African American History Culture : Work Songs - Lost Art Among Our People

Discussion in 'African American History Culture' started by dustyelbow, Apr 27, 2006.

  1. dustyelbow

    dustyelbow Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Oct 25, 2005
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    A barometer of BLACK unity in my eyes is how a community work together. In the past our ancestors worked together usually gender separated but still developed songs about situations at work and outside work such as social justice that helped COORDINATED US TO ORDER in the activities needing to be accomplished.

    Look at our people and the railroad. There are miles and miles of track. The steel rails need to be X distant apart. The railroad ties or wooden blocks needed to be Y distance apart. The steel rails need to be hammered with nails at just the right angles and strikes. Alot of work and thought of coordination was NEEDED.

    A "ruthless white" supervisor WASNT interested in being in the hot Southern sun morning to evening through all kinds of weather LAYING down the groundwork of THIS NATIONS transportation NETWORK. He used the GENIUS of our lowly willing PEOPLE to do that. Ruthless white wanted the BENEFITS or RESULTS. And he DID get what he WANTED plus much MORE.

    But WHAT DID WE GET IN RETURN eventually. The complete erosion of cultural reinforcements and identity.

    Today's music is oriented towards LEISURELY pursuits.

    I am weary of those who go to to CLUBS and listen to CLUB music because FREEMASONS is a CLUB and they too had CLUB music speaking about women in a degrading manner. No WORK in that club.

    Same thing we have too many SONGS promoted by our people and greater society about LEISURE. I am not totally against them but it shows where our THINKING lies.

    Works songs are about our cultural legacy not only to here in America but to Africa. That was one key in my OPINION to how our ancestors SURVIVE in this land called Amerca without losing HOPE.

    Fool mode..


    How many SONGS do you know made this YEAR expresses our PEOPLE COMMUNITY WORK related activities compared to songs about our LEISURELY activities?

    I know there is NO AUDIENCE for them. Greater society loves us at LEISURE and CHAOS not ORDER.

    As a fool I am glad I observed this in people who are now physically gone. This HOPE has not gone to waste.


    Now here is a segment about WORK SONGS from
    "Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs"--An Essay by Sterling A. Brown


    "Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs"


    More work songs come from the Negro than from any other American folk group. Rowing the cypress dug-outs in Carolina low-country, slaves timed their singing to the long sweep of the oars. The leader, a sort of coxswain, chanted verse after verse; the rowers rumbled a refrain. On the docks Negroes sang sailors' chanteys as metronomes to their heaving and hauling. Some chanteys, like "Old Stormy," they took over from the white seamen; others they improvised. Along the Ohio and Mississippi waterfronts Negro roustabouts created "coonjine" songs, so-called after the shuffling dance over bucking gang-planks in and out of steamboat holds. Unless the rhythm was just right a roustabout and his bale or sack of cottonseed might be jolted into the brown waters. The singers cheered the speed of the highballing paddlewheelers: "left Baton Rouge at half pas" one, and got to Vicksburg at setting of de sun." But they griped over the tough captains "workin' hell out of me" and sang

    Ole Roustabout ain't got no home
    Makes his livin' on his shoulder bone.

    For release from the timber and the heavy sacks there was always some city around the bend—Paducah, Cairo, Memphis, Natchez, and then

    Alberta let yo' hair hang low . . .
    I'll give you mo' gold
    Than yo' apron can hold . . .
    Alberta let yo' hair hang low.

    These songs flourished in the hey-day of the packets; today they are nearly lost.

    Another type of work song was chanted as a gang unloaded steel rails. Since these rails weighed over a ton apiece and were over ten yards long, any break in the rhythm of lifting them from the flat cars to the ground was a good way to get ruptured, maimed, or killed. So a chanter was employed to time the hoisting, lowering, and the getting away from it. He was a coach, directing the teamwork, and in self-protection the men had to learn his rhythmic tricks. In track-lining, a similar chanter functioned to keep the track straight in line. As he called, the men jammed their bars under the rails and braced in unison:

    Shove it over! Hey, hey, can't you line it!
    Ah shack-a-lack-a-lack-a-lack-a-lack-a-lack-alack (Grunt)
    Can't you move it? Hey, hey, can't you try.

    As they caught their breath and got a new purchase, he turned off a couplet. Then came the shouted refrain as the men strained together.

    More widely spread and known are the: Negro work songs whose rhythm is timed with the swing back and down and the blow of broad-axe, pick, hammer, or tamper. The short lines are punctuated by a grunt as the axe bites into the wood, or the hammer finds the spike-head.

    Dis ole hammer—hunh
    Ring like silver—hunh (3)
    Shine like gold, baby—hunh
    Shine like gold—hunh.

    The leader rings countless changes in his words and melody over the unchanging rhythm. When he grows dull or forgets, another singer takes over. The song is consecutive, fluid; it is doubtful if anyone version is ever exactly repeated. Ballads, blues, even church-songs are levied on for lines, a simple matter since- the stanzas are unrhymed. Some lines tell of the satisfaction of doing a man's work well:

    I got a rainbow—hunh
    Tied 'round my shoulder—hunh—(3)
    Tain’t gonna rain, baby—hunh
    Tain't gonna rain.

    (The rainbow is the arc of the hammer as the sunlight glints on the moving metal.) Sometimes a singer boasts of being a "sun-down man," who can work the sun down without breaking down himself. Lines quite as popular, however, oppose any speed-up stretch-out system:

    Dis ole hammer—hunh
    Killt John Henry—hunh—(3)
    Twon't kill me, baby—hunh
    Twon't kill me.

    Some lines get close to the blues: "Every mail day / Gits a letter / Son, come home, baby / Son, come home." Sometimes they tell of a hard captain (boss)

    Told my captain—hunh
    Hands are cold—hunh—(3)
    **** yo' hands—hunh
    Let de wheelin' roll.

    The new-fangled machine killed John Henry; its numerous offspring have killed the work songs of his buddies. No hammer song could compete now with the staccato roaring drill even if the will to sing were there. The steamboat is coming back to the Mississippi but the winches and cranes do not call forth the old gang choruses. A few songs connected with work survive such as the hollers of the lonely worker in the fields and woods, or the call boy's chant to the glory-hole.

    Sleeping good, sleeping good,
    Give me them covers, I wish you would.

    At ease from their work in their bunkhouses, the men may sing, but their fancies ramble from the job oftener than they stay with it. Song as a rhythmic accompaniment to work is declining. John and Alan Lomax, whose bag of Negro work songs is the fullest, had to go to the penitentiaries, where labor-saving devices were not yet numerous, in order to find the art thriving. They found lively cotton-picking songs:

    A-pick a bale, a pick a bale
    Pick a bale of cotton
    A-pick a bale, a-pick a hale
    Pick a bale a day.

    Slower songs came from gangs that were cutting cane or chopping weeds or hewing timber. Prison work is of course mean and tough: "You oughta come on de Brazo in nineteen-fo'; you could find a deadman on every turn-row." So the convicts cry out to the taskmaster sun:

    Go down, Ol' Hannah, doncha rise no mo'
    Ef you rise any mo' bring judgment day.

    They grouse about the food: ever "the same **** thing," and at that the cook isn't clean. An old evangelical stand-by, "Let the Light of the Lighthouse Shine on Me," becomes a hymn of hope that the Midnight Special, a fast train, will some day bring a pardon from the governor. They sing of their long sentences:

    Ninety-nine years so jumpin' long
    To be here rollin' an' cain' go home.

    If women aren't to be blamed for it all, they are still to be blamed for a great deal:

    Ain't but de one thing worries my min'
    My cheating woman and my great long time.

    One song, like the best balladry, throws a searchlight into the darkness:

    "Little boy, what'd you do for to get so long?"
    Said, "I killed my rider in the high sheriff's arms."

    From these men—long-termers, lifers," three-time losers-come songs brewed in bitterness. This is not the double-talk of the slave seculars, but the naked truth of desperate men telling what is on their brooding minds. Only to collectors who have won their trust—such as the Lomaxes, Lawrence Gellert and Josh White—and only when the white captain is far enough away, do the prisoners confide these songs. Then they sing not loudly but deeply their hatred of the brutality of the chain-gang:

    If I'd a had my weight in lime
    I'd a whupped dat captain, till he went stone blind.
    If you don't believe my buddy's dead
    Just look at that hole in my buddy's head.

    A prisoner is told: "Don't you go worryin' about forty [the years of your sentence], Cause in five years you'll be dead."

    They glorify the man who makes a crazy dare for freedom; Jimbo, for instance, who escapes almost under the nose of his captain, described as "a big Goliath," who walks like Samson and "totes his talker." They boast: "Ef ah git de drop / Ah'm goin' on / Dat same good way / Dat limbo's gone / Lord, Lord, Lord." They reenact with graphic realism the lashing of a fellow-prisoner; the man-hunting of Ol’ Rattler, "fastest and smellingest bloodhound in the South"; and the power of Black Betty, the ugly bullwhip. They make stark drama out of the pain, and hopelessness, and shame.

    All I wants is dese cold iron shackles off my leg.

    It is not only in the prison songs that there is social protest. Where there is some protection or guaranteed secrecy other verboten songs come to light. Coal miners, fortified by a strong, truculent union, sing grimly of the exorbitant company stores:

    What's de use of me working any more, my baby? (2)
    What's de use of me working any more,
    When I have to take it up at de company store,
    My baby?

    Or they use the blues idiom with a new twist:

    Operator will forsake you, he'll drive you from his do' . . .
    No matter what you do, dis union gwine to stand by you
    While de union growing strong in dis land.

    And the sharecroppers sharply phrase their plight:

    Go in the store and the merchant would say,
    'Your mortgage is due and I'm looking for my pay.'
    Down in his pocket with a tremblin' hand
    'Can't pay you all but I'll pay what l can,'
    Then to the telephone the merchant made a call,
    They'll put you on the chain-gang, an' you don't pay at all.

    Big Bill Broonzy is best known as a blues singer, but in the cotton belt of Arkansas he learned a great deal that sank deep. His sharp "Black, Brown, and White Blues" has the new militancy built up on the sills of the old folksong. In an employment office, Big Bill sings, "They called everybody's number / But they never did call mine." Then working side by side with a white man:

    He was getting a dollar an hour
    When I was making fifty cents.

    Onto this new protest he ties an old vaudeville chorus, deepening the irony:

    If you's black, ah brother,
    Git back, git back, git back.

    Such songs, together with the blues composed by Waring Cuney and Josh White on poverty, hardship, poor housing and jim crow military service, come from conscious propagandists, not truly folk. They make use of the folk idiom in both text and music, however, and the folk listen and applaud. They know very well what Josh White is talking about in such lines as:

    Great gawdamighty, folks feelin' bad
    Lost everything they ever had.


    It is evident that Negro folk culture is breaking up. Where Negro met only with Negro in the black belt the old beliefs strengthened. But when mud traps give way to gravel roads, and black tops and even concrete highways with buses and jalopies and trucks lumbering over them, the world comes closer. The churches and schools, such as they are, struggle against some of the results of isolation, and the radio plays a part. Even in the backwoods, aerials are mounted on shanties that seem ready to collapse from the extra weight on the roof, or from a good burst of static against the walls. The phonograph is common, the television set is by no means unknown, and down at the four corners store, a jukebox gives out the latest jive. Rural folk closer to towns and cities may on Saturday jaunts even see an occasional movie, where a rootin'-tootin' Western gangster film introduces them to the advancements of civilization. Newspapers, especially the Negro press, give the people a sense of belonging to a larger world. Letters from their boys in the army, located in all corners of the world, and the tales of the returning veterans, true Marco Polos, also prod the inert into curiosity. Brer Rabbit and Old Jack no longer are enough. Increasingly in the churches the spirituals lose favor to singing out of the books or from broadsides, and city-born blues and jive take over the jook-joints.

    The migration of the folk Negro 1othe cities, started by the hope for better living and schooling, and greater self-respect, quickened by the industrial demands of two world wars is sure to be increased by the new cotton picker and other man-displacing machines. In the city the folk become a submerged proletariat. Leisurely yarn-spinning, slow-paced aphoristic conversation become lost arts; jazzed-up gospel hymns provide a different sort of release from the old spirituals; the blues reflect the distortions of the new way of life. Folk arts are no longer by the folk for the folk; smart businessmen now put them up for sale. Gospel songs often become show-pieces for radio slummers, and the blues become the double-talk of the dives. And yet, in spite of the commercializing, the folk roots often show a stubborn vitality. Just as the transplanted folk may show the old credulity, though the sophisticated impulse sends them to an American Indian for nostrums, or for fortune-telling to an East Indian "madame" with a turban around her head rather than to a mammy with a bandanna around hers; so the folk for all their disorganization may keep something of the fine quality of their old tales and songs. Assuredly even in the new gospel songs and blues much is retained of the phrasing and the distinctive musical manner. Finally, it should be pointed out that even in the transplanting, a certain kind of isolation—class and racial—remains. What may come of it, if anything, is unpredictable, but so far the vigor of the creative impulse has not been snapped, even in the slums.

    Whatever may be the future of the folk Negro, American literature as well as American music is the richer because of his expression. Just as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were fascinated by the immense lore of their friend Jim, American authors have been drawn to Negro folk life and character. With varying authenticity and understanding, Joel Chandler Harris, DuBose Heyward, Julia Peterkin, Roark Bradford, Marc Connelly, E. C. L. Adams, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes have all made rewarding use of this material. Folk Negroes have themselves bequeathed a wealth of moving song, both religious and secular, of pithy folk-say and entertaining and wise folk-tales. They have settled characters in the gallery of American heroes; resourceful Brer Rabbit and Old Jack, and indomitable John Henry. They have told their own story so well that all men should be able to hear it and understand.

    from Phylon (Winter 1953). NOTE: For a further selection of Brown's prose, see Sanders, Mark A. (ed.) A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown. Boston, Northeastern UP.