Lesson 1: Learning “Cluck Old Hen”

Aim: How can we explore improvisation through the song “Cluck Old Hen”?
Summary: Students learn to improvise by moving the steady beat to different parts of their bodies in between the verses and the choruses of the song “Cluck Old Hen.”
Materials: Musical Explorers CD or online audio, Musical Explorers Student Guide
Standards: US 1, 2, 3.1, 3.2, 4.2, 4.3, 5, 6, 7.1, 7.2, 11; GA 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9; SC 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Time Required: 30 minutes (three 10-minute exercises)
Vocabulary: bluegrass, verse, chorus, melody, improvisation

Meet Jimmy

  • Meet Jimmy on SG12.

Sing “Cluck Old Hen”

  • Listen to “Cluck Old Hen,” Track 11. This is a traditional song played in the style of bluegrass. Bluegrass is a sub-genre of country music that originated in the mid-20th century, and has roots in traditional Appalachian music, Irish and Scottish music, and the improvisational form of jazz.

  • Teach students the chorus only using call and response. The teacher sings the first line first (the “call”) and asks the students to echo back what the teacher just sang (the “response”).

    • Let’s learn “Cluck Old Hen.” I will sing part of the song first and you will echo me. I will point to myself when it is my turn and then I will point to you when it is your turn to echo.
  • Do this one line at a time and then do the same thing with two lines at a time.

    • This time, I will sing two parts and you will echo me. Remember to wait for me to point to you for your turn!
  • Explain to the students that in “Cluck Old Hen,” Track 11, there are two different parts to the song, the verse and the chorus. The verse is the part that is different each time and it tells the story or what the song is about. The chorus repeats throughout the song. It sums up the main idea of the story. Ask students to describe the main idea of the chorus.
  • Invite students to sing along with the chorus of “Cluck Old Hen,” Track 11. Choose an action that students will do for the chorus (such as flapping their arms like chicken wings).

Cluck Old Hen

My old hen, she’s a good old hen
She lays eggs for the railroad men
Sometimes eight, sometimes ten
That’s enough for the railroad men

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing
Ain’t laid an egg since late last spring
Cluck old hen, cluck and squall
Ain’t laid an egg since late last fall

Cluck old hen, cluck when I tell you
Cluck old hen or I’m gonna sell you
Last time she cackled, cackled in the lot
Next time she cackles, cackle in the pot


My old hen, she’s a good old hen
She lays eggs for the railroad men
Sometimes one, sometimes two
Sometimes enough for the whole darn crew

Explore Improvisation in “Cluck Old Hen”

  • Explain that in music, the part of the song that you can sing, hum or whistle is called the melody or the tune. Jimmy’s friend Evan sings the melody, but instruments can play a melody, too.
  • Listen to instruments play “Cluck Old Hen,” Track 11, and invite students to listen for the melody of the chorus played by an instrument instead of being sung. Ask them to flap their arms whenever they hear the melody. The guitar plays after the first chorus, and the banjo plays after the second chorus.
  • Now listen to the sung melody, followed by an instrumental improvisation. In bluegrass music, as with other forms of music like jazz (see Unit 3), musicians improvise. Explain to students that to improvise means to create something musically new and different from the original on the spot. This music is not written down but something the musician creates in the moment.

    • How does the improvised part sound different from the way that Jimmy sang it before? (eg. faster, slower, louder, softer, more notes)
    • What would you sing/play if you had to make up a melody on the spot?
  • Invite students to create their own improvisation by keeping the steady beat and moving the beat to different parts their bodies. Whenever they hear the chorus, they can go back to their action (such as flapping their arms).
  • During the improvised section, model keeping the beat moving to various parts of the body
    (e.g. head-head, knees-knees, snap-snap, shoulders-shoulders). Count the beats out loud softly
    as you pat “1, 2, 3, 4,” etc.
  • Invite students to do this as a group first. Flap their arms during the chorus, then create their own improvised steady beat pattern on different parts of their bodies during the improvised section.
  • Count softly (either 4 or 8 beats) during the improvised parts so students know when to go back to the chorus and flap their wings as a group.

Pass the Improvisation Using “Cluck Old Hen”

  • Sitting in a circle, “pass the improvisation” from student to student alternating between the group flapping their arms during the chorus, then individual improvised beats on different parts of their bodies by individual students.

Creative Extension: Create a Bluegrass Song

Bluegrass songs are often about real-life events, whether it is about coaxing a hen to lay her eggs, or feeling sad about losing a friend, or celebrating the sunshine outdoors. As a class, write your own bluegrass song about a real-life event using the tune from of “Cluck Old Hen”.

For more information about bluegrass music and kids playing bluegrass,
visit www.bluegrassfoundation.org and http://cbayouthprogram.com/events/kids-on-bluegrass/.

For bluegrass activities for older kids, see our Bluegrass Breakdown learning guide.

See SG13 for a map of Appalachia and pictures of traditional bluegrass instruments.

Musical Word Wall

Add the words bluegrass, verse, chorus, melody, and improvisation to the Musical Word Wall.

PDF Downloads

SG12 ↓ Download File
SG13 ↓ Download File