Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Descriptions Of Corn Husking & Corn Songs During United States Slavery

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part series about the African American work song "Around The Corn, Sally". Part I provides excerpts from two online books about corn husking in the Southern United States during slavery. Part I also includes some comments about pre-mechanical corn husking in the United States apart from United States slavery. In addition, I've included a example of the corn song "Shuck That Corn Before You Eat" that was posted with commentary. I've also included my comments that disagree with the blogger's conclusion about that song.

Click Part II presents several text examples of "Around The Corn, Sally". An Addendum to that post showcases a video example with a lengthy summary of the "Sea Shanty Around The Corner, Sally".

Click for Part III of this series. Part III provides video examples and lyrics of the children's song "Go Around The Corn, Sally" which is adapted from the work song "Around The Corn ,Sally".

The content of this post is provided for historical, folkloric, and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the performers and collectors of this song. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

Here's a brief summary of what I learned from reading these excerpts:

Corn shucking in the USA was a group labor activity that wasn't distinctly done by enslaved Black people.

It was common for enslaved people from different plantations to participate in various corn shuckings.

It was common for Black people and White people to shuck corn together.

Corn shucking was done by males only. However, both women and men danced to corn songs after the shucking was completed.

Corn shucking was an individualistic, competitive labor activity. Men competed to see who would be the fastest one to shuck the most corn. Corn shucking wasn't a group labor activity in the same way that working on ships, cutting trees, and laying train tracks was. Unlike sea shanties and cross cutting prison work songs, corn songs weren't sung to regulate the movements used to shuck corn. Instead, those songs were sung to help ease the drudgery of the work by entertaining the workers and getting their minds off of their labor.

Corn songs were largely improvised songs which had a call & response pattern. The songs were led by a designated singer who didn't do any shucking. The lyrics often were "rude" (bawdy/dirty) and might included comments about individual workers or others.

Corn songs were also sung by enslaved Black people in the USA as part of their Christmas festivities (Read the example given in Part II of this series.)
Here are two conclusions that I reached as a result of reading the excerpts found below and other online material about 19th century USA corn husking in the South during slavery:

While enslaved people were mandated to participate in shuckings, given the entertainment aspects of that experience, & the opportunities to travel to different plantations, and interact with a large number of people, those enslaved people probably looked forward to participating in shuckings.

The contemporary children's song "Go Around The Corn, Sally" is adapted from the corn song "Round De (The) Corn, Sally". However, contrary to what I've read about or heard presented about that song by American elementary music teachers, it's likely that "Round De (The) Corn, Sally" wasn't sung while harvesting (picking) corn. Also, the lyrics of that song likely had very little to do with going around corn or doing any other rhythmic movements such as those mentioned in some versions of that children's song. Instead, the work song "Round De (The) Corn, Sally" was probably sung by men while they shucked corn and/or that song may have been sung during the dance portion of the corn shucking festivities (after the shucking was completed).

These excerpts are presented in no particular order. They are numbered for reference purposes only.
I also want to mention that these excerpts are presented as is, with outdated referents such as the word "negro" spelled with a lower case "n". Thankfully, what is commonly known as "the n word" doesn't appear in these excerpts.

Excerpt #1: Slavery in the American Mountain South
By Wilma A. Dunaway, Date Published: May 2003

Chapter: Cultural Resistance and Community Building, p. 210
..."Work parties were mentioned by more Appalachian slaves than any other type of owner-sponsored amusement, and most of these occurred during or after fall harvest or in the fall or in the early winter. Widespread throughout the rural United States, the corn-shucking was a popular labor pooling mechanism that was not distinctly a slave activity. Music and dance were so central to the husking that slaves referred to the work groups as ”corn hollers”. According to Callie Elder, laborers “sung all de time [they] was huckin’ corn”. Masters would send out invitations to adjacent plantations and as many as 200 blacks might attend. After the corn crop had been harvested from the field, “large bonfires were built adjoining the cribs where several bushels of corn were to be shucked by both colored and white. As the laborers arrived at the designated farm in Coosa County, Alabama
They went at once to the corn pile and began shucking, throwing the husked ear into the crib and the shucks to the rear. They commenced at the outer edge of the pile of corn, and cleaned up the corn to the ground as they went. There were usually two or more recognized leaders in singing the corn songs, and as they would chant or shout their couplet, all the rest would sing the chorus…the hands would fly with rapidity in tearing off the shucks and the feet kick back the shucks with equal vigor

Whether the husking occurred in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, or northern Georgia, the custom was that “a song leader mounted the pile of corn and kept the shuckers busy, hand and tongue”. In Blue Ridge Virginia, laborers would
take their place along the pile, every man taking about two feet, the aim being to see who could husk their way through the pile soonest. White and black, slaves included, worked side by side. There was always a free supply of whiskey... If there were negroes enough, which was almost always the case, they would sing a corn song... One who had a gift in that line would act as a leader. He would mount the pile and improvise, the rest and many of the whites joined in the refrain. Occasionally the leader would pick someone from the crowd and improvise at his expense.

p. 211
Booker T. Washington described the corn hollers he had witnessed in southwestern Virginia and West Virginia.
When [they] were all assembled...some one individual who had already gained a reputation as a leader in singing, would climb to the top of the mound and begin at once in a clear loud tones a solo…[T]he chorus at the base of the mound would join in, some one hundred strong. The words were largely improvised, were largely simple, and suited the occasion.

Accounts from eastern Kentucky, western Carolina, northern Alabama, the Shenandoah Valley, and Appalachian Tennessee provide more detail about the structure of the singing. According to John Van Hook “the man designated to act as [corn] general would stick a peacock feather in his hat and call all the men together and give his orders. He would stand in the center of the corn pile, start the singing, and keep things lively for them.” Initially, someone would strike up and singly give a few rude* stanzas, sometimes in rhyme, and sometimes in short expressive sentences while the rest unite[d] in chorus, and this he continue[d],until some other improviser relieve[d] him.” Dancing also played at part in the corn husking. Northern Georgia, eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia accounts document two elements of dancing that were part of the husking tradition. “When the corn was shucked about two or three o’clock in the morning they would catch the owner and ring and dance around him.” After everyone had eaten and toasted the master, group dancing might begin. “There was always a negro with a banjo, would could play and others dance.” [20]
"rude stanzas" = sexually suggestive or sexually explicit verses

Excerpt #2:
From Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery
edited by Randall M. Miller, John David Smith
Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 146
“By a wide margin, the most frequently mentioned form of corn-related activity in slave accounts was the “shucking” or “husking” frolic. It combined work and play and was one of the most common forms of recreation in America during the slave era. The shucking bee was a harvest festival at each farm or plantation. Each slave might attend many such frolics each autumn. The activity combined competitive work- singing, feasting, dancing- and the consuming of corn liquor or cider at the bottom of each corn pile. Blacks and whites commonly participated together in the shucking contests, and some slaves recalled that “patterollers” (slave patrollers) did not bother them at such gatherings. But shucking was by no means all play. It was drudgery, especially hard on the hands, despite the universal use of an old and simple Indian device, the shucking peg, throughout the slave era. Husking was often done indoors on rainy days in order to get more work out of slaves."
Also, read this sentence from p. 715 of that book:
"Picking cotton, husking corn, stripping and prizing tobacco were occupations that lent themselves to individual tasks."
Collectors succeeded in documenting only a few African American secular songs such as "fiddle sings, jig-tunes, corn songs" because formerly enslaved Black people believed that those songs were wicked "devil songs" that shouldn’t be sung or dance by people who have religion.
Hee's a comment from Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War by Dena J. Epstein [p. 175, Google Books]
“When the teachers from Hampton Institute attempted [to collect examples of those songs] in 1974, they were unsuccessful [because the old people who were enslaved didn’t want to admit that they knew anything about “devil songs”.]
However, African American professor Thomas W. Talley succeeded in collecting some examples of secular songs from his Fisk University students. Those examples and others that he remembered in his now classic book Negro Folk Rhymes, Wise & Otherwise. Click for a Project Gutenberg digital edition of that book. [Warning: That book includes "the n word" fully spelled out.]

"In times before modern machinery, sweet corn was pulled or jerked from the stalk. The leaves were shucked off and the golden ears were thrown in a wooden wagon pulled by a team of mules. This was Cornjerking, In other parts of the United States, this harvesting process may have been known as corn snapping, corn shucking, or corn husking. The many laborers who walked the fields to harvest the crops were called Cornjerkers.

The invention of the corn picking machine has made this hand harvesting process obsolete. By using modern machines, a farmer is capable of tending larger fields, thus producing more food with less effort. As a result, the term Cornjerker as used in the agricultural industry has become a colloquialism."

From Husking Corn Before Mechanical Pickers
"Beginning in the 1920s, labor-saving machinery was available for the corn harvest. But even into the '40s, horses still plodded along on many farms, as men hand-husked corn, then threw ears into a high-sided wagon. A hand-husked field was picked clean, and the ears were virtually free of shucks, which meant the ears could be air-dried in cribs. Plus, horses had the easy work, so feed wasn't as heavy a requirement. It's hard to imagine improving the efficiency of the process ... unless, of course, you were the one doing the hand husking.

More than 50 years have passed since Chester Larson last husked corn by hand. But memories of the work have not faded for the retired Griswold, Iowa, farmer.

"A little wrist or thumb hook was used to rip the husk open, so the ear could be easily broken off the shank leading to the stalk, making the ear ready to throw into the wagon," he recalled. It was tedious, exhausting work.

Husking corn is very tiring," Chester said. "I haven't worked so hard since, and we did more things by hand then, such as some of the haying."...

A husker's day began at first light. Most huskers arrived at the field as soon as they could see, and didn't quit until sundown."...

Here's an example of a corn song that was posted with commentary:

Slave Work Song: "Shuck That Corn Before You Eat"

Caller: All dem purty gals will be dar,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: They will fix it for us rare,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I know dat supper will be big,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I think I smell a fine roast pig,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I hope dey'll have some whisky* dar,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I think I'll fill my pockets full,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

To make harvesting tasks less monotonous slaves created songs to match the rhythm of the actions required to complete the harvest. Some of these songs are known as "call and response," in which one individual sings a line and the rest of the group answers in chorus.

The lyrics of the song "Shuck Dat Corn Before You Eat" mention what the slaves could look forward to in return for their labor. The word 'shuck' and the second syllable in 'before' were stressed to provide a rhythm for the activity. At these points in the song, slaves knew to step forward on the right foot, grab the top of the corn with the left hand, and cut the top off with the right hand. In this way, all members of the group worked together to efficiently and quickly complete the task."
I disagree with the conclusions that the blogger made about that song. Firstly, from what I've read about this subject, corn songs weren't sung "to match the rhythm of the actions required to complete the harvest". I've not read about corn songs being sung while picking corn. And wasn't corn shucking done while seated? If so, then the movements that the blogger is incorrect about the actions he or she describes the shuckers making.

Furthermore, corn songs weren't sung "to help "all members of the group worked together to efficiently and quickly complete the task." From what I've read corn shucking was a tedious job that people knew would last a long time. It wasn't done in unison. Individuals competed to see who would be the fastest to shuck the most corn.

The purpose of these corn songs were to relieve some of the drudgery of the work by leading songs that took the workers' minds off of what they were doing. In that sense, corn songs were songs sung during work but not songs that helped direct work.

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