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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: 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. 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 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 recorded in a texas prison in 1965 by Bruce Jackson.  Gandy dancers aligning railroad tracks: 1929, USC Newsfilm Library.  Rosie, another prison work song, recorded by Lomax

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:  A youtube posting of the same material, it's been processed a bit:  

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.

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