The people performing this song were a group of African American prisoners at the Ramsey and Retrieve State Farms in Texas, U.S.A. The song was recorded in 1951, but ‘Work Song’, the style of singing heard here, was around a long time before that!

Since about the 15th century, many black men, women and children were taken from their homes in Africa and made to work as slaves. Singing together helped make the repetitive work and often horribly sad life of slavery that little bit more bearable. It makes a rhythm to work to, while the calling and response reinforces a sense of community.

These prisoners on this recording, although not slaves as such, might sing this way for similar reasons. Life in an American prison was usually very difficult back then, especially for black people.

Why do you think their lives inspired them to sing together?

Do you prefer working to music?

About this Contributor

Minutes created
Pete, Toshi Seeger & Convicts at the Ramsey and Retrieve State Farms: Lost John

Minutes by Convicts at the Ramsey and Retrieve State Farms