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Cornfield Songs

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

Negro Workaday Songs. By Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.00.

IT IS almost inevitable that the reader will come from “Negro Workaday Songs” more firm in his conviction that the negro has far less of poetry than of music in his soul, and for this the very nature of the book is responsible. The purpose of the collection is avowedly to furnish a third contribution to the series of folk-background studies begun in “The Negro and His Songs,” by the same editors, and continued in Newbell Puckett’s “Folk-Beliefs of the Southern Negro.” Its emphasis is accordingly social. The editors have not overlooked, however, the literary or artistic value of the selections presented, and have rectified one weakness of their previous volume by supplying a chapter with tunes to more than a dozen of the songs. Their observations, although sounder as sociology than as literary criticism, are generally significant; but apart from the extent to which we may interpret a race through song and folk-lore, the fact remains that the ratio of one air to twenty song-texts is hardly enough to give the reader much insight into the musical quality—no less representative of the negro than the words—of the selections. Even though he is quite willing to assume that the songs sing much better than they read, and should for fullest effect be rendered by a group, the reader will instinctively judge them as poetry—and the cornfield negro is not a poet.

All of the specimens cited are direct transcriptions of songs “sung or repeated by actual Negro workers or singers.” The secular pieces are not so appealing as the older spirituals yet they contain some very fine imagery: witness the description of the whirling flash of pick-axe in the sun, in

“I got rainbow Tied all round my shoulder,”

or the self-explanatory

“I done walk till Feets gone to rollin’ Jes’ lak a wheel.”

Nor are the workaday songs so well known, but are altogether unstandardized, most of these being printed for the first time. Some are fragmentary, many are crude, others are meaningless through countless mutations, there is abundant repetition of sentiment and phrase; but it is not possible to read the volume closely without encountering scores of passages that epitomize the temperament of the Southern negro, from such a characteristic reminder as “de ride am free to heaven” where the elect shall “eat what de angels eat” to the equally typical lamentation at possessing “no ready-made money” or at having “Cap’n get shoe shine off my britches.”

By workaday songs is meant not songs of labor but rather songs that are sung during work. Practically every type of negro work rhyme is represented here—songs of the “po’ boy long way from home” singing down “that lonesome road,” of the “bad man from bad man’s land,” of the bonds of jail and chain-gang or woman and love, of the comparative merits of “high brown” and “chocolate drop,” of the “creeper” who “fools wid another man’s woman,” of “hollerin’ jes’ to he’p me wid my work.” In the greater number, with a fine disregard of relevance, the composer breaks his thread again and again to apostrophize his Lord as a sort of chum and ari always eager listener. Also, in spite of the endless “blues,” the workaday sorrow songs which the editors deem “next to the spirituals probably the Negro’s most distinctive contribution to American art,” the majority of the selections have a humorous touch. The philosophic resignation which leads the negro to palliate his troubles with broad humor appears best in the prison songs:

“I’m ‘hind de bars, but jes’ for a day, ‘Cause walkin’ out de do’ ain’t de only way;”


“I can shin de highes’ tree in all de worl’ When I hear dem houns, dem chain gang houns;”

or when he comforts himself that the poor prison fare is “better ‘n I has at home” at the same moment that he observes that his iron cuffs are “stronger ‘n I has at home.” Sometimes the humor is plaintive, as when the incarcerated negro sings: “De rabbit in de briar patch, De squirrel in de tree, Would love to go huntin’, But I ain’t free, But I ain’t free, But I ain’t free, Would love to go huntin’, But I ain’t free, ain’t free.”

It may be cynical:

“See two passenger trains, Lawd, Runnin’ side by side. See two womens, see two womens, Stan’ an’ talk so long. Bet yo’ life dey got Each an’ de udder’s man;”


“Bill’s wife rid ‘hin’ de hearse, She rid in a hack,

I kotch her grinnin’ at her new daddy Out’n a crack.

She’s got another daddy, Lawd, She’s got another daddy.”

But there are many selections that embody conscious pathos or unconscious tragedy:

“I’s gonna shine Whiter dan snow When I gits to heaven.”

So on through the list, from ballads that relate the exploits of Left Wing Gordon, singing black-skinned nomad, and of John Henry, fictitious steel-driver of the Paul Bunyan type, to the more finished modern spirituals or the folk minstrels whose familiar burdens and lilt will carry many a Southerner back in memory to his nursery days. Look at them from any angle or in whatever light, these songs should help to promote interest in and understanding of negro nature, and in this way further the day when the Southerner of his own volition and in his own manner shall bring himself to grapple more seriously with the racial problem than he has yet done.

Armistead C. Gordon Jr.


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