Definitions and categoriesRecords of work songs are roughly as old as historical records, and anthropological evidence suggests that all agrarian societies tend to have them. Most modern commentators on work songs have included both songs sung while working as well as songs about work, since the two categories are seen as interconnected. Norm Cohen divided collected work songs into domestic, agricultural or pastoral, sea shanties, African American work songs, songs and chants of direction and street cries. Ted Gioia further divided agricultural and pastorals songs into hunting, cultivation and herding songs, and highlighted the industrial or proto-industrial songs of cloth workers, factory workers, seamen, lumberjacks, cowboys and miners. He also added prisoner songs and modern work songs.
Hunting and pastoral songsIn societies without mechanical time keeping, songs of mobilisation, calling members of a community together for a collective task, were extremely important. Both hunting and the keeping of livestock tended to involve small groups or individuals, usually boys and young men, away from the centres of settlement and with long hours to pass. As a result it had been noted that tended to produce long narrative songs, often sung individually, which might dwell on the themes of pastoral activity or animals, designed to pass the time in the tedium of work. Hunting songs, like those of the Mbuti of the Congo, often incorporated distinctive whistles and yodels so that hunters could identity each other's locations and those of their prey.
Agricultural work songsMost agricultural work songs were rhythmic a cappella songs intended to increase productivity while reducing feelings of boredom. Rhythms of work songs serve to synchronize physical movement in groups, as they in parts of Africa with drum accompaniment, coordinating sowing and hoeing. The usage of verses in work songs are often improvised and sung differently each time. Improvisation provided singers with a sometimes subversive form of expression. Slaves sung improvised verses about escaping. Improvised verses sung by sailors spoke of ills with work conditions and captains. Many work songs serve to create connection and familiarity between workers.
African-American work songsAfrican American work songs originally developed in the era of captivity, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Because they were part of an almost entirely oral culture they had no fixed form and only began to be recorded as the era of slavery came to an end after 1865. The first collection of African American 'slave songs' was published in 1867 by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison. Many had their origins in African song traditions, and may have been sung to remind the Africans of home, while others were instituted by the captors to raise morale and keep Africans working in rhythm. They have also been seen as a means of withstanding hardship and expressing anger and frustration through creativity or covert verbal opposition.
A common feature of African American songs was the call-and-response format, where a leader would sing a verse or verses and the others would respond with a chorus. This came from African traditions of agricultural work song and found its way into the spirituals that developed once Africans in bondage began to convert to Christianity and from there to both gospel music and the blues. Also evident were field hollers, shouts, and moans, which may have been originally designed for different bands or individuals to locate each other and narrative songs that used folk tales and folk motifs, often making use of homemade instruments. In early African captivity drums were used to provide rhythm, but they were banned in later years because of the fear that Africans would use them to communicate in a rebellion; nevertheless, Africans managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies. Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few examples of work songs linked to cotton picking.
Corn, however, was a very common subject of work songs on a typical plantation. Because the crop was the main component of most Africans' diet, they would often sing about it regardless of whether it was being harvested. Often, communities in the south would hold "corn-shucking jubilees," during which an entire community of planters would gather on one plantation. The planters would bring their harvests, as well as their slaves, and work such as shucking corn, rolling logs, or threshing rice would be done, accompanied by the singing of Africans doing work. The following is an example of a song Africans would sing as they approached one of these festivals. It is from ex bonded African William Wells Brown's memoir:
" My Southern Home."
These long, mournful, antiphonal songs accompanied the work on cotton plantations, under the driver's lash.Work songs were used by African American railroad work crews in the southern United States before modern machinery became available in the 1960's. Anne Kimzey of the Alabama Center For Traditional Culture writes: "All-black gandy dancer crews used songs and chants as tools to help accomplish specific tasks and to send coded messages to each other so as not to be understood by the foreman and others. The lead singer, or caller, would chant to his crew, for example, to realign a rail to a certain position. His purpose was to uplift his crew, both physically and emotionally, while seeing to the coordination of the work at hand. It took a skilled, sensitive caller to raise the right chant to fit the task at hand and the mood of the men. Using tonal boundaries and melodic style typical of the blues, each caller had his own signature. The effectiveness of a caller to move his men has been likened to how a preacher can move a congregation."
Another common type of African American work song was the "boat song." Sung by slaves who had the job of rowing, this type of work song is characterized by "plaintive, melancholy singing." These songs were not somber because the work was more troublesome than the work of harvesting crops. Rather, they were low-spirited so that they could maintain the slow, steady tempo needed for rowing. In this way, work songs followed the African tradition, emphasizing the importance of activities being accompanied by the appropriate song.
Sea shantiesWork songs sung by sailors between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries are known as sea shanties. These songs were typically performed while adjusting the rigging, raising anchor, and other tasks where men would need to pull in rhythm. These songs usually have a very punctuated rhythm precisely for this reason, along with a call-and-answer format. Well before the nineteenth century, sea songs were common on rowing vessels. Such songs were also very rhythmic in order to keep the rowers together. Because many cultures used slaves to row, some of these songs might also be considered slave songs. These songs were performed with and without the aid of a drum.
Cowboy songsWestern music was directly influenced by the folk music traditions of immigrants in the nineteenth century as they moved west. They reflected the realities of the range and ranch houses where the music originated, played a major part in combating the loneliness and boredom that characterised cowboy life and western life in general. Such songs were often accompanied on mobile instruments of guitars, fiddles, concertina and harmonica. In the nineteenth century cowboy bands developed and cowboy songs began to be collected and published from the early twentieth century with books like John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). As cowboys were romanticised in the mid-twentieth century they became extremely popular and played a part in the development of country and western music.
Industrial folk songIndustrial folk song emerged in Britain in the eighteenth century, as workers took the forms of music with which they were familiar, including ballads and agricultural work songs, and adapted them to their new experiences and circumstances. Unlike agricultural work songs, it was often unnecessary to use music to synchronise actions between workers, as the pace would be increasingly determined by water, steam, chemical and eventually electric power, and frequently impossible because of the noise of early industry.
As a result, industrial folk songs tended to be descriptive of work, circumstances, or political in nature, making them amongst the earliest protest songs and were sung between work shifts or in leisure hours, rather than during work. This pattern can be seen in textile production, mining and eventually steel, shipbuilding, rail working and other industries. As other nations industrialised their folk song underwent a similar process of change, as can be seen for example in France, where Saint-Simon noted the as the rise of 'Chansons Industriale' among cloth workers in the early nineteenth century, and in the USA where industrialisation expanded rapidly after the Civil War.
A.L. Lloyd defined the industrial work song as 'the kind of vernacular songs made by workers themselves directly out of their own experiences, expressing their own interest and aspirations...'. Lloyd also pointed to various types of song, including chants of labour, love and erotic occupational songs and industrial protest songs, which included narratives of disasters (particularly among miners), laments for conditions, as well as overtly political strike ballads. He also noted the existence of songs about heroic and mythical figures of industrial work, like the coal miners the 'Big Hewer' or 'Big Isaac' Lewis.
This tendency was even more marked in early American industrial songs, where representative heroes like Casey Jones and John Henry were eulogised in blues ballads from the nineteenth century.
Industrial folk songs were largely ignored by early folk song collectors, but gained attention in the second folk revival in the twentieth century, being noted and recorded by figures such as George Korson, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the USA and A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in Britain. The genre declined in popularity with new forms of music and de-industrialisation in the twentieth century, but has continued to influence performers like Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen.