Other Musical Threads
Other forms of variety shows sprang up to highlight Negro work songs and spirituals, cowboy songs, and folk music from England, Scotland and Ireland. Ultimately, these musical threads would find their way into American popular music and into the compositions for shows on Broadway.
Looking at Negro work songs, whether working as stevedores on the Mississippi or as members of a prison work gang, the music was sustaining and proud, even in repentance for old acts. We can get a good sense of the “work song” by listening to the following three songs: “Swing Dat Hammer,” “Go Down Old Hannah” and “Lightning-Long John.”
In terms of just the musical quality, there is no equal to Harry Belafonte’s recording of “Swing Dat Hammer.” Leaving aside the peerless quality of his own voice, the true legacy of the recording is found in the harmony created by the chorus. They provide the wall of sound that turns the song into timeless music. To start the audio file, please click on the black box below.
The next two songs are authentic recordings of prisoners in a camp (“Old Hannah”) and on a chain gang (“Long John”). These songs are not great music, but they give you an idea of men who wish they hadn’t strayed but now survive through “rhythmic endurance.” And rhythmic endurance is the essence of a work song.