Retro Music Monday – African American Music – part 2 – Work Songs


From Wikipedia

African American work songs originally developed in the era of captivity, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Because they were part of an almost entirely oral culture they had no fixed form and only began to be recorded as the era of slavery came to an end after 1865. The first collection of African American ‘slave songs’ was published in 1867 by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison.[5] Many had their origins in African song traditions, and may have been sung to remind the Africans of home, while others were instituted by the captors to raise morale and keep Africans working in rhythm.[6] They have also been seen as a means of withstanding hardship and expressing anger and frustration through creativity or covert verbal opposition.[7]

A common feature of African American songs was the call-and-response format, where a leader would sing a verse or verses and the others would respond with a chorus. This came from African traditions of agricultural work song and found its way into the spirituals that developed once Africans in bondage began to convert to Christianity and from there to both gospel music and the blues. Also evident were field hollers, shouts, and moans, which may have been originally designed for different bands or individuals to locate each other and narrative songs that used folk tales and folk motifs, often making use of homemade instruments.[8] In early African captivity drums were used to provide rhythm, but they were banned in later years because of the fear that Africans would use them to communicate in a rebellion; nevertheless, Africans managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies.[9] Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few examples of work songs linked to cotton picking.[10]

Corn, however, was a very common subject of work songs on a typical plantation. Because the crop was the main component of most Africans’ diet,[citation needed] they would often sing about it regardless of whether it was being harvested. Often, communities in the south would hold “corn-shucking jubilees,” during which an entire community of planters would gather on one plantation. The planters would bring their harvests, as well as their slaves, and work such as shucking corn, rolling logs, or threshing rice would be done, accompanied by the singing of Africans doing work. The following is an example of a song Africans would sing as they approached one of these festivals. It is from ex bonded African William Wells Brown‘s memoir ” My Southern Home.”

All them pretty gals will be there,
Shuck that corn before you eat;
They will fix it for us rare,
Shuck that corn before you eat.
I know that supper will be big,
Shuck that corn before you eat;
I think I smell a fine roast pig,
Shuck that corn before you eat.[citation needed]

These long, mournful, antiphonal songs accompanied the work on cotton plantations, under the driver’s lash.

Tony Palmer, All You Need is Love: The Story of Popular Music.[11]

Work songs were used by African American railroad work crews in the southern United States before modern machinery became available in the 1960s. Anne Kimzey of the Alabama Center For Traditional Culture writes: “All-black gandy dancer crews used songs and chants as tools to help accomplish specific tasks and to send coded messages to each other so as not to be understood by the foreman and others. The lead singer, or caller, would chant to his crew, for example, to realign a rail to a certain position. His purpose was to uplift his crew, both physically and emotionally, while seeing to the coordination of the work at hand. It took a skilled, sensitive caller to raise the right chant to fit the task at hand and the mood of the men. Using tonal boundaries and melodic style typical of the blues, each caller had his own signature. The effectiveness of a caller to move his men has been likened to how a preacher can move a congregation.”[12]

Another common type of African American work song was the “boat song.” Sung by slaves who had the job of rowing, this type of work song is characterized by “plaintive, melancholy singing.” These songs were not somber because the work was more troublesome than the work of harvesting crops. Rather, they were low-spirited so that they could maintain the slow, steady tempo needed for rowing. In this way, work songs followed the African tradition, emphasizing the importance of activities being accompanied by the appropriate song.[13]


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