HARLEM LATE NIGHT JAZZ Presents:
The Jazz History Tree
African American work songs originally developed in the era of slavery, 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.
A common feature of African American work 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 format came from African traditions of agricultural work songs 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. The call and response format showcases the ways in which work songs foster dialogue. The importance of dialogue is illuminated in many African American traditions (including blues and rap) and continues to the present day. 1
As scholar Tilford Brooks writes, “improvisation is utilized extensively in Black folk songs, and it is an essential element especially in songs that employ the call-and-response pattern.” 2 Brooks also notes that often times in a work song, “the leader has license to improvise on the melody in [their] call, while the response usually repeats its basic melody line without change.”3 Also evident were field hollers, shouts, and moans—which may have been initially designed for different bands or individuals to locate each other—as well as narrative songs that used folk tales and folk motifs, often making use of homemade instruments.4 After drums were banned in the eighteenth century, African American slaves managed to generate percussion using other devices or their own bodies.
Most agricultural work songs were rhythmic a cappella songs intended to increase productivity while reducing feelings of boredom. The rhythms of work songs, similar to African drum beats, served to synchronize physical movement in groups and coordinate sowing, hoeing, and harvesting.5 The verses in work songs were sometimes improvised and sung differently each time, which provided singers with a subversive form of expression. Slaves sang improvised verses to mock their overseers, express frustrations, and share dreams of escaping. Many work songs also served to create connection and familiarity between workers.
Work songs continued to be used by African Americans well into the twentieth century. For example, black railroad work crews in the southern United States sang them often before modern machinery became available in the 1960s. Crews used songs and chants as tools to help accomplish specific tasks and send coded messages to each other so as not to be understood by the foreman and others. The purpose was to uplift the crew, both physically and emotionally, while coordinating the work at hand.
1 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. (New York: Routledge, 2000).
2 Tilford Brooks, America’s Black Musical Heritage (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1984).
3 Tilford Brooks, America’s Black Musical Heritage, 1984.
4 Ted Gioia, Works Songs and Healing Songs (Duke University Press, 2006), 55.
5 Ed. Philip M. Peek and Kwesi Yankah, African Folklore: An Encyclopedia (London: Taylor & Francis, 2004), 520.