Styles & Forms | Work Songs | Blues
Jazz, blues, spirituals and gospel music, were rooted in the work songs of black labourers of the South. As Chet Williamson wrote ‘These were songs and chants that kept a people moving and advancing through dreadful oppression. These are the voices of those who harvested the fields, drove the mules, launched the boats, and hammered the rails.’
Based on the compelling rhythms, sliding-pitch intonation and overlapping call-and-response traditions of West African music, which persevered in North America during the time of slavery, these work songs resounded in the South during the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, which ended in 1865. Whether sung by slaves and, later, sharecroppers picking cotton or husking corn, workers laying track on the railroad line, prisoners on the chain gang breaking rocks and draining swamps or coal miners with pickaxes, work songs were structured in a very similar way to West African percussion ensembles.
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In a typical drum ensemble of Ghana, the leader/drummer would give signals or motifs to the rest of the group, which would then respond in overlapping call-and-response fashion. The leader, in effect, poses a question and the group offers an answer (the overlap occurring where the call is still in the air when the response begins, or the call begins again before the response is done). Responsorial singing follows this same procedure, with the leader often improvising above a rhythmic pulse by varying the timing, pitch, attack or decay of words at the beginning or end of a phrase. The leader might also toy with the phrasing by employing rhythmic displacement or a slight altering of the phrases in relation to the underlying beat.
In most work songs, the rhythm was tied into the pattern of the work itself – the swinging back and down and the blow of a sledgehammer or pickaxe, the hoisting of ropes on a block and tackle – while the lead chanter acted as a coach, directing the teamwork until the job was done. Each new line was often punctuated by a grunt as the axe or hammer found its mark:
‘Dis ole hammer – hunh!
Ring like silver – hunh!
Shine like gold, baby – hunh!
Shine like gold – hunh!’
Field hollers, work songs and the cries of street vendors advertising their wares all incorporated imaginative vocal sounds and various pitch-altering decorations of a note, including the use of ‘blue notes’. A good example of this can be heard on an Alan Lomax recording from 1959 of ‘Louisiana’, sung by prisoner Henry Ratcliff, who was serving time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm. Other examples from Lomax’s recording include ‘Stewball’, sung by Ed Lewis leading a group of prisoners at the Lambert State Penitentiary in Mississippi, and ‘Berta Berta’, sung by Leroy Miller leading a hoeing group at Parchman Farm. Another well-known field holler is ‘Mama Lucy’, sung by Leroy Gary and recorded by Lomax in...
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