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Lesson 2: Learning “40 Wheels”

Aim: How can you use different musical elements to help tell a story in a song?
Summary: Students will learn to sing the original song “40 Wheels”; explore the musical elements in the song; and learn how musical elements can help tell a story in a song.
Standards: National 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11
Vocabulary: melodic contour

Martha’s original music fuses elements of American folk and the blues with influences from Choctaw and Cherokee traditional music. In the song “40 Wheels,” Martha tells the story of the Trail of Tears by synthesizing the musical elements from her diverse background.

Martha Teaches “40 Wheels”

“40 Wheels” Demonstration

Native American singer Martha teaches “40 Wheels,” an original song she composed with Aaron Whitby, piano.

Sing “40 Wheels”

  • Listen to “40 Wheels,” Track 16.
    • What do you hear that is similar to the social dance songs you learned?
    • What is different about this song from the social dance songs?
  • Learn the lyrics using “40 Wheels” pronunciation, Track 17.
  • Sing along to “40 Wheels” instrumental, Track 18.

“40 Wheels”

40 wheels up high, on the mountainside
Covered wagons coming and my people ride
Walking … walking … walking … walking …

Waya hey ah ha, waya hey ah ha
Waya hey ah ha ha ha ha ho

It was way up high my great mama cried
When the cavalry took a thousand lives
Walking … walking … walking … walking


40 wheels up high, on the mountainside
Was the cold trucks loading up a thousand mines
Walking … walking … walking … walking


Explore the Lyrics to “40 Wheels”

  • The song tells the story of the Trail of Tears, a very sad and difficult time in American history, when Southeastern Native American tribes were forced to leave their land and journey on foot to territory in Oklahoma.
    • Try to imagine what it would be like to walk for hundreds of miles in a big group.

Trail of Tears: In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, a law that forced Native Americans off their land in the Southeast and onto territory in Oklahoma. Martha’s ancestors were among this group. While some left willingly, many elected to stay and fight for their land. The United States military eventually forced the tribes out, some without time to gather their belongings. The Native Americans had to endure harsh elements and mountainous terrain as they walked west, and many people died along the way in what has come to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Explore Melodic Contour in “40 Wheels”

  • Listen to “40 Wheels,” Track 16, and ask your students to listen for the refrain.
    • A refrain is a phrase in a song that keeps returning. In this song, the refrain is “Walking, walking.”
  • Trace the melodic contour—the shape of the melody—for the first line of the song.
    • Why do you think the melody makes this shape with these lyrics?
  • Now, trace the shape of the melody for the refrain.
    • Why does this shape make sense with the lyrics?
    • What else about the music makes you feel like you’re walking, rather than running or skipping or jumping?
  • Discuss the differences in melodic contour between the two sets of lyrics.
  • Listen again to “40 Wheels,” Track 16, tracing the melodic contour.
Creative Extension

Sound Painting in “40 Wheels”

  • Brainstorm ideas of what it might have sounded like on the Trail of Tears. Think about the surroundings: Who is on the journey and what is the weather like, etc.? Explore the idea of sound painting—creating a picture using sound.
    • What sounds can we add to the song to help paint the picture?
    • How can we make these sounds?
  • Add sounds to help paint a picture of the Trail of Tears when performing “40 Wheels.”
Creative Extension

Native American Ribbon Skirt

  • The ribbon skirt is a traditional piece of clothing worn in many Native American nations. No two skirts are alike. Each skirt reflects the personality of the wearer, who chooses the number of ribbon bands and the color and pattern of each ribbon. Each ribbon band has a different color or pattern and can have various meanings depending on the origin. The skirts are traditionally worn below the knee and are a symbol of female empowerment and connection to Mother Earth.
  • With your students, look at the picture of Martha in her own ribbon skirt in My Own Ribbon Skirt (PDF).
    • What do you notice about her skirt?
    • What do you like about it?
  • Use the image of the skirt as an example and have your students draw their own ribbon skirts using their favorite colors and patterns to reflect their own personalities.
Literacy Extension

When Turtle Grew Feathers: A Folktale from the Choctaw Nation

The classic fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” gets retold by Tim Tingle, who captures the Choctaw version of the story. In this version, we find out the “real” reason why the turtle won the race.

Book cover for "When Turtle Grew Feathers" depicting a turtle and a hare

Musical Word Wall

Add the word melodic contour to the Musical Word Wall.

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