Friday, May 8, 2015

"Rosie" (African American Prison Work Song) with lyrics, information, & comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post showcases a sound file of the prison work song "Rosie". Song lyrics, information, and comments about this song are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

My thanks to the unnamed men who composed this song and those men from Mississippi State Penitentiary's Parchman work camp who were recorded singing this song. Thanks also to those who Alan Lomax for collecting this song, thanks to all those who are the quoted in this post, and thanks to the publisher of this sound file on YouTube.


...Mississippi's Parchman Farm included 15 labor camps, where inmates were contracted out to chop trees and wood, hoe, lay track, cut cane, plough fields, shovel gravel, and perform other hard labor that benefited both the industries and the State that sold them. John and Alan Lomax had gone to Southern prisons in the early 1930s, looking for songs that might not have been touched by the outside world. According to Alan Lomax, "These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River … They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen." Alan Lomax went to the Parchman labor prisons in 1947 and 1948, and found the equivalent of a plantation mind-set, with prisoners enduring harsh beatings and other forms of brutal and violent treatment. For this reason, it would be ten years before he released the first volume of prison songs.

Songs like "Rosie" not only coordinated the dangerous teamwork of several men chopping trees but also made the workers more productive and helped the time pass. As with slave songs, the work songs also helped prisoners give vent to intense pent-up feelings, whether the words were specifically about that or not. Such singing and chanting can also ease the spirit, bring harmony to the group, and can even bring some pleasure to the moment. "Rosie" must have been a well-known prison work song, since Lomax found former prisoners who still knew it in the 1970s. This recording was made onsite at the prison, and is sung by inmates who actually used it in their work gangs."...

SHOWCASE EXAMPLE: Negro Prison Songs / "Rosie"1947 [RARE]

monQsurlaKomod, Uploaded on Aug 8, 2008

..recorded at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1947..
..taken from italian version'wax L.P. from 1977 ALBATROS Records..
Selected comments from the YouTube discussion thread for the sound file given above

leslie gilda, 2006
"Thank you for posting this song, it
is hard to learn about black history and this is one way to educate ourselves. So much have been lost, because it was not documented. Blacks need to know their history."
As a friendly ammendment, I would write that non-Black people also need to know this history.

RhythmAddictedState, 2014
"Awesome! :D Now I see where Be My Husband by Nina Simone came from... I wonder if Rosie got credited for the inspiration?"

Bruce Brooker, 2015
"Give a listen to Led Zeppelin. OH ROSIE!! Everything's GOT to come from SOMEWHERE doesn't it?"

(Recording of prisoners at Mississippi State Penitentiary's Parchman work camp, in 1947. Recorded by song collector/archivist Alan Lomax)

A stomp starts the song. The lead singer starts with a call, and the group/other workers respond with the second half of the phrase.

Lead Singer's Call: "Be my woman, gal, I'll-"

Group Response: " -be your man." (Ends like a melodic question.)

Repeat of the call and response. Ends with a resolution to the melodic question.

Second two-phrase unit begins, with the pattern continuing: Stomp-call, stomp-response.

Call: "Every Sunday's dollar-"

Response: "-in your hand."

Call: "In your hand, Lordy-"

Response: "-in your hand."

Call: "Every Sundays dollar-"

Response: "-in your hand."

Call: "Stick to the promise, gal, that-"

Response: "-you made me." This is sung three times, like the song's first line.

Call: "Wasn't gonna marry 'til-uh-"

Response: "-I go free."

Call: "I go free, lordy-"

Response: "I go free."

Call: "Wasn't gonna marry 'til-uh-"

Response: "-I go free."

Call: "Well, Rosie-" Notice how the melody is similar but adjusted to the new words; ornaments inflect the text.

Call: "-oh, lord, gal." A similarity in the polyvocal responses with slight variations. The vocal intensity changes with each statement, especially with the lead singer

Call: "Ah, Rosie-"

Response: "-oh, lord, gal."

Each of the next two call-and-response lines repeat twice; the two-phrase melodic units continue.

Call: "When she walks she reels and-"

Response: "-rocks behind."

Call: "Ain't that enough to worry-"

Response: "-[a] convict's mind."

A repeat of the "Well, Rosie/Ah, Rosie" lines from 1:17. There are few syllables here, so the lead singer can really modify the melody.

A repeat of the first four lines of the song: "Be my woman, gal, I'll be your man (three times)/Every Sunday's dollar in your hand."

"Well, Rosie/Ah, Rosie" lines return for the third time.

[Hold on gal]*

Fade out.


*This transcription doesn't include this last response to "Well Rosie/Ah Rosie". Instead of a "stomp" that is mentioned in this transcription, I believe that sound is that of work tools that the men are using hitting the ground.

Here's those lyrics without the comments, from this sound file's discussion thread posted by loolylooly81 (2014) and quoting
Be my woman gal I'll
Be your Man (x3)
Everydays Sunday dollar in your hand
In your hand lordy, in your hand
Everydays Sunday dollar in your hand

Stick to the promise girl that
You made me (x3)
Won't got married til' uh
I go free
I go free lordy, I go free
Won't got married til' uh
I go free

Whoa Rosie, hold on gal (x2)

*When She walks she reel and
Rocks behind (x2)
Aint that enough to worry,
convicts mind (x2)

Whoa Rosie, hold on gal (x2)

Click for the lyrics to another version of "Rosie" that is entitled "Rosie O Ho".

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, the way this prison song is sung is very powerful and evocative.

      To think of the lives these men lived and could have lived in the American justice system were really just...

      Thanks for your comment, xuniltoor.

  2. u9lif on November 21, 2015 at 1:18 AM you posted a link to a song with the Nina Simone song "Be My Husband" as a response to the call and response that is in the prison work song "Rosie", but I didn't find that song on the link that you gave. Please post a link for that song again.

  3. were can you find lyrics to slave songs to read the lyrics and sing them again bring back the haunting

    1. Unknown, I believe that you are asking where can you find songs by enslaved African Americans that are given in the dialect that supposedly was used by their original singers. I think that the Mudcat folk music forum may be the best site online for such a search.

      While you didn't ask my opinion, I'll share that I believe those songs (including Spirituals) shouldn't be sung in full dialect except for research and educational reasons.

  4. I came across your blog post looking for the lyrics to Rosie. Thank you for compiling the information about this song as well as the lyrics. Thank you for your work.

    1. You're welcome, Bishara.

      I appreciate your comment. I love learning about the songs that I share on pancocojams.

  5. Great. Thank you for sharing.

  6. So difficult to find accurate lyrics for the original Rosie. I've done lots of research on the song but there is so little documenting its history, both the song itself and its recording that day in Parchman (the lack of names/credit for the singers has always bothered me seriously about the Lomax recordings.) Have you had any luck at all tracing information about where the song originated, or about its mutation into "Be My Husband" years later?

    Thanks so much for this.

    1. I'm sorry Sarah.

      The only information that I have on the song "Rosie" is what I found online and shared in this post. :o(

    2. Thanks for the fantastic post (sorry I'm 6 years late). What a recording!

      Could this song have originated as an "adaptation" or at least inspired by the well known spiritual "Poor Rosy"? There are some lyrical connections, and the prominent motivic minor 3rd in the spiritual could have been adapted here?

    3. Jon, thanks for your comment. As long as this blog is still active, it's not too late to comment :0)

      I appreciate your comment about the Spiritual "Poor Rosy", but have to confess that I don't know that Spiritual and don't understand the musical terms "prominent motivic minor 3rd) that you used. With all due respect, is that term translatable into "standard" English?

      I looked up "Poor Rosy" on YouTube. Here's the only link that I found to a song with that name:

      Is this the Spiritual you referred to?

  7. Thank you so much for this information. I am a music teacher who wants to teach students the history of and origins of blues and jazz. This is so important for all of us to know, no matter the color of our skin. To be able to hear it and reflect on the context is so powerful. Karen P.

    1. You're welcome, Karen.

      I agree with your comments and I wish that I had had a music teacher like you when I was in school and in college.

      Best wishes. One love!

  8. I used this blog for my distance lessons (I'm in Italy) Thank you

    1. Greetings, Stefano Staro.

      You're welcome and thanks for commenting.

      I'm glad that the information that I gathered online is helpful to you and to others.

      I've read that the situation in Italy regarding Covid-19 is getting better.

      I hope so and hope that we all remain healthy and well.