Who’s Little Liza Jane?

Grade Level
4-6. Beginning Band

Selections: Little Liza Jane
Recorded: Weems or Whitestone (Lancaster County), Virginia (United States) April 1960
Performers: Bright Light Quartet (Shedrick Cain, James Campbell, Arnold Fisher, and Laurence Hodge)

Activity 1: Call & Response

Prior Knowledge: 
Students have already played Little Liza Jane from their method books and have basic competency with the notes and rhythms, particularly the syncopated eighth note, quarter note, and eighth note pattern.
Rhythm pattern

  1. For the first listening, the teacher asks, “Who is performing?” (possible answers: 4 men, Bright Light Quartet)
  2. For the second listening, teacher questions, “What about this version is different than the one you play from your method book?” (possible answers: It uses words. It is sung by male voices. The song starts and stops with talking in between. There is more than one person in the group. The musicians do not keep a steady beat. There are no instruments playing.)
  3. For the third listening, the teacher says, “Name additional differences that you hear and one similarity.”

    (possible answers for differences: see # 2.) 

    (possible answers or similarities: The title is the same. The rhythm pattern is pattern 2

  4. During the fourth listening, students fingertip tap the rhythm pattern for Li’l Liza Jane to verify that the rhythm is usually the same and silently sing the response in their heads.
  5. For the fifth listening, students clap the syncopated rhythm pattern while singing the response.
  6. Students identify the call and response sections of their method book version.
  7. Teacher asks, “Now look at the song Little Liza Jane in your method book. Point in your music to the Li’l Liza Jane phrase, which is the response. Check that your neighbor is pointing to the correct phrase(s).” (Wait for students to complete task.) 
    Teacher continues, “Again in your music, this time point to the call part of the phrase, and then check that your neighbor is pointing to the right phrase.”
  8. Teacher plays the call phrase and students play the response written in their method books.
  9. Students practice individually for 15-30 seconds either the call phrases or the response phrases.
  10. Teacher asks for volunteers to play response phrase individually. The teacher and soloists demonstrate, and then the class plays the call phrases only and the soloists play the responses.
  11. Teacher asks for volunteers to play the call phrase individually. The soloist plays the call phrase and the class answers playing the response phrase only.

Extension Activities:

  1. Class listens to a different versionof Little Liza Jane by Sam Chatmon from Mississippi.
    1. Teacher questions, “What is different about this version compared to the previous listening version and our method book version?” (possible answers: One person is singing. He has an older voice. He plays the guitar. There are different lyrics/words. The tempo is faster.)
    2. Teacher asks, “What about this song is similar to previous versions that we have listening and played?” (possible answers: The response rhythm is the same. Some of the lyrics/text are the same. The song has the same title.)
  2. Class listens to a third version of Little Liza Jane by the Mountain Ramblers (Galyen Cullen-banjo, Charles Hawkes-banjo, James Lindsey-mandolin, Eldridge Montgomery, Thurman Pugh-double bass)
    1. Teacher explains, “This is another version of the song Little Liza Jane, but the melody is not as obvious, so listen carefully. How is this song different from the other ones that we have listened to before?” (possible answers: Nobody is singing. The musicians are instrumentalists, including 2 banjos, a mandolin, and a double bass. There are no lyrics/words. The tempo is faster. The music is highly ornamented, so the melody is more hidden.)
    2. Students listen again carefully to hear the melody, especially the Li’l Liza Jane rhythm. When they hear it, students raise their hand.

Activity 2: Cultural Context

What genre is Little Liza Jane?

In the Lomax Digital Archive, this song is labeled as a Chantey, often spelled Shanty. Chanteys are work songs, originally coming from the workers on a boat to help them keep time and rhythm in order to better work together to raise the rigging.

As explained in the liner notes of I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die: Field Recordings from Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey, “The Bright Light Quartet were a group of menhaden fishermen whose chanteys reflected their work hauling nets aboard the fishing packets that plied the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, from Long Island to the Gulf of Mexico. Menhaden, a bony, inedible fish processed for its oil and its use in livestock feed, provided well-paying work to young African American men in the Northern Neck of Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina - the industry’s two centers of production being in Reedville, VA, and Beaufort, NC.…The work being seasonal, the singers of these songs were migratory, and many had experience as muleskinners, gandy-dancers, and roustabouts, and with the Southern prison farms - thus with the work-song repertoire. The labor was grueling and, as with tie-tamping on the railroad or timbering on the farm, singing coordinated and energized the workers and gave them an outlet for their exhaustion and frustration….Like their railroad and penitentiary counterparts, the majority of menhaden fishermen were black, the captains and mates white; working conditions were often abusive, pay could be arbitrarily withheld, and the young fishermen were away from home and loved ones for weeks at a time” (Lomax, Piazza, & Ferris, 2013).

In the book A Folk Song History of America, Samuel Forcucci labels L’il Liza Jane as a leisure song. Forcucci explains that slaves would “gather together in a particular section of their living compound to sing songs and pass the time away. This was one of the few recreational activities that they could enjoy in their restrictive quarters.” He goes on to explain that, “There are written accounts by slave owners reporting their surprise at finding their slaves completely sapped of energy as they left the fields from the long day’s work and then suddenly change as they appeared charged with renewed energy as they frolicked at night entertaining each other.” Other examples of leisure songs include "Shortnin’ Bread" and "Hushaby" (also known as "All the Pretty Little Horses") (Forcucci, 1984, p. 103-104).

This song was most likely adapted by black slaves sailors who then went to work in the fields. As Sam Chatmon explains in his segment, his father would sing the song while the slaves were picking cotton in the fields to help them pass the time. Each of the listening examples of Little Liza Jane by the Bright Light Quartet, Sam Chatmon, and the Mountain Ramblers demonstrate the song’s use for leisure activities or to pass the time while working.


Forcucci, S. (1984). A folk song history of America: America through its songs.Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lomax, A., Piazza, T., & Ferris, W. R. (2013). The southern journey of Alan Lomax: Words, photographs, and music (First ed.).

Lesson plan designed by Lisa Mansfield