When I was a kid and visiting South Carolina relatives in the 1950s it was a common thing to see chain gangs working along the roads. These gangs were mostly made up of African Americans who were often arrested for no other reason than the local road commissioner needed cheap labor to cut weeds or dig ditches.
The machine hadn’t totally replaced the need for human cotton pickers so it was also common to see fields filled with bent over blacks and poor whites picking cotton with both hands and dragging behind them a long bag into which they stuffed their pickings.
In July of 2005, I was coming out of Tutwiler, MS and stopped alongside a huge field of cotton and while leaning against the fender of my van, I gave consideration to what it must have been like for those people I saw in South Carolina as a youth. Hard as I tried I couldn’t come close to understanding what it must have been like and how difficult it must have been.
I’ve heard old bluesmen say that these people worked from “can to can’t”. Their day began when the “sun came up and you “can” see and lasted until dark when you “can’t” see. To help take one’s mind off the horrors of the job and to make time pass quicker, the people often resorted to hollers or chants. It was usually “call and response” with one person shouting out a line and all the others responding with corresponding lines.
Listen to this field recording by the Lomaxes from 1933. The voices are inmates of a Texas prison farm. Note how closely it resembles what we know today as Country or Delta blues. Much of the traditional blues and Gospel music can be traced back to field hollers and chants.