Skip to main content

If you've ever done manual labor which required a group effort or synchronized action,  you may have resorted to counting off.  Gotta hump that refrigerator up the stair --- "on the count of three."  That sort of thing.  And if you have to do that kind of work all day long and day after day, you may eventually find yourself resorting to what's known as a work song.  

So that Duck Dynasty character has a point, even if he hadn't intended to be taken literally. Not about the well-being of rural African-Americans, or morality -- but about music he may have heard while working in a field. If there was any; and if he actually did that kind of work. I leave it to others to judge how real Mr. Robertson is.

It appears that folklorists know a lot more work songs connected with railroad work and clearing trees than about cotton. That may be because adjusting track or chopping wood are tasks that benefit from rhythmically coordinated group effort in a way that picking cotton does not. And by the early to mid-sixties --the period I believe we're talking about here-- African American work songs are already becoming archaic due to automation and cultural changes.

A field holler recorded in 1939:  http://www.youtube.com/.... The singer is John Lowry Goree, and he said he heard a woman singing it in the 1880s while chopping cotton. It's not a high quality recording.

Vera Ward Hall singing Boll Weevil Holler, recorded by Alan Lomax around 1959. http://www.youtube.com/.... I didn't know this: the boll weevil is an invasive species in the US, arriving from Mexico around 1895. By the 1920's farmers are diversifying and rotating crops.

While some work songs are proto-blues or blues form, others aren't. Work songs, no matter what else they may do or what their structure may be, must also organize the work and the people doing it. And, to be sure not all work songs originate with slavery or with African-Americans. There are work songs for sailing ships, milking goats, mining, farming, etc. from cultures all over the planet.  

If you start looking for this kind of music, you can't avoid John Lomax and his son Alan. A lot of interesting music, interviews, films and other material can be found at the Association for Cultural Equity site. I encourage you to click on the ACE Online Archive link.  

So, musically speaking, what are some of the features that make this music so compelling?

Heterophony-- where everyone is singing the same song, but not exactly. Early in the Morning http://www.youtube.com/.... Notice that the non-dominant voices sometimes harmonize, sometimes add a little fill, sometimes drop out altogether.

We also hear call and response: Hammer Ring http://www.youtube.com/... recorded in a texas prison in 1965 by Bruce Jackson.  Gandy dancers aligning railroad tracks: http://www.youtube.com/... 1929, USC Newsfilm Library.  Rosie, another prison work song, recorded by Lomax http://www.youtube.com/....

And melisma --- stretching a syllable out by singing several notes. The opposite of melismatic is syllabic-- one note per syllable. Alan Lomax recording of Tangle Eye Blues at Parchman prison farm: http://research.culturalequity.org/...  A youtube posting of the same material, it's been processed a bit: http://www.youtube.com/....  

I hope you have enjoyed this little exploration.  While I do have academic musical training, I'm not a musicologist or historian, so please forgive me for any errors I may have made.  If you want to read more about work songs generally, you might be interested in Ted Gioia's Work Songs, published by Duke University Press.  It's on my own to-buy list.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site