Field holler

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Chain gang singing in South Carolina

The field holler is a type of formless, and sometimes wordless vocal expression that was used by slaves in the cotton fields of the "Deep South", especially in the Mississippi Delta, to communicate or to vent feelings, hence the name "field holler". The texts of these songs described the labor being done (e.g., corn shucking songs, rowing songs, railroad songs, etc..) and recount the personal experiences of workers. They convey emotions and communicate specific personal needs.[1] It is closely related to the call and response of work songs, prison chain gangs, railway gangs, and arhoolies, to Afro-American spirituals and ultimately to African American music in general such as the blues and the rhythm and blues.[2]

It also had prevalence among whites in the southern United States too.[3]


Some hollers are wordless, like the field call by Annie Grace Horn Dodson (1950, Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Folkways); others combine improvised lines concerning the singer's thoughts, with elaborated syllables and melismas, such as the long example recorded at the Parchman Farmpenitentiary in Mississippi in 1947, by "Bama", of a Levee Camp Holler (1947, Negro Prison Songs, Tradition). An unidentified singer of a Camp Holler was urged on with shouts and comments by his friends, suggesting that the holler could also have a social role (1941, Negro Blues and Hollers, Library of Congress). Some street cries might be considered an urban form of holler, though they serve a different function; an example is the call of ‘The Blackberry Woman’, Dora Bliggen, in New Orleans (1954, Been Here and Gone, Folkways).


Picking cotton in a cotton field

Field hollers, cries and hollers of the slaves working in cotton fields, turpentine camps is seen as the precursor to the call and response of African American spirituals and gospel music, to jug bands, minstrel shows, stride piano, and ultimately to the blues, to the rhythm and blues, to jazz and to African American music in general.[2]

It may in turn have been influenced by blues recordings. No recorded examples of hollers exist from before the mid-1930s, but some blues recordings, such as Mistreatin' Mama (1927, Negro Patti) by the harmonica player Jaybird Coleman, show strong links with the field holler tradition.[4][5]

A white tradition of "hollerin'" may be of similar age, but has not been adequately researched. Since 1969 an annual National Hollerin' Contest has been held in Sampson County, North Carolina. The influence can be seen in the humwhistle. A humwhistle, or otherwise known as "whistle-hum," creates two tones simultaneously and is a folk art. The two-tone sound is related to Inuit throat singing, and to a tradition of yodeling that originated in the Central Alps.[citation needed][original research?]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maultsky, Portia. "A History of African Amerian Music". Carnegie Hall. Retrieved 12-8-14.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  2. ^ a b Shaw, Arnold (1978). Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhthm & Blues (First ed.). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. p. 3. ISBN 0-02-061740-2. 
  3. ^ Browne, Ray B. (1954-01-01). "Some Notes on the Southern "Holler"". The Journal of American Folklore 67 (263): 73–77. doi:10.2307/536810. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 536810. 
  4. ^ Harris, Sheldon (1979). Blue's Who's Who. De Capo Press, Inc. p. 125. ISBN 0-306-80155-8. 
  5. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Jaybird Coleman:Biography". Retrieved 2008-07-20. 


  • Charlton, Katherine (2003). Rock Music Styles - a history. Mc Graw-Hill, 4th ed., pp. 3. ISBN 0-07-249555-3. 
  • Oxford Music Online: Grove Music
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. 3rd. New York London: Norton, 1997. Print.

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