Appalachian Riddle Song

Capture your students' attention with this lesson focusing on “The Riddle Song” to show the pentatonic scale and Appalachian culture.


  • Students will answer contemporary and traditional riddles.
  • Students will listen to and sing “The Riddle Song.”
  • Students will view pictures from the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
  • Students will identify the pentatonic scale and the phrase structure used in “The Riddle Song.”
  • Students will sing and move to the play-party game “Goin' to Boston.”


  • Selected riddles (see, for example, American Folk Tales and Songs by Richard Chase (New York: Dover Publications, 1971) and Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek:Appalachian Riddles and Rustics by James Still (New York: Putnam, 1974))
  • Twelve pictures from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (see, for example, WhereTime Stood Still: A Portrait of Appalachia by Bruce Roberts and Nancy Roberts (NewYork: Crowell-Collier Press, 1970))
  • The play-party game “Goin' to Boston,” which is available in Singing Games and Play-party Games by Richard Chase (New York: Dover Publications, 1967)
  • Recording: “The Riddle Song,” from Edna Ritchie, Viper, Kentucky (Folk-LegacyRecords FSA-3)


  1. Ask the class a variety of riddles. Explain that these are an old tradition in many cultures, including Appalachia.
  2. Sing, unaccompanied, “The Riddle Song.” Point out that there are four statements, four questions, and four answers. Riddle songs were once very popular in the British Isles. The correct answer to a riddle could mean a great fortune, a “yes” to a marriage proposal, or a life saved. In the United States, ballads with riddles were neither as widespread nor as complex as in the British Isles. “The Riddle Song,” as sung in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, contains a melodic sequence in its first two phrases and is built on a pentatonic scale.
  3. Have the class listen to the recording of “The Riddle Song.” While the students are listening, show the 12 pictures from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (one for each phrase).
  4. Teach the students “The Riddle Song.” Study the pentatonic scale used in the song. Have the students identify the number of phrases.
  5. Sing and illustrate the play-party game “Goin' to Boston.” Teach the song and motions to the students.


  • Learn other play-party games. Several of these games are printed in Richard Chase'sSinging Games and Play-party Games (New York: Dover Publications, 1967) and his Old Songs and Singing Games (New York: Dover Publications, 1972).
  • Read about the Ritchie family in Singing Family of the Cumberlands by Jean Ritchie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).
  • Listen to other dulcimer recordings such as The Appalachian Dulcimer by Jean Ritchie:An Instruction Record (Folkways Fl 8352); Edna Ritchie, Viper, Kentucky (Folk-Legacy Records FSA-3); and Larkin's Dulcimer Book (Ivory Palaces Cassette IPC 7007).
  • Make a dulcimer and learn how to play it.
  • Create an accompaniment for “The Riddle Song” using Orff instruments.

Standards Correlations

  • Standard 1

    : Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  • Standard 8

    : Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
  • Standard 9

    : Understanding music in relation to history and culture

Excerpted fromMulticultural Perspectives in Music Education.

Provided in partnership with NAfME
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