Work Songs

Outside of the church, the "call and response" element of spirituals manifested itself in work songs.

The aftermath of slavery had a different impact on the African Americans living in the Delta area than it did for those in the Carolina Low Country. In Mississippi, the primary means of African American livelihood became sharecropping. Former white plantation owners would hire former slaves to work the land in exchange for food, clothing, housing and a small bit of pay. In terms of the power structure, the laborer was subjected to the demands of the sharecropper until he paid all debts in full. This relationship was further skewered by the landowners ability to "rent" out his laborers if s/he felt it would yield larger profits. As sharecroppers, African Americans kept the pace of their work through work songs. Similar to the field hollers of Charleston, these songs addressed the hardships of African American life, specifically their increased vulnerability to white landowners. Southern Legislators designed laws to protect landed whites and help generate revenue for the state. Additionally, the abundance of African Americans in the Delta made it easier to replace a laborer if s/he did not meet the sharecropper's demands. Those sharecroppers occasionally reversed the trend, however, leaving one plantation to relocate to another with better treatment or a fairer deal. This theme comes up often in blues songs of the period.
 

If the social and economic conditions proved too oppressive, African Americans could pick up their families and migrate north. Many did so, leading to an historical event known as The Great Migration. In an attempt to keep their labor pool from vanishing, powerful white landowners supported the development of institutions like the "Parchman Farm." In Parchman, a prison operated as if it were a plantation, work songs morphed into prison or chain gang songs. Following the same "call and response" model, themes for these songs focused on prison life and nostalgia for estranged family members or free life. In areas where chain gangs still exist, prisoners use chain gang songs to set the pace for their work.