The Evolution of Work Songs

By: Jala Stubbs and Deja Johnson

What are Work Songs ?

Throughout history, music has been an outlet for people of African descent to express themselves and tell their stories. Music was a way of describing the struggles they faced as well as the beauty in the struggle. Work songs have dated all the way back to the eighteenth century, during slavery, as not only a means of occupying the mind while conducting a task but also to project hope for the future. During that time, most work songs included lyrics about the oppression they faced and the tasks they had to complete per their slave owner. Moving into the 50s and 60s, work songs reflected shouts of protests and the change that would transpire as segregation came to end. In today’s society, work songs have done a complete 180, and have transformed in order to reflect the experiences of the artist. Popular artists such as Future, have created work songs reminiscent of their illegal pharmaceutical past. Rap and recently formed Trap music has reflected the narrative of a rough side of African American living, to which many people with checkered pasts can relate to. Music is important because it doesn’t invalidate or judge the experiences of others, rather it creates and sustains the oral history of the people creating it.

The Origin of Work Songs

Work songs was a form of music developed during slavery. Work songs can be described as rhythmic as they are usually sung during repetitive work to coordinate the labor of a group and to make time go by during work. The call and response method can also be found in work songs created during slavery as one person would call out a line and the remainder of the group would respond with the other lines of the song. Slave owners encouraged slaves to sing work songs because they believed it made the slaves work harder and faster. Work Songs were also way for slaves to pass information to one another and from generation to generation. 

Timeline of Work Songs

1930’s Ed Lewis

I Be So Glad… When The Goes Down

“I be so glad when the sun goes down
I be so glad when the sun goes down
I ain’t all that sleepy but I wanna lie down
I ain’t all that sleepy but I wanna lie down
I wanna lie down
I wanna lie down”

1950’s James Carter & The Prisoners 

Po’ Lazarus 

“With his head hung down
Well then the high sheriff, he told Lazarus
He says Lazarus I come to arrest you
Well the high sheriff, told Lazarus
Says Lazarus I come to arrest you
And bring ya dead or alive
Lawd, Lawd”

1970’s Lead Belly

Pick a Bale of Cotton

“Jump down, turn around to pick a bale of cotton
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale a day
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale of cotton
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale a day.”

1980’s Dolly Patron

9 to 5

“Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living
Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving
They just use your mind, and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it”

2009 Anika Noni Rose

Almost There

“And I’m almost there
I’m almost there
People down here think I’m crazy
But I don’t care
Trials and tribulations
I’ve had my share
There ain’t nothing gonna stop me now
‘Cause I’m almost there”

2014 Future

Move that Doh

“Young n**ga move that dope
They move that dope, they move that dope
Young n**ga move that dope

Whippin’ the yam, whippin and flippin’ the yam
Turn the whole brick to a Lam
Re-rockin’ the dope, soon as it get off the boat
Keepin’ it soft like a mink
Gold on my link, coke in the sink
Choppin’ that work like karate”