The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #126347   Message #2852454
Posted By: John Minear
28-Feb-10 - 04:41 PM
Thread Name: From SF to Sydney - 1853 Shanties Sung?
Subject: RE: From SF to Sydney - 1853 Shanties Sung?
I wanted to share a passage from Bruce Jackson's liner notes for his CD "Wake Up Dead Man". He says,

"The black convict worksong survived into the early 1960s because the southern penitentiary was a copy of the mid-19th century plantation (which itself was probably based on African models - there had been nothing like it in British agricultural tradition). The songs lasted until prison reform made them anachronistic. The overt brutality in the fields ended and slow workers were no longer tortured. Heavy machinery became more economical than large labor forces, so many of the field inmates were reassigned to inside jobs and training programs. Younger blacks saw the songs as holdovers from slavery and Uncle Tom days and refused to join the older black men in performing them. Finally, integration, which put white and black inmates in the same work groups, stopped the songs entirely: the whites wouldn't and couldn't do them, and the nature of the work was such that if every one in a group didn't work in time, no one could.

The genre never moved back outside prison camps because, with end of non-prison gang labor in the South, there was no occasion for performance; one doesn't sing a worksong in a steel mill and these weren't songs one would sit around and chant at a bar or on the porch. The songs existed only in connection with a harsh set of social conditions, and once those conditions altered significantly, the songs disappeared entirely."

If you go to Amazon, you can hear some very brief clips from this album. I recommend "Jody", "I'm In The Bottom", "Down the Line", "Hammer Ring", "Fallin' Down", and "Grizzly Bear". Perhaps the first thing that struck me was that these are more like chants than songs. And they go on for a long time! It seems one of the main differences between these songs and chanties is that the work strokes happen all the way through the song. Another characteristic in some of the other songs is that everybody sings everything. But one can still sense the call/response pattern and the timed work strokes.

It is interesting that these songs died out *because* the whites wouldn't/couldn't sing them with the African Americans, which was exactly the opposite from what apparently happened with the chanties. Also, the younger generation rejected them, again unlike the later generations who sailed toward the end of the 19th century. However, the Industrial Revolution finally triumphed even at sea. The work was no longer there to be done and there was no longer a need for the work song.