Fifth Grade - Music - Lesson 13 - "Darktown Strutters' Ball"


Recall the history of jazz and blues among African American musicians.

Identify the teens and twenties in this century as "the jazz era" in American music.

Sing the chorus from "Darktown Strutters' Ball" by Shelton Brooks.

Observe that segregation was widely practiced between black and white entertainment worlds.


Copy of Shelton Brooks, "Darktown Strutters' Ball" for transparency (attached)

Words to Shelton Brooks, "Darktown Strutters' Ball for chart or transparency (attached)

Suggested Book

Student Titles

Silverman, Jerry. Just Listen to This Song I'm Singing: African-American History Through Song. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1996.

Information about "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" and a good piano-vocal version with guitar chords are on pp. 79 through 85.

Background for the Teacher

Shelton Brooks was one of the African Americans born in the late 19th century in Canada which was the northern end of the Underground Railroad. He was born in 1886 in Amesburg, Ontario, but his family moved to Detroit when Shelton was 15, and the remainder of his life was spent in the United States. He began his career playing ragtime piano in cafés in Cleveland and also began writing songs. In 1910 one of them, called "Some of These Days" became a great favorite of Sophie Tucker, a star of American musical theater. She popularized the song, which was then published by an African American-owned firm in Chicago.

Brooks began performing in all-black musical shows, in Chicago and New York, and he toured Europe with a vaudeville group known as Lew Leslie's Blackbirds that gave a command performance in England for King George V. In additional to songs that became immensely popular as they were sung in various big-city nightclubs in America, Brooks wrote some instrumental numbers and sometimes performed as a trap drummer. His 1916 instrumental number, which he named "Walkin' the Dog" inspired a dance of the same name in Manhattan that soon spread to the rest of the country.

Brooks's most famous song is "Darktown Strutters' Ball," written in 1917. It was eventually recorded as a "race record," which--like the many musicals Brooks appeared in--was a euphemistic way of referring to all-black music and music companies. Nevertheless, "Darktown Strutters' Ball" was an enthusiastic recounting of the fun that was to be had at fancy dress balls in "Darktown" when people got dressed in their very best clothes and participated in fancy dances like "Walkin' the Dog" and listened to lively renditions of the "Jelly Roll Blues." Brooks's song crossed racial lines to become an enormous hit in both black and white communities and has remained a classic from that era.


Review with the students the origins and early days of jazz in the United States, starting among African Americans in New Orleans and spreading to big cities such as Chicago, Kansas City, and New York (from Music Lessons 11 and 12).

Tell the students that the name of the song whose chorus they will learn today is part of what is usually called "the jazz era" in the United States, which means during the teens and twenties of the 20th century. The name of the song is "Darktown Strutters' Ball." If they need help with strutter, tell them that people marching in a parade often strut, which describes a kind of exagerrated walking and being proud to be doing it and knowing people are watching, enjoying the costumes and sounds. Ask whether they can guess what Darktown refers to. (They should understand that areas of big cities were labeled according to their populations, such as Germantown and Chinatown, etc. and that life--even in the North--was hightly segregated, if not by law at least by practice. Musicals had either all-white or all-black casts. Even bands were sometimes segregated according to color.) Tell the students some biographical information about Shelton Brooks and then have them read the words to the whole song he wrote in 1917.

1. I've got some good news, honey,

An invitation to the Darktown Ball,

It's a very swell affair,

'Highbrows' will be there.

I'll wear my high silk hat and a frocktail coat,

You wear your Paris gown, and your new silk shawl.

There ain't no doubt about it, babe,

We'll be the best dressed in the hall.


I'll be down to get you in a taxi, honey,

You better be ready about half past eight.

Now dearie, don't be late,

I want to be there when the band starts playing.

Remember when we get there, honey,

The two-steps, I'm goin' to have them all;

Goin' to dance out both my shoes,

When they play the 'Jelly-Roll Blues,'

Tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutters' Ball.

2. We'll meet our high-toned neighbors,

An exhibition of the 'Baby Dolls,'

And each one will do their best,

Just to outclass all the rest.

And there'll be dancers from ev'ry foreign land,

The classic, buck and wing, and the wooden clog.

We'll win that fifty dollar prize,

When we step out and 'Walk the Dog.'

Chorus repeats

When they have heard both verses of words, give the students a chance to respond and explain any words or phrases with special meanings from "the jazz era," such as highbrows, frocktail coat, Paris gown, two-steps, Jelly-Roll Blues, high-toned, ("uppity") Baby Dolls, buck and wing, and Walk the Dog (the last two are dance steps).

Teach them the chorus, using the transparency so they can see how all the bouncy, dance rhythms and syncopations are notated. Teach it to them line by line. When they have learned it, have them stand and clap a steady beat as they sing it. Ask whether any students want to try strutting to the chorus while the rest of you sing, just to see how danceable the tune is.

Fifth Grade - Music - Lesson 14 - Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition

Note to the Teacher : Pictures at an Exhibition is also recorded as a solo piano piece, but the Core Knowledge Sequence stipulates that the students hear the piece as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922.


Listen to sections from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Identify the walking rhythm in the piece.

Create a picture for one section of the piece.


Classroom-size map of the world

Recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by Ravel), see Suggested Recording

Paper and colored pencils or markers for each student

Suggested Recording

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel), Naxos CD 8.551172 (also available as cassette)

A great performance of the original piano version, played by Sviatislav Richter, is on Praga CD, PR254034.

Background for Teacher

Modeste [mo DEST] Petrovitch [pe TRO vich] Mussorgsky [mu ZORK skee], the great Russian composer, has received relatively little attention from English-speaking biographers and none that we can find for youngsters; nevertheless, his Pictures at an Exhibition is enormously popular, and there are several dozen recordings available of orchestrated versions alone, plus many of the piano version Mussorgsky originally wrote in 1874. Aside from pieces that tell a story with actual narration, such as Peter and the Wolf, there may be no other music so specifically designed to give visual images a musical setting. The occasion and inspiration for Mussorgsky's piece was a posthumous exhibition held in St. Petersburg of the drawings, paintings, and sketches of his friend Victor Hartmann, who had died in 1873 at the age of 39. Even the names of the ten individual pieces of music within the work are those of Hartmann's paintings, with an introduction that Mussorgsky simply calls "Promenade," which is a kind of self-portrait of the composer walking back and forth, then stopping to look more closely at particular paintings.

Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, Russia, in 1839, was early enrolled in and graduated from a military academy. After a very brief stint as an officer, he decided to leave the military life altogether in favor of music. He befriended the Russian nationalist composers Borodin and Balakirev, who encouraged him in composition. Very much influenced in his melodies by Russian folk song and in the realism of Russian as a spoken language, he also loved the dense harmonies of Russian church music. He wrote a great number of song settings for Russian texts. Perhaps his most famous work is the opera Boris Goudunov, whose coronation scene resounds with bells ringing at the coronation of Boris. Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was not well known outside of Russia as a piano solo. Its real popularity came with its orchestral transcriptions--especially that of Ravel for a 1923 Koussevitsky concert in Paris. Mussorgsky died in St. Petersburg in 1881.


Tell the students that the music they will listen to today comes from a country whose geography and early history they studied in January (Geography Lesson 12; History Lesson 20 and Lesson 21). It was always looking for ways to end its land-locked isolation by expanding its frontiers towards bodies of water that would connect it to centers of commerce and civilization. Ask them: What country is that? (Russia--have someone locate it on the world map) Say to them: You did hear one piece of music by a Russian composer who wrote a piece specifically for young people that told a story with instruments representing the characters in the story--a flute for the bird, an oboe for the duck, a clarinet for the cat, a bassoon for the grandfather, horns for the wolf, the strings for the young boy who is the hero of the tale. Even the hunters' guns are represented by instruments--timpani and bass drum . Does anyone remember the name of that piece and its composer? (Peter and the Wolf--Sergei Prokofiev) Prokofiev wrote his music in modern times, in the twentieth century, when Russia was no longer so isolated from its European neighbors. It wasn't until the late 19th century that Russian composers began writing music that crossed their borders and was played by orchestras and soloists in other countries.

Tell the students that the piece of music they will hear today is called Pictures at an Exhibition. (Write the name on the board.) It was written by a 19th-century Russian composer named Mussorgsky. (Write his full name on the board plus its phonetic spelling.) Play the opening section (2 minutes) and ask the students: What do you think is going on here? What does the music tell you is happening? (The composer is walking through the exhibition.) If the students don't hear it, play the music again and stroll around in front of them, keeping pace with the music. Congratulate those who have guessed correctly. Tell them the first section of the piece is called "Promenade" and write it on the board. Say to them: There is a French verb promener which means "to take for a walk." It is a little more than walking, because it has the idea of walking in a public place, like a boardwalk at a beach, or a dance hall, or a museum, a kind of very deliberate stroll in a place where other people are also walking and you need to measure your steps so as not to bump into them.

Play the opening once more and have the students promenade around as they hear it, to suggest why the tempo is so leisurely. Then say to them: You listened to that other Russian piece, Peter and the Wolf. Now who remembers what happened? (Encourage them to tell the story collectively.) How did you find out what happened in Peter and the Wolf? (There was a narrator. Someone told the story in words.)

Tell the students that in this piece of music the composer tells us what he is looking at, what it looks like, all without any words at all, and we have to imagine what he might be seeing. The title of the piece gives us a clue to start with. What was the title? (Pictures at an Exhibition) Tell them that the Russian composer, whose full name is Modest Petrovitch Mussorgsky (write it on the board) had a friend who was a visual artist. The friend, whose name was Victor Hartmann, died when he was only 39 years old, leaving sketches of costumes for plays that he designed, architectural drawings of buildings, watercolors and other paintings of all kinds of wonderful things--some of them scary and some of them very funny.

Say to them: A year after Mussorgsky's friend died, in 1837, there was an exhibition in St. Petersburg (have someone show it on the map) of all the works he had left behind. Mussorgsky was so inspired by seeing all of them that he immediately began thinking of the music, even as he was walking around the exhibition hall. He chose ten different paintings of his friend Hartmann, and he wrote a section about each one of them, with the music of the "Promenade" in between, so we can nearly see Mussorgsky strolling around, back and forth, stopping first at this painting and then another. One painting is of children playing in some very famous formal gardens; another of a very old fashioned farmer's cart drawn by some clumsy oxen, plodding along; another is about women at an outdoor markets, selling crops they have grown and arguing about the prices they should charge. Still another painting is very scary, about the Roman catacombs where the early Christians hid and held their services in secret from the Roman authorities.

Tell the students that you will play the last two sections for them. Say to them: The first of the two you will first hear is about a character called Baba Yaga in old Russian Jewish folktales. (Write her name on the board.) Tell them that Baba Yaga is a scary witch who lives deep in the forest, in a hut supported by chicken legs. She flies through the air in a giant mortar (explain its more customary use in grinding herbs and medicines and/or make a quick sketch on the board for them to see) in which she grinds human bones for food. Say to them: Mussorgsky's piece lets us know just what it feels like to be riding through the sky as Baba Yaga.

Write The Great Gate at Kiev on the board, which is the name of the last painting Mussorgsky depicts in his music. Say to the students: The minute the Baba Yaga section ends, the last piece begins, based on a painting called "Inside the Gate at Kiev," where there is a wonderful Russian church with the onion domes you've seen before and great bells that ring as the gate is opened. You will hear a grand procession going through the gate, and you will recognize the walking music you heard from the beginning in the introductory "Promenade" section, but you'll also know this is a very different kind of walking from a leisurely stroll. Play the last two sections through for them. (Baba Yaga takes about 3 minutes; the Great Gate takes 5.)

Pass out paper and colored pencils or markers and tell the students they are to choose one of the two written on the board and try to capture on paper what Hartmann's painting might have looked like that inspired Mussorgsky's music. Say to them: I will first play the Introduction ("Promenade") so you can recall the simple picture of the composer strolling through the exhibition, then the "Baba Yaga" section, followed immediately by the "Great Geat at Kiev." Be sure and title your drawing and sign your name. Continue to play those three short sections in order while they do their drawings. When they are completed, hang them under a caption "Pictures at an Exhibition by Modeste Petrovitch Mussorgsky."