The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #169754 Message #4105627
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
11-May-21 - 04:14 AM
Thread Name: 'Shenandoah' rhythm/meter
Subject: RE: 'Shenandoah' rhythm/meter
In your historical references to cotton screwing do you have any indication as to how the songs were actually used?
Here's from the symposium paper:
One may be interested to know how the timing of a song matched the screwmen’s work. We have no recordings of this labor in action, and the scant historical record leaves us without definitive information. Moreover, there appears to have been developments in singing style over the century during which cotton-screwing was practiced. However, with reference to the period under discussion, the mid-nineteenth century, using clues from text descriptions, taking into consideration the nature of the work, and comparing the methods used when singing similar songs in other contexts, I’m prepared to speculate.
One of the great textual clues comes from Nordhoff’s explanation, i.e. “the chorus… comes in at the end of every line, and at the end of which again comes the pull at the screw handles…” As to the nature of the work, operating a jackscrew called for intermittent effort. In other words, all the men had to exert themselves heavily at the same time—but only at short, specific moments. It seems safe to assume that at least some turns of the screw—as those when a bale was reaching its final position—called for effort of the likes that could not be performed with anything but a slower-paced song, or without being very frequently occurring. This is to say that screwmen probably could not sustain a pace of two exertions per refrain. One strain per every, or every other, refrain would seem most logical and accord with Nordhoff’s description. Yet, does this mean the exertion would come on the last word of the refrain? The very last syllable? Or did it come just after the conclusion of the text? The latter seems most likely, when one considers more descriptions of screwmen’s singing and compares the style of some other African-American work-song performances. In these cases, the exertion follows the conclusion of the refrain’s text and is accompanied by a sort of vocal “grunt.”
From the manuscript:
Another source brings both clarity and confusion. The author wrote, in an early (1830) account, “The chorus ‘whagh,’ round goes the screw, crack goes the beams, and in goes the bale.” It was accompanied by a text sample: “Missey berry good lady too. She biley de eggs and gib nigger de broff; whagh!” [Holbrook, Threescore Years, 370.] Remarkably, the refrain appears to be the one word—really, little more than a grunt: whagh! What looks to be happening is that the chanty-man calls out the two-line text and the gang follow this text with a vocalization, a nonsense utterance, in unison with an exertion. The only problem with this reference is that it does not include a halyard chanty type form, i.e. the evenly-balance, call-response form seen in most of the screwmen’s song examples. The writer may have written the song incorrectly or else, more intriguingly, screwmen’s songs of 1830 may have been different than they had come to be by the late 1840s. What this source does offer is the insight that the men did not necessarily perform their exertions upon words of the refrain (as sailors did on deck), but rather may have placed them outside the boundaries of the song’s text—“at the end,” yes, in the sense of after the completion of the refrain.
In the symposium paper, I present another recording:
Take the familiar example of the song “Pay Me [My Money Down],” as heard here. The song-leader, Joe Armstrong of St. Simons island, Georgia, said that he used to sing it as a stevedore loading “heavy timber.” Notice that the added grunt extends the length of the line by approximately one beat, disrupting the evenly metered length that one might expect in a performance.
By way of a final example, one can hear this “disruption” of even meter in the following audio recording of a song that appears to exhibit the genre of screwmen’s songs. [The song is about screwing cotton] The song in this performance looks to have been re-contextualized as a boat-launching song performed by Bahamian singers. [The group of singers, including Abraham Atterly (Rabbit), Jack Delancey, and “Greene,” were recorded by the Alan Lomax-Zora Neale Hurston-Mary Elizabeth Barnicle expedition. The recording is held by the Library of Congress, AFS 378. It can be heard on the website of Florida Memory, beginning at timepoint 19:36. [https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/238001]] What stands out is the metrical irregularity at the ends of some refrains. These deviations from a steady pulse and four-beat phrases, which provide no obvious benefit to launching a boat, are consistent with the pauses argued above to have accompanied the exertion of cotton-screwmen.