The Ballad of Johnny Appleseed

by John Riggio

Many of our subscribers have been requesting a piece about this beloved icon of American history. Therefore, we are pleased to present this piece about John Chapman, aka "Johnny Appleseed".

The style is bluegrass, and accordingly, our Performance/Accompaniment CD and cassette are packed with all manner of bluegrass instrumentation. This includes guitar, banjo, mandolin, spoons, washboard, and fiddle. (Incidentally, it might be fun to have your students listen to the instrumental tracks and try to pick out each instrument!)

It's good to note at this point that non-pitched instruments are a neat way to get your students interested in music. All they need is a good sense of rhythm and enough dexterity to play the instrument, and they're off to the races. This song is simple enough for students to play their own instrument along with the tracks. They could double the existing instruments, or add their own bluegrass instruments, such as jug or Jews harp. (Speaking of non-pitched instruments, on our performance tracks we added stomping and clapping on each chorus, which your students may want to do as well.)

In our recording session, we let the whole group sing the first and last verses, as well as all choruses. However, since this song is very repetitious, we thought it might be nice to vary the verses a bit by giving students a chance to sing solos on each half of the verse in the middle verses (2 through 5). This is not only good for variety, but it also gives them a chance to learn a specific fact about Johnny Appleseed. Please note that a fiddle is playing the melody throughout the entire song to help with pitch and rhythms. Also worth mentioning is the countermelody on the final choruses played by guitar and fiddle. This line finishes up with the catchy "shave and a haircut" ending.

As far as costume ideas for live performance, you could definitely go a little nuts here. Your students could certainly wear overalls, straw hats, bandannas, and other country-like apparel. But the really crazy stuff you could do relates to Johnny Appleseed himself! Apparently, Johnny sometimes dressed strangely. People would donate their old clothing to him, so his clothes were probably faded. They might have been a little big on him, and the colors may have clashed in interesting ways. He would often travel barefooted. On top of this, for a hat, he would wear the pot in which he cooked his corn mush! And of course, he would have a large sack of apple seeds on his back. So, if you're so inclined, you might want to have one of your students dress like Johnny himself. You could also have your students play their non-pitched instruments on stage, while Johnny plants his seeds - maybe even pretend they have their own little band.

Some Facts About Johnny Appleseed

  • Real name was John Chapman
  • Born September 26, 1774 in Leominster, a small town in northern Massachusetts
  • The son of Nathaniel and Mary Chapman
  • The second of three children
  • Never married
  • Loved nature
  • Headed west to plant orchards in the mid 1790s
  • Established his first apple tree nursery in Warren County, Pennsylvania, around 1796 on Brokenstraw Creek
  • Planted orchards up and down the mid-Atlantic and mid-west states during his lifetime
  • Wanted to travel west ahead of the pioneers so there would be apple trees when they got there
  • Gave and sold seeds and trees to the pioneers
  • He was a devout Christian. He shared the Bible and religious tracts with settlers.
  • He was a peacemaker between Indians and settlers, and was known as a friend to both.
  • He loved children and liked to wow them with tales of his adventures.
  • Had a weathered appearance
  • He dressed strangely at times. Different reports mention Johnny wearing old clothes or even potato sacks with holes cut out for his arms and legs. Sometimes he wore a pot on his head, or an old soldiers hat, or one made out of cardboard. He often traveled barefoot, even in winter.
  • Carried a sack of apple seeds with him
  • Carried no weapons
  • He died of pneumonia on March 18, 1845, near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was staying with the Worths, some friends of his.
  • He is buried at Archer Graveyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The inscription on his gravestone reads: "'Johnny Appleseed' (John Chapman) He lived for others. 1774-1845"

Text is taken from Music K-8 magazine.