|Date(s):||1867 to 1947|
|Location(s):||Texas | Mississippi | Louisiana|
|Tag(s):||African-Americans, Work Songs, Prison Songs|
|Course:||“Incarceration in the US,” Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis|
|Rating:||5 (1 votes)|
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi all had large state penitentiaries with them, where African-American men and women resided. Many people visited these prisons to listen to and record these talented men and women singing, including the famous folklorists John Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Dr. Harry Oster. The recorded singers talked about their life experiences, including prison, and the way that music had greatly impacted them. Before they became musicians and wrote their own music, each man was involved in work songs while in prison. Work songs are pieces of music that are sung while conducting a task. The songs might be a connected narrative, description, or protest song. They are the reason that people visited prisons to record music.
Prison work songs are a piece of evidence connecting slavery to incarceration. Once African-Americans came to the U.S. as slaves, they sang songs that reminded them of home and their cultural roots as they were in the midst of oppression. Some songs that were sung carried different meanings and messages within them and each song had its own style or rhythm to it. The most common feature of work songs is the call-and-response format where a leader would sing a verse or two and the other men and women would follow with the chorus. To keep every person motivated and in sync while working through the blistering hot or freezing cold days, they sang songs. The work songs were sung to maintain a steady work pace and to keep the beat for the song, the prisoners used their tools. For example, while chopping logs and singing, half of the men would swing their axes down into the log, while the other half of the men were on their upswing. This kept a steady momentum to make work a bit easier and keep the prisoners sane.
As the prisoners spoke about their music, they provided information about some songs and what the songs meant. One African-American man who stuck out as he was a great singer and very well-known to the public was Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly). Leadbelly talked about one song in particular called "Go Down Old Hannah." "Old Hannah" is what the prisoners called the sun throughout the south. They sang about the color of "Old Hannah" and the pain it brought upon them and their partners or friends working next to them. They wanted the sun to go down for it meant their work day was now over. Here is an excerpt from the song, "Go Down Old Hannah": "Why don't you go down, ol' Hannah / Don't you rise no more. / If you come up in the mornin' / Bring judgement sure. / Well I look at ol' Hannah / She was turnin' red. / Well I look at my partner. / He was almost dead." Some work songs were known from prison to prison as they were first sung by African-Americans as slaves. Other songs were unique to the prison itself and had their own-meanings. They are beautiful, powerful and moving pieces of music that hold a great part of American history.