The Voice of Many: Community Singing

What is Community Singing?

In folk music we often think about the different instruments used and artist who were the most popular in the genre. But, have you heard of the groups of everyday people who would sing about their everyday lives? Well, if you haven’t, I’d like to introduce you to community singing.

In community singing there are work songs, children’s songs and protest songs to name a few. While they vary in style and purpose, they all include something similar which is referred to as the call and response. The call and response is an essential aspect of this type of sub-genre of folk music. When a leader in the group calls out one line, there is a response by the others in the group. Each song has it’s own distinct call and response style which determines what the songs meaning.

Work Songs

Works songs were one of the many things the slaves brought over from Africa. The songs were used wherever groups of people worked together. They would be sung to motivate and keep one another’s spirits lifted in times of anguish. The songs were often based in the day to day life of the singers and they ranged from somber tunes to love ballads. Even when slaves weren’t working these songs found their way into any form of group. They were even used to celebrate different occasions or boast about when teams were formed for events on the plantation. The songs were often improvised by the the singers which allowed the subject of the songs to be so versatile. These calls and responses were usually related to unification, since the slaves came from all different parts of Africa as they formed a new way a life this was a way of joining together as one. 

Children's Songs

In the children’s songs they usually incorporated some for of play in them. The songs were meant to also serve as games for the children where they could mimic adults. The songs were filled with African influences from the dancing to the rhymes and melodies the children sang. In these songs the call and response was usually carried out for play reasons, and most likely had no serious meaning behind it. Post slavery these types of songs and chants have carried on and have taken on a new life in things like double dutch songs. While the new versions may not have a call and response it still carries on the tradition of keeping it upbeat and having fun.

Protest Songs

Protest songs were often rarely sang and for good reason. These songs were considered to be dangerous as they would contain a lot of satire. If the songs were sung they would often pose a threat to all the slaves on the plantation. The songs were created to poke fun at their masters and protest the work they were doing. Here a call and response was used either as a notification or to spite the master of the plantation. A lot of the songs reference freedom, and freedom back then was threatening to plantation owners. While the days of slavery may be over African American people still face racism and oppression. Now days when we go protesting in the streets we still continue the tradition of using your voice to advocate for your freedom.

In conclusion, these songs created by the everyday people were meaningful ways of creating community. From joining together to get through tough times to advocating for their rights. As time has passed these songs have been passed down from generation to generation. Nowadays some of the songs have been lost or have taken on a new meaning. But, every now and then if you listen carefully you may hear some kids singing an old song and playing double dutch just like back in the day.

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