A work song is a piece of music closely connected to a form of work, either sung while conducting a task (usually to coordinate timing) or a song linked to a task which might be a connected narrative, description, or protest song.
Definitions and categories
Records of work songs are as old as historical records, and anthropological evidence suggests that most agrarian societies tend to have them. Most modern commentators on work songs have included both songs sung while working as well as songs about work since the two categories are seen as interconnected. Norm Cohen divided collected work songs into domestic, agricultural or pastoral, sea shanties, African-American work songs, songs and chants of direction, and street cries. Ted Gioia further divided agricultural and pastoral songs into hunting, cultivation and herding songs, and highlighted the industrial or proto-industrial songs of cloth workers (see Waulking song), factory workers, seamen, lumberjacks, cowboys and miners. He also added prisoner songs and modern work songs.
Hunting and pastoral songs
In societies without mechanical time keeping, songs of mobilisation, calling members of a community together for a collective task, were extremely important. Both hunting and the keeping of livestock tended to involve small groups or individuals, usually boys and young men, away from the centres of settlement and with long hours to pass. As a result, these activities have tended to produce long narrative songs, often sung individually, which might dwell on the themes of pastoral activity or animals, designed to pass the time in the tedium of work. Hunting songs, like those of the Mbuti of the Congo, often incorporated distinctive whistles and yodels so that hunters could identify each other's locations and those of their prey.
Agricultural work songs
Most agricultural work songs were rhythmic a cappella songs intended to increase productivity while reducing feelings of boredom. Rhythms of work songs, similar to an African drum beat, served to synchronize physical movement in groups, coordinating sowing, hoeing, and harvesting. The usage of verses in work songs were sometimes improvised and sung differently each time. Improvisation 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 served to create connection and familiarity between workers.
Yankee Doodle is thought to have started out as a harvest song, its words possibly originating from farmers in 15th century Holland. It contained mostly nonsensical and out-of-place words that were presumably sang to a similar—if not the same—tune: "Yanker, didel, doodle down, Diddle, dudel, lanther, Yanke viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther." Farm laborers in Holland at the time received as their wages "as much buttermilk (Botermilk) as they could drink, and a tenth (tanther) of the grain".
African-American work songs
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. Slave Songs of the United States was the first collection of African-American "slave songs." It was published in 1867 by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Though this text included many songs by enslaved people, other texts have also been published that include work songs. Many songs sung by enslaved individuals have their origins in African song traditions, and may have been sung to remind the Africans of home, while others were instituted by the captors to raise morale and keep Africans working in rhythm. They have also been seen as a means of withstanding hardship and expressing anger and frustration through creativity or covert verbal opposition. Similarly, work songs have been used as a form of rebellion and resistance. Specifically, African-American women work songs have a particular history and center around resistance and self-care. Work songs helped to pass down information about the lived experience of enslaved people to their communities and families.
A common feature of African American 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 came from African traditions of agricultural work song 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 and continues on to the present day. Particular to the African call and response tradition is the overlapping of the call and response. The leader's part might overlap with the response, thus creating a unique collaborative sound. Similarly, African-American folk and traditional music focuses on polyphony rather than a melody with a harmony. Often, there will be multiple rhythmic patterns used in the same song "resulting in a counterpoint of rhythms." The focus on polyphony also allows for improvisation, a component that is crucial to African-American work songs. 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." Brooks also notes that often 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." Also evident were field hollers, shouts, and moans, which may have been originally designed for different bands or individuals to locate each other and narrative songs that used folk tales and folk motifs, often making use of homemade instruments. In early African captivity drums were used to provide rhythm, but they were banned in later years because of the fear that Africans would use them to communicate in a rebellion; nevertheless, Africans managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies. Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few examples of work songs linked to cotton picking.
Corn, however, was a very common subject of work songs on a typical plantation. Because the crop was the main component of most Africans' diet, they would often sing about it regardless of whether it was being harvested. Often, communities in the south would hold "corn-shucking jubilees," during which an entire community of planters would gather on one plantation. The planters would bring their harvests, as well as their enslaved workers, and work such as shucking corn, rolling logs, or threshing rice would be done, accompanied by the singing of Africans doing work. The following is an example of a song Africans would sing as they approached one of these festivals. It is from ex bonded African William Wells Brown's memoir " My Southern Home."
All them pretty gals will be there,
Shuck that corn before you eat;
They will fix it for us rare,
Shuck that corn before you eat.
I know that supper will be big,
Shuck that corn before you eat;
I think I smell a fine roast pig,
Shuck that corn before you eat.— Slaves in the Antebellum South
These long, mournful, antiphonal songs accompanied the work on cotton plantations, under the driver's lash.
Work songs were used by African American railroad work crews in the southern United States before modern machinery became available in the 1960s. Anne Kimzey of the Alabama Center For Traditional Culture writes: "All-black gandy dancer crews used songs and chants as tools to help accomplish specific tasks and to send coded messages to each other so as not to be understood by the foreman and others. The lead singer, or caller, would chant to his crew, for example, to realign a rail to a certain position. His purpose was to uplift his crew, both physically and emotionally, while seeing to the coordination of the work at hand. It took a skilled, sensitive caller to raise the right chant to fit the task at hand and the mood of the men. Using tonal boundaries and melodic style typical of the blues, each caller had his own signature. The effectiveness of a caller to move his men has been likened to how a preacher can move a congregation."
Another common type of African American work song was the "boat song." Sung by enslaved people who had the job of rowing, this type of work song is characterized by "plaintive, melancholy singing." These songs were not somber because the work was more troublesome than the work of harvesting crops. Rather, they were low-spirited so that they could maintain the slow, steady tempo needed for rowing. In this way, work songs followed the African tradition, emphasizing the importance of activities being accompanied by the appropriate song.
The historian Sylviane Diouf and ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik identify Islamic music as an influence on field holler music. Diouf notes a striking resemblance between the Islamic call to prayer (originating from Bilal ibn Rabah, a famous Abyssinian African Muslim in the early 7th century) and 19th-century field holler music, noting that both have similar lyrics praising God, melody, note changes, "words that seem to quiver and shake" in the vocal chords, dramatic changes in musical scales, and nasal intonation. She attributes the origins of field holler music to African Muslim slaves who accounted for an estimated 30% of African slaves in America. According to Kubik, "the vocal style of many blues singers using melisma, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic-Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries." There was particularly a significant trans-Saharan cross-fertilization between the musical traditions of the Mabhreb and the Sahel.
Work songs sung by sailors between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries are known as sea shanties. These songs were typically performed while adjusting the rigging, raising anchor, and other tasks where men would need to pull in rhythm. These songs usually have a very punctuated rhythm precisely for this reason, along with a call-and-answer format. Well before the nineteenth century, sea songs were common on rowing vessels. Such songs were also very rhythmic in order to keep the rowers together. Because many cultures used slaves to row, some of these songs might also be considered slave songs. Improvised verses sung by sailors spoke of ills with work conditions and captains. These songs were performed with and without the aid of a drum.
Western music was directly influenced by the folk music traditions of immigrants in the nineteenth century as they moved west. They reflected the realities of the range and ranch houses where the music originated, played a major part in combating the loneliness and boredom that characterised cowboy life and western life in general. Such songs were often accompanied on mobile instruments of guitars, fiddles, concertina and harmonica. In the nineteenth century cowboy bands developed and cowboy songs began to be collected and published from the early twentieth century with books like John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). As cowboys were romanticised in the mid-twentieth century they became extremely popular and played a part in the development of country and western music.
Industrial folk song
Industrial folk song emerged in Britain in the eighteenth century, as workers took the forms of music with which they were familiar, including ballads and agricultural work songs, and adapted them to their new experiences and circumstances. Unlike agricultural work songs, it was often unnecessary to use music to synchronise actions between workers, as the pace would be increasingly determined by water, steam, chemical and eventually electric power, and frequently impossible because of the noise of early industry.
As a result, industrial folk songs tended to be descriptive of work, circumstances, or political in nature, making them amongst the earliest protest songs and were sung between work shifts or in leisure hours, rather than during work. This pattern can be seen in textile production, mining and eventually steel, shipbuilding, rail working and other industries. As other nations industrialised their folk song underwent a similar process of change, as can be seen for example in France, where Saint-Simon noted the rise of 'Chansons Industriale' among cloth workers in the early nineteenth century, and in the USA where industrialisation expanded rapidly after the Civil War.
A.L. Lloyd defined the industrial work song as 'the kind of vernacular songs made by workers themselves directly out of their own experiences, expressing their own interest and aspirations...'. Lloyd also pointed to various types of song, including chants of labour, love and erotic occupational songs and industrial protest songs, which included narratives of disasters (particularly among miners), laments for conditions, as well as overtly political strike ballads. He also noted the existence of songs about heroic and mythical figures of industrial work, like the coal miners the 'Big Hewer' or 'Big Isaac' Lewis.
This tendency was even more marked in early American industrial songs, where representative heroes like Casey Jones and John Henry were eulogised in blues ballads from the nineteenth century. Industrial folk songs were largely ignored by early folk song collectors, but gained attention in the second folk revival in the twentieth century, being noted and recorded by figures such as George Korson, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the US and A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in Britain. The genre declined in popularity with new forms of music and de-industrialisation in the twentieth century, but has continued to influence performers like Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen.
- E. Gioia, Work Songs (Duke University Press, 2006).
- E. Gioia, Work Songs (Duke University Press, 2006), p. xi.
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- N. Cohen and D. Cohen, Long Steel Rail: the Railroad in American Folksong (University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 126.
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