music, storytelling, history

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker

Carol Reinhardt,
Gaston County Public Library, Gastonia, NC

"I received many unsolicited, positive comments from adults and students. Our two fifth grade teachers noted that you completely covered material for next week's New York State Social Studies Assessment!"
Cold Spring Elementary School, Stanfordville, NY

"The students and staff have only given me positive feedback on your presentation of the historical events in the journey of African Americans in our American History....Your humor and ability to relate to the student's current knowledge and experiences, made the presentations even better."
Murray Middle School, St. Augustine, FL

"To entertain a roomful of 'rock-fed' teenagers for any length of time is no easy feat, as you well know. However, there was never any doubt that the students enjoyed themselves. As one student so aptly expressed it - 'That folk guy was awesome!'"
West Philadelphia Unversity City High School, Philadelphia, PA

"On behalf of the college, I want to express my gratitude to you for your outstanding contribution to our Spring Literary Festival. We were honored to have you here, and I heard many wonderful comments about your performance at the Central Campus."
Central Piedmoont Community College

"You put on a great show and the students were engrossed. I can't remember a program that was educational and intriguing at the same time, not to mention great entertainment!"
Mississippi State University

JAMES "SPARKY" RUCKER was once a teacher in Chattanooga near his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, and he has been performing for over fifty years. He has over fifteen recordings, including one for children. His educational performances have included teacher workshops at the Kennedy Center, the D.C. Teacher Center, the 18th Annual International Children's Festival, and the Southeast Institute for Education in Music.

His wife, RHONDA RUCKER, gave up a career as a medical doctor to be a children's author and full-time performer. She accompanies him with vocals, harmonica, banjo, and rhythmic bones, and is featured on Sparky's last nine recordings. SPARKY AND RHONDA performed for the Old Music for New Ears educational series for Kentucky Educational Television, for Storytelling in North America, a National Geographic Society educational media project, and for Scholastic's Teaching Resources Projects.

Because of their imaginative approach to teaching, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker are popular performers in libraries, museums, schools, colleges, and universities nationwide. They give many different types of educational programs.


MAKE A CHANGE (Grades K-2)

Rhonda's picture book, Make a Change, is about a boy's surprise at his first civil rights demonstration. It is based on an actual incident in Sparky's life, an experience that steered him toward a lifelong commitment to freedom and justice. In this program, the Ruckers first teach how slavery sowed the seeds for upheaval during the 1950s and 1960s. Music was an essential part of the civil rights movement, instilling courage into people who protested unjust laws. Using spirited songs from the era, Sparky and Rhonda present the story of the movement, including the young children who participated.

Books, Bears, and Ballads (Grades K-2)

Rhonda’s article, "Rescuing Miracle," was published in Highlights magazine. It tells the true story of a sick and starving black bear cub that got better with the help of a teddy bear. In this program, Rhonda and Sparky blend storytelling, science, music, and hand games to get students excited about reading and writing.

Swing Low, Sweet Harriet (Grades 3-5 and 6-8)

Rhonda’s historical novel for young readers, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, is based on Harriet Tubman’s work as a spy and scout during the Civil War when she helped lead African American soldiers on the Combahee River raid in South Carolina. In this program, Rhonda and Sparky blend storytelling and music to help students learn about the Gullah Culture, Harriet Tubman, and the Civil War. The study guide that accompanies this program gives vocabulary words, background history, writing exercises, discussion topics, and recommended books to help expand learning opportunities.


This program takes students on a journey that spans over three centuries of American history, including slavery, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the birth of blues music, and the civil rights movement. Each era is interspersed with stories and popular songs from the time period. The Ruckers accompany themselves with finger picking and bottleneck blues guitar, blues harmonica, old-time banjo, spoons, and bones. This 40-50 minute program is geared to the age of the audience, and can be given for kindergarten through college grade levels.

Sparky & Rhonda's brand of teaching is different from the usual classroom style. They weave music into captivating stories that the history books don’t always tell. For instance, they might explain that the slave owners banned the drum since the slaves could use it to communicate, and then go on to show students how the slaves used their own bodies as a substitute for the drum when they played the "hambone." The Ruckers might demonstrate how the slaves would also play the bones or the spoons as a substitute for the drum. They might discuss the African origin of the banjo or explain that the Yellow Rose of Texas was really a light-skinned female slave who learned of General Santa Anna’s plans for the Battle of San Jacinto and passed this information to Sam Houston.

yellow rose

Presentations of the following historical programs are also available to schools by special arrangement
for grades 3 and up:

Following the North Star (Slavery and the Underground Railroad)

This special historical program gives a unique perspective into the songs and stories of slavery, abolition, and the Underground Railroad. Personalities such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Tubman are brought to life. Sparky and Rhonda sing the traditional slave songs that were filled with symbolism, messages of freedom, and sometimes even the information to guide the slaves' escape.

The Blue & Gray in Black and White (American Civil War)

Sparky and Rhonda present a synopsis of the American Civil War through songs and narrative. They begin with the causes and events leading up to the war and touch on some of the highlights of the war. The stories, some sad and some humorous, reflect personal insights from the colorful personalities who participated in the war. Sparky and Rhonda give the history from the perspectives of both the North and South and also include the participation of the African-American soldiers.

I Have a Dream (American Civil Rights Movement)

In this program, the Ruckers show how slavery and Jim Crow laws sowed the seeds for upheaval and change during the 1950s and 1960s. Music was an essential part of the civil rights movement. It bolstered people’s morale and helped them face fire hoses, police dogs, and dangerous mobs without resorting to violence. Using spirited songs from the era, Sparky and Rhonda present the story of the movement. Sparky marched shoulder-to-shoulder with SNCC Freedom Singers Matthew and Marshall Jones and played freedom songs at rallies, marches, and sit-ins alongside other folksingers such as Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger, and Bernice Reagon. He brings an authenticity to the music that can only be obtained by first-hand experience.

Sparky & Rhonda also give teacher in-service training programs and provide valuable resource lists to help teachers augment multicultural education.

Technical Requirements (for school programs): Sound system with 4 microphones (one vocal and one instrument for Sparky; one vocal and one instrument for Rhonda), each on a floor-length stand.

Sparky & Rhonda Rucker's performance of "Old Abe Lincoln" at a Florida elementary school.

Sparky & Rhonda Rucker's introduction and performance of "Marching Through Georgia" at a Florida school.

Home Page


Copyright © 2001-2019 by James "Sparky" Rucker and Rhonda H. Rucker. All rights reserved.
Web Site by Rhonda H. Rucker