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Black people have labored hard since we were dragged here in chains. Here's the music that proves it

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05.09.2021

As Labor Day looms, it should come as no surprise that this week’s edition of #BlackMusicSunday features music and songs about work and Black workers. This, of course, isn’t the first time this topic has been featured in this series, and it likely won’t be the last.

Though Labor Day in the U.S. has radical origins, and its genesis included a strike by Black Pullman porters, we must not forget to look beyond the holiday: This country was built upon the backs of Black enslaved laborers, starting from the time when we were dragged here in chains.

Far too often, when I hear discussions of “the working class” or “the labor movement,” the workers referenced are white. Black people have a body of music that belies that myth and distortion of our history.

Much of the early music about Black work was centered in rural plantation labor, like picking cotton.

This focus began to shift during the Great Migration period, as Black male labor became a key part of jobs on the railroad, and in shipbuilding, meatpacking, steel, rubber, and automotive industries.

Black women also were part of this change, though continuing to dominate domestic household worker positions. Later their labor would expand into the service sector in food service, health care, and childcare. The informal or underground economy, with a range of “hustles,” was also captured in song.

We’ll go back to cotton picking. But first, to start this week’s playlist, this 2021 episode of South Carolina journalist Art Fennell’s Country Style docuseries, introduces us to the history of cotton farming and picking in the South.

Blues and folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter—known to most fans as Lead Belly—recorded this version of “Pick a Bale of Cotton” around 1939.

The song is attributed to prison inmates.

Got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale of cotton
You got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale of hay
You got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale of cotton
You got to jump down and turn around and pick a bale a day

Pancocojam’s Azizi Powell provides some background information on the song.

The work songs of African American convicts constitute the most poignant evidence of the continuity from Pre-Civil War chattel slavery to the twentieth century prison. The songs have served much the same function for modern prison slaves as the work songs of their slave ancestors. They pace collective labor such as picking cotton under the boiling sun on prison plantations, precisely time dangerous joint activities like chopping down trees, and provide an assertion of people’s creativity and a defense of their humanity. The songs thus made it possible to survive under the most brutal and degrading condition, conditions designed to reduce them to work animals.

Some of the old slave songs actually persisted well into the second half of the 20th century.

For example, these lines were sung by modern convicts picking cotton on a Texas prison plantation:

Well old marster told old mistress I could pick a bale of cotton
Well old marster told old mistress I could pick a bale a day.
You big enough and black enough to pick a bale of cotton.
You big enough and black enough to pick a bale a day.

Chorus
But never will I pick a bale of........

© Daily Kos


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