalachian Breakdown."

      B.  Have students read "Appalachian Protest Songwriters."

      C.  Allow time for students to share responses at the end of class.

III.  Visiting Speaker(s)/performer(s) – Possibly one or more of your students could perform!

  1.  Invite guest speaker(s)/musician(s) to discuss and play Appalachian folk songs, especially ballads. (Students could also listen to audio or digital recordings.) 

  2. Have students write a 1-2-page reaction to the day's presentation.

  3. Allow time for students to share reactions during next class period.

Research Assignment: (Homework) 

Have students research the history on one of the following traditional folk songs. These songs are taken from the soundtrack Songcatcher, from the Ballad Series by Sharyn McCrumb,and from AppLit resources. Students should also locate and listen to several versions of the song. Ask students to write a 2-3-page essay comparing the different versions of the same ballad. Students should also include a personal critique of the music.

  • Songcatcher soundtrack 

"Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies" -- "Conversation with Death" -- "Down in a Willow Garden"-- "Johnnie Scot" -- "Leather Breeches" -- "Lord Randall" -- "Lord Thomas & Fair Ellinor" -- "Mattby Groves" -- "Old Joe Clark" -- "Pretty Saro" -- "Sally Goodin" -- "Silk Merchant's Daughter" -- "Single Girl" -- "Soldier's Joy" -- "The Trooper and the Maid" -- "The Two Sisters" -- "Young Hunting" -- "Barbara Allen"

Songcatcher II: The Tradition that Inspired the Movie (Santa Monica, CA: Vanguard Records, 2002) is a CD with older versions of folk songs, and no modern songs like the movie soundtrack.

Internet Resources:

Procedures:  Screening Film Songcatcher (2 Class Days) 

  I.  Begin screening film Songcatcher 

 II.  Finish screening film Songcatcher 

III.  Discussion (see Suggested Questions below)

Suggested Questions for Discussion -- The Songcatcher

  1. What is the time period (year) during which this film takes place?

  2. Who is Dr. Lily Penleric?  What is her background?  What is her goal in coming to the Appalachian mountains?

  3. Who is Lily's sister?  What does she do?

  4. Who is Tom Bledsoe?  How does he initially feel about Lily?  Why?  How do his feelings for her change?  Why?

  5. What "magic" is found in the mountains and people of Appalachia? 

  6. What struggles do the mountain people live with?  Provide specific examples from the film. Does this information provide added insight into the characters' behavior? Explain.   

Research Project (Homework): 

  • Research three prominent historical events in McCrumb's novel The Songcatcher.  You must have at least two sources for each historical event.  (You may not use any of the sources/handouts provided to you by your instructor.)

  • Write a two-to-three-page critical paper on your findings.

  • Indicate whether or not your findings are the same as those discussed in the novel by using short quotes from your sources.  (Be sure to document internally–within the text of the paper–and provide a Works Cited page.)

  • Explain why these historical events are important to the novel.  How do they help develop character(s), move plot(s) forward, contribute to the overall theme(s) of the novel, etc.

  • Close the essay by discussing your personal opinion of the use of historically accurate information in novels in general and in McCrumb's novel The Songcatcher specifically.

  • Allow time for students to share research during next class period.

Procedures (2-3 Class Days and Homework):

  I.  Upon completion of the novel, read and write a response for each:  Homework

       A.  Have students read "A Novelist Looks at the Land."

       B.  Have students read "The Art of Sharon McCrumb" by Dr. Susan Wittig Albert.

       C.  Have students read "The Liminal State of Franklin: Magic Realism in Appalachia" by Sharyn McCrumb.

 II.  Discussion/Essay

      A.  Discuss student responses to essays listed in I.

      B.  Discussion/Comparison of Film and Novel (see Suggested Questions below).

      B.  Have students write a 2-3-page essay discussing both the novel and the film for homework. 

Suggested Questions for Discussion -- Sharyn McCrumb's Songcatcher

  1. What is the story told in the ballad "The Rowan Stave"?

  2. How do the lives of some of the characters in McCrumb's novel reflect the meaning of the ballad "The Rowan Stave"? Use examples to support your answer.  

  3. Analyze how the ballad itself changes as it is passed through generations.

  4. Explain the prophecy that was given to Malcolm's parents at his birth, his mother's solution (and its eventual end), and the midwife's response to his mother's actions. 

  5. What is Malcolm McCourry searching for? Explain. Does he find it? If so, where? Could he have found it anywhere else?

  6. Joe LeDonne is another character in the novel looking for something. What was LeDonne looking for? Did he find it or not? Explain.

  7. Discuss the life of early Appalachian women:  what they did, how they lived, what they faced, etc.

  8. What is a "cosmic possum"?  Name and briefly discuss three characters in the novel that are cosmic possums.

  9. Names reveal important character traits and historical roots in The Songcatcher. Discuss three characters, their names and any meanings associated with them, as well as the importance of these associations.

  10. The Songcatcher is a form of historical fiction. Why is history important to the novel? Discuss the significance of two historical references in the novel.

  11. Discuss at least three characters that exhibit paranormal abilities. Use examples from the novel for each.

  12. Who is Bonnie Wolf?  Of what importance is she to the novel? Whose life does Bonnie's parallel? Explain.

  13. What do we learn about the attitudes of the late nineteenth century (1882) from Zeb McCourry? How does Zeb handle his unique situation at the Cloudland Hotel? Does he handle it well? How is his handling of this situation typical of Appalachians? Who teaches him a lesson about dealing with this kind of situation, and why is it unusual to have this lesson from this person?

  14. Whom did Sheriff Spencer Arrowood go to for help in the case of the three-year-old murder of Carrie Rose Howell? Why? What was the final outcome?

  15. What is magic realism?  How does McCrumb incorporate magic realism into The Songcatcher? Provide examples from the novel to support your answer.

  16. Explain the significance of the following quotation to one or more of the major themes of the novel. Baird talking to Eeyore: "Oh, this country is more than pretty. It's elemental. You know, a hiker from Queensland once told me that the aborigine people of Australia believe that their ancestors sang the world into being, and that there are special song paths that those first people took while they were doing it. Singing up the world from out of nothingness. That hiker said he thought this trail [Appalachian] was one of them. That wouldn't surprise me at all. If this was one of the creation roads. A song path."

  17. Explain the significance of the following quotation to one or more of the major themes of the novel. Malcolm McCourry 1974: "Lately I have come to feel that I have lived all my life among strangers, never belonging, and never knowing what is expected of me. I have managed well enough here, I suppose. A quarter of a century has passed since I left my ship and came to settle in a New Jersey village. I have a profession and a respected position in the church. I married well. I did all the things that one must do to be counted successful in this world, and yet I feel and emptiness. "

  18. Explain the significance of the following quotation to one or more of the major themes of the novel. Anne McNeill asks Baird: "Did you come back to the mountains in search of a simpler life?" Baird's response: He laughed, "Simpler? When I lived in Manhattan I had no car; I ate out all the time; the building, maintenance people took care of all the repairs; and I had the luxury of ignoring ninety-nine percent of all the people I met every day, knowing that they neither knew nor cared who I was, and that my life did not intertwine with theirs in any way. That was the simple life. Living in a village is hard."

  19. How does McCrumb combat the stereotypical "backwoods" view of the Appalachian region presented in the media?  

Suggested Questions for Discussion -- The Book and Movie

  1. How are the movie and McCrumb's novel The Songcatcher similar?

  2. You have just been hired as an associate professor at a state college. You have been assigned to teach Humanities 100. You have chosen to teach Sharon McCrumb's novel The Songcatcher along with the film Songcatcher. Justify your decision. (Explain why you have chosen an Appalachian novel and why you are choosing to show the film in connection with the novel.  How will one enhance the understanding, etc. of the other? What are the benefits for the students? Keep in mind that the film is not based on McCrumb's novel.). NOTE: Ask younger students to talk about why they should study this book and film. 


  • Active participation in class and group discussions and activities

  • Successful completion of response papers (MLA format, typed)

  • Successful completion of evaluative essays (MLA format, typed) 

  • Successful completion of research activities and projects (MLA format, typed) 

Additional AppLit Resources: 

Index of AppLit Pages by Genre: Music

Also see:

Books by May Justus for Children and Young Adults by Tina L. Hanlon. Most of Justus' books contain some element of folk music. This comprehensive bibliography provides detailed annotations. Justus wrote several stories about songcatchers collecting music in the eastern Tennessee mountains, including a 1940 novel Mr. Songcatcher and Company and her picture book Sammy. See an illustration of a songcatcher from a Justus book on AppLit page Foolish Jack/Swapping Song.

Hamilton, Virginia. M. C. Higgins, the Great. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1974. This book is set in the hill country in eastern Ohio. Hamilton depicts a young boy's fears of living under the shadow of the refuse of the coal mining industry with its slag heaps, sludge, acidic run-off, and mountaintop removal.  M. C. hopes that a folk song collector will make his mother famous but the collector convinces him that the outside commercial world would spoil his mother and her beautiful singing. See more on this book in Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia! Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature and Folklore in Books by Virginia Hamilton.

Madden, Kerry. Gentle's Holler. New York: Viking, 2005. A novel focusing on one girl in a large family in Maggie Valley, NC at the beginning of the 1960s. See the author's fascinating web site, with music to accompany the songs that the protagonist makes up for herself. The girl called Livy Two tells about her family's varied joys and troubles, including her father's song writing and struggles to get jobs in the music business and her experience singing at a folk festival. In the sequel Louisiana's Song. (Viking, 2007), set in 1963, the Weems family struggles to cope with the father's long recuperation from an injury. The narrator Livy Two continues to write songs about her experiences, including a song about her shy, artistically talented, tall sister Louise (Louisiana). The family's efforts to make ends meet include Livy's attempts to sell songs written by her father and herself. Jessie's Mountain. (Viking, 2008) is the third novel in the trilogy.

R Rex Stephenson. My Travels with Cecil. Encore, 2002. A play about British ballad collector Cecil Sharp's visit to Franklin County, Va. in 1918.

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