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

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

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.

Cotton picking in Georgia, circa 1960

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.

But never will I pick a bale of cotton
How in the world will I pick a bale a day.


A bale of cotton weighs about 500 pounds.”

In 1954, Odetta would record Lead Belly’s 1940 classic “Cotton Fields.”


When I was a little baby
My mama would rock me in the cradle,
In them old cotton fields back home;
Oh, when them cotton bolls get rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton,
In them old cotton fields back home
It was down in Louisiana,
Just about a mile from Texarkana,
In them old cotton fields back home.

In the 1920s, cabaret and blues singer Bessie Brown offered a not-so-subtle statement on who stood to gain from Black labor in “Song from a Cotton Field.”


Hey, hee, hi, ho, pickin’ cotton all day
Hey, hee, hi, ho, just a-pickin’ away
White folks knows I’m workin’
They knows gon’ be no shirkin’
Hee, hi, ho, I knows I’ll get my pay
Ain’t no use kickin’ ’cause I’ll be pickin’
Till all my children is grown
Then I’ll shuffle and skip and scuffle
To have a field of my own
All my life, I’ve been makin’ it
All my life, white folks takin’ it

This old heart, they’s just breakin’ it
Ain’t got a thing to show for what I done done
But things get brighter; loads get lighter
I’ll keep a-pluckin’ away
Sing my song like I’m happy and gay
All day
Just tell the world for me: My soul’s done set me free
That’s the song I’ll sing till they put me under the clay

In the liner notes to her album Folk Songs of the South, civil rights activist, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and ethnomusicologist Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon revealed that she learned some of the lyrics to “Cotton Need A Pickin’” from Alan Lomax’s American Ballads and Folk Songs.


You know that plenty of cotton am on there,
Well-a, hundred by the tree,
You know the Yankee signed them papers
And they set them darkies free.
You know
Cotton pickin so bad,
Cotton pickin so bad,
Cotton pickin so bad,
I’m gonna pick all over this world.
You know, workin on the cotton track,
Well-a ever since that day,
And I just found out this year
Why I never draw no pay.

Again, cotton picking was not the only work handed to Black folks. Black women predominated in domestic labor; washing clothes was their major area of employment throughout the South. When celebrating organized labor, far too often the work of Black women, and especially the thousands employed as domestics, is often ignored. 

Bessie Smith captured their feelings in song.

I come from a union family. I studied labor history in school. Yet I don’t remember ever being taught about the strike of washerwomen. Do you?

The AFL-CIO documents the history of the 1881 Atlanta washerwomen strike.

Nearly all (98 percent) of these black working women were household workers. On average, women began working as domestics between age 10 and 16 and worked until age 65 or older. In the 1880s, more black women worked as laundresses than in any other type of domestic work. The city had more laundresses than male common laborers. In contrast, only a small portion of white women worked for pay, and the average white family could afford the services of at least a washerwoman […]

Laundresses worked long, tiring hours and their wages ranged from $4 to $8 a month. These wages changed little over time and laundresses would increase their earnings by adding on clients or getting help from their children. Laundresses worked mostly in their own homes or in their neighborhoods with other women. They worked outside in the shade when weather permitted or inside their homes, hanging clothes all over the house to dry.

They made their own soap from lye, starch from wheat bran and washtubs from beer barrels cut in half. Their work began on Monday mornings and continued throughout the week until the clean clothes were delivered on Saturday. Throughout the week, they would carry gallons of water from wells, pumps or hydrants for washing, boiling and rinsing clothes. Then, after hanging the clothes to dry, the women would iron, alternately using several heavy irons at a time.

This very short film from Denver’s local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers offers a brief history of the impact of the washerwomen’s strike.

Portrayals of Black folks as lazy and shiftless are tropes that started early on in our history, and continue today. An animated short helped perpetuate that falsehood, and is discussed in depth in Karl F. Cohen’s Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, as well as at the Cartoon Research blog.

Back in 1941 activists had not organized campaigns to get cartoons pulled from theaters, and they made no effort to target Scrub Me Mama then. By the fall of 1948, however, World War II came and went, and in that time civil rights groups began decrying films that grossly stereotyped African Americans as giving propaganda to the enemy. After the war, organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argued that such films were harmful for children; the NAACP’s later work in the Brown v. Board case showed how stereotypes became ingrained in children at very young ages. Meanwhile, animation producers met with some activists as early as 1944 and agreed to tone down the content. So, in 1948, a reissue of a broad-humored cartoon from before the war stuck out among civil rights groups like a sore thumb.

The NAACP wrote to Universal to request the film’s withdrawal, but the distributor refused. A public relations official offered several reasons for keeping the film in theaters. The cartoon was too popular and had never generated complaints before, it was typical of ethnic imaging from Hollywood, and it could result in other films and film projects disappearing and therefore give African American actors less work. The last reason was a sore spot for groups like the NAACP, because some African American actors publicly complained about the organization’s campaigns against radio and television shows that employed them to play the comical roles.

After months of fruitlessness, the NAACP asked fellow civil rights group the Jewish Labor Committee to communicate with Universal about the cartoon. The organization did, and only then–in February 1949–did Universal pull Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat. Other campaigns against cartoons followed, and some were more successful than others. My book, The Colored Cartoon, chronicles those efforts in detail.

Content warning: This is an extremely, appallingly racist and sexist cartoon.

Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat” was also a hit for the white Andrews Sisters in the 1940s.


In Harlem there’s a little place where everyone goes

To see the way a washerwoman washes her clothes.

If you like boogie woogie rhythm, she’s got a beat,

Let the boogie woogie washerwoman give you a treat!

On every afternoon at one the sessions begin,

And all the boys from all the bands come down and sit in.

They sit around and knock each other out when they play,

While the boogie woogie washerwoman washes all day.

Rubbley-ub-dub, that’s just the way she rubs,

Rubbley-ub-dub, that’s just the way she scrubs,

Rubbley-ub-dub, she wears out all her dubs,

She rubs and rubs her knuckles right down to the nubs, yeah!

The era of the Black washerwomen ended with the advent of washing machines and laundromats, but we must not forget this hard labor, undertaken by thousands of our laundress ancestors. 

The contributions of a Black labor force are also overlooked when it comes to prison labor, which I explored back in 2012. It has not, however, gone undocumented in Black music history. Consider this half-hour documentary, released in 1967.

The Eidolon Media: Film Images Catalogue uploaded the film to YouTube, and notes how it came to exist.

Pete Seeger and Toshi Seeger, their son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson visited a Texas prison in Huntsville in March of 1966 and produced this rare document of of work songs by inmates of the Ellis Unit. Worksongs helped African American prisoners survive the grueling work demanded of them.

Cornetist and trumpeter Nat Adderley recorded “Work Song,” which has since become a jazz standard, in 1960.

Lyrics were later added by Oscar Brown Jr.


Breaking up big rocks on the chain gang
Breaking rocks and serving my time
Breaking rocks out here on the chain gang
‘Cause I been convicted of crime
Hold it steady right there while I hit it
There, I reckon that ought to get it
Been workin’ and workin’
But I still got so terrible long to go
I committed the crime, Lord of needin’
Crime of bein’ hungry and poor
I left the grocery store man bleeding
When they caught me robbin’ his store
Hold it steady right there while I hit it
There, I reckon that ought to get it
Been workin’ and workin’
But I still got so terribly long to go

Though most readers are probably familiar with Sam Cooke’s popular 1960 hit :Chain Gang,” I also like this version, by a cappella group The Persuasions.


All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Working on the highways and byways
And wearing, wearing a frown
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain ga-a-ang
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
Can’t ya hear them singin’
Mm, I’m goin’ home one of these days
I’m goin’ home see my woman
Whom I love so dear
But meanwhile I got to work right he-ere

When we look at the musical record of Black labor — in the fields, in the prisons, as domestics, in the underground economy, as well as in union jobs, there is a whole lot more to explore—on this Labor Day and beyond.

Join me in the comments below, and feel free to post your favorites.

From Daily Kos at Read More. This article is republished from DailyKos under an open content license. Read the original article at DailyKos.

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