When I watch the film “ 12 years of slave”, I am curious about the songs which slaves sang during the field work. I search some famous work song online like “ Arwhoolie ( confield holler)”, “Qutting’ Time song 2” and “ It makes a long time man feel bad”(“The Enslaved Africans of North America.” A Postcolonial African American Re-reading of Colossians ). A common lyrics is “ I won’t be here long, and dark gonna catch me here.” In another song, “ It makes a long time man feel bad” (“The Enslaved Africans of North America.” A Postcolonial African American Re-reading of Colossians ), the lyrics describes that one’s uncles and aunts are not sending him letters anymore, which makes the person feel bad. We can see that people sing these songs to release their emotions. Although these lyrics are not about revenging, and hating, the emotions expressed in the songs are homesick and expecting to be free. I assume that these work songs were created very early and became a tradition of African Americans. Even thought they were slaves, their spirit to get rid of slavery and become free men never disappeared.
The music African had was basically three types: “religious music, work song and recreational music” (“The Enslaved Africans of North America.” A Postcolonial African American Re-reading of Colossians ). Work songs derived from the music of ancestors of African Americans and changed and evolved from slavery period to convict leasing period, and even different careers have different work songs. People sing work songs when they are performing repetitive task and typically had a rhythm to be comfortable with repetitive gestures. There are basically three types of work songs, which are “Call and response- group work songs, Group work songs and Solo hollers as work songs” (The Enslaved Africans of North America.” A Postcolonial African American Re-reading of Colossians).
Work songs are deeply connected with slavery. Frederick Douglas figures out that slave owners like worksongs because they can increase the moral and amount of work. ( “The Enslaved Africans of North America.” A Postcolonial African American Re-reading of Colossians) However, slaves sang work songs to resist their masters. The fact is that a slave who can not sing was unlikely to be adored by their masters because people in south states sing a lot. Some people may think that slaves sing work songs when they are working happily. However, African Americans see working as a punishment, and they sing work songs the most when they are most unhappy. The composing of work songs were done spontaneously and collectively. The content they express is usually an immediate concern or referred to an event in the lives of the slaves. In the movie “ 12 years of slaves”, the slaves sing a song in a funeral
In some area in the south, some men and women with an exceptional voice was paid to lead the singing because the slave owners found out that singing can rise the amount of work. Most slave work songs ranged from field work to folktales to comment slave life. Songs were also used to poke fun at the whites, and African American also made words to laugh at the whites. The whites did not understand those words, so the power switched from the master to the slaves. We can understand that singing is the only thing slaves do every day except working.
In the movie we watched in the class, “12 years of salve”, there is a woman who is doing the singing job. In the funeral, there is a fragment of solo singing of this lady. This lady is respected by those slaves because she is older and has more experience. However, with my research, that lady is likely to be paid by her masters because singing can release themselves and improve the morale to increase the amount of work of slaves. It is interesting that slaves resisted by singing to show that they are not slaves and property, and they have feelings. On the other hand, their masters were ok with singing because it is normal in the south sate and sometimes masters invited the slaves who were good at slaves to singing at the party, and singing can also bring more profits.
At sometimes, extra labors are required. Some masters promised to reward their slaves food and extra supplies if slaves did some quick tasks. During these tasks, songs were used to match the rhythm of the actions required. These songs are called “ Call and respons”. Here is an example of the work song: “ Shuck Dat Corn Before You Eat”.
Caller: I hope dey’ll have some whisky dar,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.
Caller: I think I’ll fill my pockets full,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.
The word “ Shuck” and the second syllable in “ before” need to be stressed (“African American Song.” The Library of Congress.)
Furthermore, blues is an important vocal music form which comes from black work songs. It is characterized by “blue notes”(“Unit 4: Civil War and Reconstruction.” Song Activity: African American Work Songs and Hollers.). From the slavery to early twentieth century. African American created old work songs, but people invented the new way to sing those songs, and blue is one of them. Agriculture work songs were adapted working on the railroads and industrial work. Convict leasing required many labors to work together. John Avery Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax went to the prisons and rural area to record work songs. “ Rock Island Line”, sung by Joe Battle and a group of convicts is a example of group work songs. “ Driving Levee” performed by an unidentified singer belongs to solo holler, which is usual in agriculture work by someone working alone, but might be heard and returned by someone in a neighboring field. Those songs have some elements of Blues.
In my own culture, there is no slave history in China in recent two thousand years except prostitutes. However, In feudal society, it was often that the emperor forced workers to build some large buildings. There were only poems that people describe the cruelty of the emperor and the misfortune of the normal people. There is no well-known song left, and it shows the particularity of the work song. It belongs to African American people and they improved the work song to an important kind of American modern music—blues by their strong talent of music, which is there tradition since they were in African. Work songs mean hope and pleasure for the ancestors of African American, which should be remenbered forever.
“African American Song.” The Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
“The Enslaved Africans of North America.” A Postcolonial African American Re-reading of Colossians (2013): n. pag. Web.
“Unit 4: Civil War and Reconstruction.” Song Activity: African American Work Songs and Hollers. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.