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The following tape recorded program is a presentation of the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is the third in a series on the roots of jazz in the United States. In this program we discuss the negro work songs and the blues. The music of western Africa has always been a functional music. The tone changes in the beat of the drum was a coded message a means of communication. The songs they created with their way of telling the daily gossip. When events were of an importance that warranted their preservation. The song was telling of them were passed from generation to generation as the history of the tribe. When work was to be done in the jungle on the rivers or in the villages songs were created to ease the labor by maintaining a rhythm to work to
songs in West equatorial Africa had a practical utilitarian function to perform. The American Negro told of his daily troubles and his hopes for a better life hereafter in his spiritual journey show he sang in the field as a means of communication when conversing was prohibited. He used words of African origin and references to Biblical adventurers to tell his brothers to go on down the road because I harbored slaves my stuff was hard on the slaves heels this is what Studs Terkel means when he says the spiritual as we know many of them were underground railways dongs redoubled. Me when I go down Moses was sun by the slaves back in the
pre Civil War days and the Underground Railway days Go Down Moses is more than just death longing for a good life in the other world it was not a very good life here and so cold. We used to have double talk that was understood by the slaves and their friends. The abolitionists or those who helped him get to the north country and the negro sang in the south to ease his work songs to pick cotton to songs to chop wood to songs to crush rock to the American Negro along with the spiritual and religious music developed a large repertoire of secular songs of a functional nature. And these we call work songs here are the words of John W work in his book American Negro songs negro laborers usually sang while working. But aside from the pleasure they receive from this activity the singing had at times a definite function for them that of coordinating their efforts. In ordinary
labor any song would suffice and for the most part they sang spirituals. But for certain types of work where rhythmic group action made the work easier. A special type of song became necessary when the group was weapons steel hammer and or drill and the work was coordinated by one of these songs sung by a leader only. And here is an anecdote cited by Mr wook on the importance of the song. The Reverend tells of his employment with the gang laying railroad tracks in Arkansas because he was a good singer. He just asked the boss man for
work and then refused. He watched the gang work for a while and noticed that they were in difficulty because the singer our caller as he was sometimes termed was inexperienced and was timing them wrongly. The men were grumbling often offered to call for them. The gang so appreciated that they went to the boss and requested that he be hired and he was. And here is Studs Terkel of Chicago commenting on the work song and
giving an example. Take this hammer is an example of a work song. That reflects good job of smacking a hammer on a war spike into a crack. And so we take this hammer you take this hammer take it to the captain. You get the whole beat. Of course these are the songs that would help man work all the more efficiently and better but the lyrics of that that take this hammer take it to the captain kind of I'm kind of I'm gonna cover scapes on your PSU was an Lacon kind of the worst kind. They actually went around and kind of I was flying in from the last verses I don't like you know cornbread and molasses. It hurts my pride. It hurts my. Then I can escape. But when the game the sex very great respect the work song finds its sources in America in early slave days and on through slavery they were song but they did not flower. They did not become known to the larger society until after the Civil War when during the
restoration negroes found work of greater variety. They began to leave the fields and plantations for the cities. They worked on the rivers on the railroad construction gangs on building roads and in clearing the lands to the west of timber. Webb's songs became more varied in their content. John Henry on the railroad picked him up this hamma And Don the road gang. Struve this cotton on the levee banks and with freedom Negroes got into trouble. There was no more paternalism. They fought and began to be put in jail following the restoration southern jails were full of negroes without influence or someone to speak for them and they were up to bust and running and building roads and strong heave ho heave ho. I'm going to leave big rock behind big rock being the common name for county jail. And some of the work song became the first secular musical expression of the
negro. He had developed the religious singing adopting his own style of vocalisation to the English him. He had moved on from there under the fire of Christianity and produced the spiritual and the shout. With freedom these songs of hope in another world continued. But the Negro began to move. He left the nature of ties of field and plantation and moved into cities. Civilization in its more secular form beat hot on his trail and the Uni work songs with their rhythm and the hope and despair of the spirituals combine to produce the blues. Some writers. Add in other ingredients. When the spiritual was transformed into the blues the content shifted some of. The emphasis was less on man's relation to God and his future in God's heaven and more on man's devilish life on Earth. All of the musical
antecedents of the late 19th century song were summed up however indirectly in the blues. This spiritual was the dominant strain but the work song the patriotic anthem minstrel words and melodies and all the folk and art song sung in America were compound it into the new form that was Barry Ulanov in history of jazz in America. The Blues differ radically from the spirituals spirituals our choral and communal. The blues are solo and individual. The spirituals are intensely religious and the blues are just as intensely worldly. This spiritual sing of heaven and of the fervent hope that after death the singer may enjoy the celestial joys to be found there. The blues singer has no interest in heaven. And not much hope in earth. A thoroughly disillusioned individual. The spirituals were created in the church the blues sprang up from everyday life. The Exalted verse of many spiritual as could be read appropriately from the most dignified
pulpit. While most of the verse of the blues is unprintable. The spirituals were created and performed without instrumental accompaniment. But the guitar piano or orchestral accompaniment is an integral part of the performance of the blues. Again the spiritual creators thought of every happening in nature as epic. Some dispensational from God or a message from him. The blues singer translated every happening into his own intimate inconvenience. To the spiritual creators The Great Mississippi Flood of a few years ago would have been considered a visitation of a wrathful god upon a sinful community. Do the blues singer. It simply raised the question where can a poor girl go. Those were the words of John W. work of the music department at Fisk University. And here is a similar thought expressed differently by Mahaney Jackson. The average listener can break free. You get checked if. You listen to him you can hear Broadway are already drawing your attention if you have something
in life. Something that kind of treatment. We have a crime so no one is seeking something. And it reaches me and I get to hear and get music in. Fact I love Oh I love the blue because it it tell the story of a man with a broken spirit a man that has a broken spirit but don't a thing wrong when he doesn't have salvation to revive it. When my spirit is broken I can in the spirit of the log advise me. And that's the definition of blue in the gospel song is all I had that cry in. A cry of. Hope despair. Some might call it. A cry that maybe tomorrow I'll make it out be their own. That.
And capitation. That was Mahaney objects in the world famous gospel singer from Chicago and these other thoughts of Abbey Niles as he wrote them in the introduction to W. C. Handy's book the blues. The Blues sprang up among illiterate and more or less despised classes of Southern negroes by Roman pianists careless nomadic laborers watchers of incoming trains and steamboats street corner guitar players and out a spiritual matter for choral treatment of blues was a one man affair originating typically as the expression of the singer's feelings and a complete in a single verse. It might start as a little more than an interjection. A single line sung because singing was a natural method of expression as speaking. But while the idea might be developed if at all and any one of many forms of songs there was one which perhaps through its very simplicity and suitability for improvisation
became very popular. The line would be sung repeated repeated once again. The second repetition some inner voice would say Enough. And there would have come into being a crude loop. Don't you. When you're the spiritual is designed for a group singing and it has always sounded most authentic. Song in chorus despite the cultured efforts of Marian Anderson Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. But the Blues is a song for one song for man or woman but a song for one a spiritual rarely
had a come to mind other than the rhythmic clapping of the singers and the prayers. But the Blues has been and the song alone. I would get all orchestra. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Fight. Not again. It is the negro moving to the city and becoming acquainted with white man's instruments.
First it was the guitar or band box strings. The homemade variety which became the banjo. Then what was known as a spasm bans with instruments made from Cigar boxes tubs washboards Combs etc.. And finally bands with trumpets clarinets fiddles drums and even tuba as these instruments quite frequently were relics of civil war marching bands which had found their way to hock shops. So the blues with the introduction to jazz they provided a spirit I world outlook and a band to play it and that spirit was best described by stilling a brown and I paper red at the post Tanglewood roundtable on jazz in Lenox Massachusetts in August of 1952. The spirit of the blues is defined by the songs themselves as the blues ain't nothing but a good man. Way way down the blues ain't nothing but the poor man's heart disease. Did you have a
dream luck and wake up cold in hand. Love is like a faucet you can turn it off and on but when you think you've got it done turned off and gone. And when a woman finds love and it leaves her behind she sings. There are 19 men living in my neighborhood 18 of them are poor and the other ain't no doggone good. And even if you love the stage he may stray and in his
sleep he calls his second gal and you saying. I hear my daddy call some other woman's name. I know you don't mean me but I'm going to answer just the same. But women are not always outdone in the blues. Some women have more love than their share. I ain't good looking. Ain't got no great long hair. But I got ways baby that take me everywhere and even men when they're short. If they do a woman wrong they may get killed. And there's just no one to stand in a woman's mind. The judge says Bessie why did you kill your man. I said judge you ain't no woman. You just can't understand. And the man known last desperate when a woman won't stop bothering them mind. I'm going to murder my baby if she don't stop cheating in line. I'd rather be in a penitentiary than worried out of my mind.
But the blues is not all love for the Negro still clung to his deep desire to sing about his life and his life was not all love even after the Emancipation. He still sang about the little troubles he had.
He sang about bed bugs in his bed about cotton planting about gambling losses and drinking. Blues about being broke and about being lonesome. He sang about floods and fires and sickness and old age. And he poured one of these songs into a common mode the blues. Let everybody know about it and stop too. And the only man that could help was Joe Turner was known to be a man that would help and and then they would stop.
Then I would go grab anything they could. Sometimes they would get stomped. Then again it wouldn't and it would come up in the kitchen. Then I would know and they would start.
No no that never never. Here Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy discuss these blue
Studs Terkel. Pete Seeger is one of America's Outstanding folk song singers. Big Bill has been called the greatest blues singer alive. He was made a boy band on this point. That dressed up. You call yourself a Mississippi blues trash like Lonnie Johnson from New Orleans now would you mind telling us the difference. Because he plays a street called the same as ours has got so many you can't. Break one of those. Thought about that why you wind up.
You don't nor nobody else and nowhere is no wheelwright and Big Bill brought out something important in that interview with Studs Terkel. Blues sung in the back country at work on the levees didn't possess any fixed rhythm or sense of time. It was a time that made sense because the singer felt it that way if he wanted to linger he lingered. If he wanted to be loud or soft or hurried he was so. But when the Blues along with the negro moved to the cities it also underwent the hardening fires of civilization its rhythm became steady its form took on solidity and it became a form such as a sonnet in poetry is. A form into which thousands of stories could be tumbled and yet some say that the blues sound all alike. Well here is Pete Seeger and what he has to say
on the topic. But in the going to ever say that all blues sounds like a someone who just doesn't know home well as well so there are mixed up. I've had to explain to people that the different kinds of blues like blues and man had one soft sweet and even happy. Sure the same way everywhere. If you don't know about something. You don't appreciate all the different things in it like a person might be you turn the other side of the coin so to speak a person never heard any classical music. Think that all sounds like a person that never heard any music from some foreign country would say it all sounds like a person who never heard any music from China Japan Africa or South America they all turn into like you know just pass it off like a person who doesn't know animals think person never know that there's no horses thing or horses look at wrong person knows animals or know everyone just different as people and getting a very basic point they should answer are skeptics has belittled the 10 areas who just don't know the laws and should hear more of well you know it's like a in the old days they had a sign that it
was a form which a person could put a thousand one different dues and all the great poets would try their hand at the summit like a framework which they put a poem into in the same way the blues it's a wonderful framework in which a person who likes singing like poetry can and used to fit in. Oh. That already.
And so that's the blue line. It's a wonderful framework into which man can pour his feelings. And it came from the Negro of the South who moved to the cities. It came from the hope of the spiritual the despair of his life. It came from the rhythm of the work song and the sorrow of his daily plight. And man has always sung the bloom will continue to sing. That would read and make up one of this has been Program number three in the roots of jazz program number
four will tell of the early days in New Orleans. The roots of jazz is written and produced by Nama Cleary in the studios of radio station w o I. Iowa State College. Ames Iowa radio was the reader. Dick Vogel sound technician. This is Norman Cleary. The preceding program was tape recorded. This is the end AB Radio Network.
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Roots of jazz
Negro work songs and blues
Producing Organization
Iowa State University
WOI (Radio station : Ames, Iowa)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
The influence of African-American work songs and blues on jazz.
Series Description
Music-documentary series in 26 parts, covering various aspects of jazz.
Broadcast Date
Work songs--United States--History and criticism
Media type
Director: Cleary, Norman
Engineer: Vogel, Dick
Host: Chotzinoff, Samuel, 1889-1964
Interviewee: Seeger, Pete, 1919-2014
Interviewee: Terkel, Studs, 1912-2008.
Interviewee: Jackson, Mahalia, 1911-1972
Producing Organization: Iowa State University
Producing Organization: WOI (Radio station : Ames, Iowa)
Speaker: Geesy, Ray
Writer: Cleary, Norman
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 56-24-3 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:43
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Chicago: “Roots of jazz; Negro work songs and blues,” 1956-07-15, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2024,
MLA: “Roots of jazz; Negro work songs and blues.” 1956-07-15. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 14, 2024. <>.
APA: Roots of jazz; Negro work songs and blues. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from