African-American women work songs
A work song is a song sung while doing labor or any kind of work. Usually the song aids in keeping rhythm or is used as a distraction. Work songs can include content focused around the surrounding environment, resistance, or protest. Many different groups throughout history have sung work songs. Enslaved African-American women had a unique history associated with work songs. Their work songs portrayed their specific standpoint and experiences during the slavery period in the United States.
Work songs were often derived from traditional African songs. Many work songs were in the format of a call and response. The call and response format demonstrates how work songs foster dialogue. The importance of dialogue is illuminated in many African-American traditions and continues 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. Oftentimes, 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 oftentimes 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."
The African-American work song tradition has plentiful examples. Study of these provides a unique look into particular resistance tactics used by enslaved people. The work song traditions of enslaved or incarcerated African-American men have been widely studied, but African-American enslaved women similarly incorporated song into their work and resistance narratives. Work songs were both an expression of release and the creation of a shared narrative.
Many of the women's songs discuss freedom or coping with the suffering associated with slavery. Enslaved women sang songs to their children about slavery. African-American enslaved women also sang lullabies to their children. These songs illuminate a certain time period and the struggles many enslaved individuals endured. Work songs and lullabies sung by enslaved women commented on the gendered dynamic of slavery.
One song speaks of a family being torn apart by sales:
"Mammy, is Ol'Massa gwin'er sell us tomorrow?
Yes, my chile.
Whar he gwin'er sell us?
Songs sung by enslaved women also deserve recognition as poetry. Often times, the songs are complex and express the lived experience of enslaved women. Scholar Lauri Ramsey classifies songs sung by enslaved peoples in the lyric poetry tradition. She says that lyric poetry can be described as "conveying the voices of particular individuals, speaking in their own dictions (or dramatizing those of characters), addressing their own communities, and selecting from a wide range of 'acceptable' forms or prosodic features employed either conventionally or innovatively."
Songs sung by enslaved individuals helped in preserving important cultural traditions. Often enslaved peoples were combined with groups from other cultures, and forced to give up their specific traditions and heritage. Singing songs helped to maintain an important oral tradition. Enslaved women were taught to think of themselves and their culture as inferior. But enslaved mothers found that singing songs and lullabies to their children was an important resistance tactic, as they could pass on traditions in a somewhat discreet way.
Many owners of plantations thought that because there workers sang in the fields, it meant that the slaves were happy doing their work. But enslaved men and women were often singing songs about loss, sorrow or struggle. Thus, the practice of singing work songs was radical because slave owners could not understand the content and therefore did not always ban singing. Singing created a sense of community, a community space untainted by the presence of their masters.
Jacqueline Jones comments on how song helped to create community:
On many plantations, it was the custom to release adult women from fieldwork early on Saturday so that they could do their week's washing. Whether laundering was done in old wooden tubs, iron pots, or a nearby creek with batten sticks, wooden paddles, or washboards, it was a time-consuming and difficult chore. Yet this ancient form of women's work provided opportunities for socializing "whilst de 'omans leaned over de tubs washin' and a-singin' dem old songs." Mary Frances Webb remembered wash day – "a regular picnic" – with some fondness; it was a time for women "to spend the day together," out of the sight and earshot of whites.:251
Scholar Gale Jackson acknowledges the complexity of black women's work songs and says, "African American women's work and play songs utilize characteristically African modalities of storytelling, improvisational 'bantering,' and historical documentation, pairing song and dance in percussive, multi-metered, polyphonic, call and response performance, to engage in circles of ancestry, articulation of journey, acts of witness, transformative pedagogy, and communal art making.":775 Work songs fostered a collective, collaborative work environment, one that was made as an act of rebellion and resistance by enslaved women during their forced work.
Bile the Cabbage Down
Raccoon has a bushy tail Possum's tail is bare
Rabbit's got no tail at all but a little bunch of hair.
Bile them cabbage down, down
Bake that hoe cake brown brown
The only song that I can sing is
Rainbow Round My Shoulder
I got a rainbow Huh!
Round my shoulder Huh!
It ain't gonna rain Huh!
Come on Mr. Tree
You almost down
Come on Mr. Tree
Hit the ground
Shoo, fly don't bother me
Shoo, fly don't bother
Shoo, fly don't bother me
Cause I belong to somebody.
I feel, I feel, I feel
I feel like a morning star
I feel, I feel, I feel
Old Cotton Old Corn
Old cotton, old corn, see you every morn
Old cotton, old corn, see you since I was born
Old cotton, old corn, hoe you till dawn
Keep yo' eye on de sun,
See how she run
Don't let her catch you with you work undone,
I'm a trouble, I'm a trouble,
- Jackson, Gale P. (2015). ""Rosy, Possum, Morning Star: African American Women's Work and Play Songs": An Excerpt From Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance". Journal of Black Studies. 46 (8): 773–796. doi:10.1177/0021934715603357.
- Hill Collins, Patricia (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
- Brooks, Tilford (1984). America's Black Musical Heritage. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
- Levine, Lawrence W., Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
- Ramey, Lauri, Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 17.
- Courlander, Harold (1976). A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore:The Oral Literature, Traditions, Recollections, Legends, Tales, Songs, Religious Beliefs, Customs, Sayings and Humor of People of African Descent in the Americas. New York: Marlowe & Company.
- Jones, Jacqueline (1982). "My Mother Was Much of a Woman: Black Women, Work, and the Family under Slavery". Feminist Studies. 8: 235–269. doi:10.2307/3177562.
For more songs and information go to these pages:
The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project.
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