“That’s the sound of the men ...”
As part of our usual midday Wednesday feature, we conclude our series on the folkways of Afro-Americans, as part of Black History Month.
We began this series with the performance of the Congolese "Missa Luba" mass setting, which is characterized by the "call-and-response" that is common to the Negro spiritual tradition. This characteristic can be found elsewhere as well.
What came to be known as a “chain gang” is a group of prisoners chained together as part of performing menial or physically demanding work. The practice was common in many state prison systems, particularly in the South, before dying out in 1955. The vast majority of prisoners assigned to this duty were black, so singing to the rhythm of the work facilitated both keeping up the pace, and lightening the burden. A variation of this form of labor, known as "gandy dancers," was used mostly for repair to railroad tracks. In this instance, the men were not prisoners, and were not chained. But the resemblance in the singing is there.
This third clip is a scene from August Wilson's 1995 play, The Piano Lesson, we hear about "'Berta 'Berta," a prison work song the men learned while in Parchman Farm (Penitentiary) in Mississippi. You can hear its roots in the field songs of slaves and in gospel call-and-response, as well as the relation to its distant descendant, rock 'n' roll. Actors: Charles Dutton (an ex-convict before becoming an actor), Courtney Vance, Carl Gordon, Tommy Hollis. This film was directed by Lloyd Richards.