Jazz - Then and Now (Chapter 3, page 1 of 5)


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Chapter 3

Work songs combined qualities from both Europe and West Africa. The principle difference between the spiritual and the work song was the place where they were performed. Spirituals were associated with church, but work songs were always associated with labor that dealt with their daily life.

The work song was composed of short phrases, usually between two to four bars, sung with a rhythmic beat. It consisted of a solo and a chorus following it, in the call-and-response pattern. This West African tradition (the work song) has survived to the present time, and is sung wherever blacks are used for forced labor.

The main purpose of the work song was to create and maintain a rhythmic beat in order to keep the slaves organized and working at a steady pace.

Another reason slaves sang the work song was to relieve the pain of their mistreatment or imprisonment. The work song also provided a way for the slaves to temporarily forget their troubles. Work songs were also sung to express their personal feelings and to cheer and encourage one another.

Slaves were used for labor in the cotton fields, the rice fields, on the dock loading and unloading cargo. Slaves were also called on to dig in the mines or lay tracks for the railroad companies. When hard labor was required, slaves frequently did the work.

Organizing the singing required the direction of a good work song leader. If any slave had the ability to lead a group of workers, he made sure his capability to do so was brought to the attention of the plantation owner or company boss. And there was always a need for a good work song leader. Under the leader's direction, everyone benefited. Although the leader was present with the workers, he was spared their hard labor. To the plantation owner or boss, it meant more production and fewer problems among the workers. To the workers themselves, the singing of the work songs eased the pain of the labor and made the work more bearable.

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