Work Songs

As a result of forced migration, slaves were stripped of their cultures and religions. Many slaves were forced to adopt Christianity and began to learn European and American Christian hymns. They adopted fragments from these hymns and unified them with African beats and rhythms to express their feelings and cope with the reality of their new lifestyle. These musical adaptations became known as work songs or spirituals, which had common themes of hope, faith, struggle, weariness, and the desire of freedom.


The Work Song: A Secular Perspective

Emotional expression through music has been prevalent since before the colonization of Africans. Synchronization, drumming, improvisation, and dance were all things that African used in village rituals. 

When they were forced to come to America, many methods of celebration and emotional release were stripped from them, resulting in the development of alternatives to communicate with each other in the field and in the slave quarters. Examples of this include field hollers, which were used to communicate feelings of sorrow amongst each other while working. 

Work songs  allowed them to synchronize and accompany sounds from activities like chopping wood as accents with their words or vocalization. 

The Work Song: A Religious Perspective

While performing or reciting spirituals, several practices were used, including call and response, repetition, and communal participation. All of these are present in popular selections “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” “This Might Be the Last Time,” and “Wade In the Water.” These songs and hundreds of others were utilized as a form of communication and expression among slaves. 

The lyrics in these spirituals heavily referenced the bible, causing them to have different interpretations depending on perspective. As slaveowners or overseers listened, the bible references are seen only as homage to the religions they inflicted on the slaves. Underneath the surface, the religious lyrics allude to the wishes and hopes of the slaves. For example, when mentioning the heavens or promised land, they often referred to bodily freedom back in Africa or the northern states. Contrasts between the devil and the Lord compared slaveholders’ thoughts and those who advocated for the slaves. They developed these codes within their spirituals to avoid being caught speaking negatively about their slaveholders.

Field Hollers
A form of vocalization or singing used by slaves to communicate or express feelings in the field.
Negro Spirituals
A religious utilizing elements of African music and European hymnals.
A repeated section of a song that usually has new lyrics through each repetition.
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