A work song is typically a rhythmic a cappella song sung by people working on a physical and often repetitive task. The work song is probably intended to reduce feelings of boredom. Rhythms of work songs also serve to synchronize physical movement in a gang. Frequently, the usage of verses in work songs are often improvised and sung differently each time. The improvisation provided the singers with a sometimes subversive form of expression: improvised verses sung by slaves had verses about escaping, improvised verses sung by sailors had verses complaining about the captain and the work conditions. Work songs also help to create a feeling of familiarity and connection between the workers.
Work songs sung by slaves are known by many names around the world. In America, such songs were the foundation for what would eventually become the Blues. Some songs were part of a native heritage and sung to remind the slaves of home, while others were instituted by the slave masters to raise morale, keep slaves working in rhythm, or any number of other purposes. Black American slave songs might be referred to as "chain gang songs" or "spirituals" depending on the context of the song.
In America, the most famous slave songs were sung by African-American slaves in the South. These songs were typically in a call-and-response format, where a lead would sing a verse or verses and the other workers would respond with a chorus. One very famous song from this era is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a spiritual. Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped to New York, noted in 1845 that
While on their way (to work), the slaves would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out, if not in the word, in the sound; and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
Slave music in America fell into two main categories: spirituals and secular music. The secular music typically "consisted of field hollers, shouts, and moans that used folk tales and folk motifs, and that made use of homemade instruments." Though drums were banned in later years for fear that black slaves would use them to communicate in a rebellion, slaves "managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies.
Spirituals were rooted deeply in Christianity, to which many slaves were fervent converts. This fervor echoed the rise of Christianity among Roman prisoners and slaves many centuries earlier.
Today, many slave songs are sung as performance pieces, usually in the genre of folk music.
Well before the 19th 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, these songs might also be considered slave songs. These songs were performed with and without the aid of a drum.
Work songs had a very slow style and were normally sung in 4/4.
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