While some people believe work songs originated on Southern plantations in North America, in actuality the origins of work songs resides in Africa, pre-dating slavery in the Americas. The deep roots of work songs started in Africa, and continued to grow and change throughout the Americas during and after the time of slavery.
Definition of Work Song
“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” (Connect4Education).
Work Songs Before Slavery
Work songs started long before African enslavement within the Americas. The songs were a part of African cultures and surfaced all throughout the continent. In Western Africa, “…laborers sang songs that enhanced their ability to work by creating a group consciousness that allowed them to function at a steady, rhythmic pace via the call-and-response pattern” (James 1955, 16). These songs helped get the work done day after day, both in the continent of Africa and through enslavement in the Americas. The aid the work songs gave did not change much between the two places, but the references and how the songs were sung did.
Work Songs During Slavery
Work songs carried over from Africa to the Americas, so they were a byproduct of African enslavement, but also a way the cultures within Africa lived on while working the harsh fields of the North American South. And though the act of singing work songs originated in Africa, the original songs did not carry over, for they were altered because of the new lives enslaved Africans were living. They were no longer farming to keep their own communities and families well or to make a profit; now, they were forced to work for white families, where they endured various levels of trauma, and never received profits for their labor.
The work songs aided the slaves nonetheless and kept them in sync and together as they once did before in Africa. Slave masters noticed this and quickly wanted their slaves to sing as they worked. The well-known slave turned freeman, Frederick Douglass noted this about the slave masters he encountered, stating they did not like a slave that did not sing. Douglass was quoted saying “Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. ‘Make a noise’ and ‘bear a hand,’ are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was generally, among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with the work.
Types of Work Songs
From the establishment of work songs in the Americas, various types of them sprouted around certain job titles enslaved Africans and then Black labors held in the Antebellum South Era and beyond that. One type of work song was called Dock Worker/ Sea Shanty Songs; these songs were sung by men who worked on the waterfront or had jobs relating to sea life. For these songs, some were upbeat and completed the passengers on a whim, while others were quite somber and told of the sadness of sea life, such as wanting freedom, being away from loved ones for a long period of suffering from a captain’s abuse.
Another work type of work song surfaced through modern-say plantations, also known as the American prison system. Prisoners used their work songs for four primary functions: to help supply a meter of work, to pass the time, to be used as an emotional outlet, and like slaves, to keep prisoners together as a unified group during their daily tasks.
During the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s, railroad songs emerged, and were sung and centered around the shouts of the boss, the laying of the railroad tracks, and the clanks of the hammers hitting the nails. These songs were made and transmitted orally, and just like the tracks, emerged from every part of the United States.
The last type of work song being talked about is known as trickster songs and tales. To summarize, this was the art of telling a story, in which a skillful and cunning Black underdog lives to see another day in America where the dominant culture and power was only white. Songs and tales like these gave Black people a sense of amusement and optimism.