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.
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.
student will gain an appreciation for the role that picture books
play in preserving our traditional cultural heritage.
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").
The student will employ
critical thinking skills through discussion and writing.
The student will explore his
or her own ideas about the book
with TV and VCR or DVD
lab with Internet access; 1 station per 2 students
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 Database – Songcatcher – Summary http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0210299/plotsummary Accessed 04/11/2004). For more information on the film, see Internet
Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0210299/.)
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)
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 www.tombirdseye.com.
(Notes by Tina L. Hanlon)
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.
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.
Paulette Livers. Evening: An Appalachian Lullaby.
Illus. Paulette Lambert. New York:
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
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."
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.
resource: Holloway, Kimberley M., ed. From a Race of
Storytellers: Essays on The Ballad Novels of Sharyn McCrumb. Macon,
GA: Mercer University Press, 2003.
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.
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
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.
should also be made aware that folk songs, like folk tales, come from
the oral tradition, hence the variety of versions of the same
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.
Songcatcher -- Response Paper to novel
Breakdown" -- Response Paper
Protest Song Writers" -- Response Paper
of the Legends" by Sharyn McCrumb -- Response Paper
Liminal State of Franklin: Magic Realism in Appalachia" by
Sharyn McCrumb -- Response Paper
Reading McCrumb's The
should read these essays (all available from Sharyn
McCrumb's web site) before or along with their reading of the novel The
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
B. Lead discussion toward the unnamed man who collected the song
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.
Have students conduct Internet research on John Jacob
Niles. A good starting place is http://www.john-jacob-niles.com/media.htm.
Have students write a 1-2-page critical response comparing and
contrasting the fictionalized characters of the book and the real-life
Allow time for students to share responses during next class period.
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.
Tom and Debbie. She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain
Frazee, Marla. Hush, Little Baby: A
Folk Song with Pictures
Gray, Libba Moore. When Uncle Took the Fiddle
Lambert, Paulette Livers. Evening: An Appalachian
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
Have students read the following general introduction for Appalachian
folk songs: Christal Presley, "Appalachian
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
Read, Reflect, and Discuss
A. Have students read "Appalachian Breakdown."
B. Have students read "Appalachian
C. Allow time for students to share responses at the end of class.
Visiting Speaker(s)/performer(s) – Possibly one or more of your
students could perform!
Invite guest speaker(s)/musician(s) to discuss and play
Appalachian folk songs, especially ballads. (Students could also
listen to audio or digital recordings.)
Have students write a 1-2-page
reaction to the day's presentation.
time for students to share reactions
during next class period.
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.
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
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.
Screening Film Songcatcher (2 Class Days)
I. Begin screening film Songcatcher
Finish screening film Songcatcher
Discussion (see Suggested Questions below)
Questions for Discussion -- The Songcatcher
is the time period (year) during which this film takes place?
is Dr. Lily Penleric? What
is her background? What
is her goal in coming to the Appalachian mountains?
is Lily's sister? What
does she do?
is Tom Bledsoe? How
does he initially feel about Lily? Why? How do his
feelings for her change? Why?
"magic" is found in the mountains and people of Appalachia?
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 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
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
Allow time for students to
share research during next class period.
(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
of Sharon McCrumb" by Dr. Susan Wittig Albert.
C. Have students read "The
Liminal State of Franklin: Magic Realism in Appalachia" by
A. Discuss student responses to essays listed in I.
of Film and Novel (see Suggested Questions below).
students write a 2-3-page essay discussing
both the novel and the film for homework.
Questions for Discussion -- Sharyn McCrumb's Songcatcher
is the story told in the ballad "The Rowan Stave"?
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.
how the ballad itself changes as it is passed through generations.
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.
is Malcolm McCourry searching for? Explain. Does he find it? If so, where? Could he have found it anywhere else?
LeDonne is another character in the novel looking for something. What was LeDonne looking for? Did he find it or not? Explain.
the life of early Appalachian women: what they did, how they lived, what they faced, etc.
is a "cosmic possum"? Name
and briefly discuss three characters in the novel that are cosmic
reveal important character traits and historical roots in The
three characters, their names and any meanings associated with them,
as well as the importance of these associations.
Songcatcher is a form of historical fiction. Why is history important to the novel? Discuss the significance of two historical references in the
- Discuss at least three characters that exhibit paranormal
abilities. Use examples from the novel for each.
is Bonnie Wolf? Of what
importance is she to the novel? Whose life does Bonnie's parallel? Explain.
- 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
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?
is magic realism? How does McCrumb incorporate magic realism into The
Songcatcher? Provide examples from the novel to support your answer.
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."
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.
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."
does McCrumb combat the stereotypical "backwoods" view of the
Appalachian region presented in the media?
Questions for Discussion -- The Book and Movie
are the movie and McCrumb's novel The Songcatcher similar?
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
novel.). NOTE: Ask younger students to talk about
why they should study this book and film.
participation in class and group discussions and activities
completion of response papers (MLA format, typed)
completion of evaluative essays (MLA format, typed)
completion of research activities and projects (MLA format, typed)
of AppLit Pages by Genre: Music
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.
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.
Rex Stephenson. My
Travels with Cecil. Encore, 2002. A play about British
ballad collector Cecil Sharp's visit to Franklin County, Va. in 1918.