Field holler

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Chain gang singing in South Carolina

The field holler or field call is a mostly historical type of vocal music sung by southern labourers to accompany their work, to communicate usefully or to vent feelings.[1] It differs from the collective work song in that it was sung solo, though early observers noted that a holler, or ‘cry’, might be echoed by other workers. Though commonly associated with cotton cultivation, the field holler was also sung by levee workers, and field hands in rice and sugar plantations. Field hollers are also known as corn-field hollers, water calls, and whoops. An early description is from 1853 and the first recordings are from the 1930s. The holler is closely related to the call and response of work songs, and arhoolies, to Afro-American and ultimately influenced strands of African American music, such as the blues, rhythm and blues, and spirituals.[2]

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


It was described by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1853 as a ‘long, loud, musical shout, rising and falling and breaking into falsetto’, a description that would also have fitted examples recorded a century later. Some hollers are wordless, like the field call by Annie Grace Horn Dodson;[4] Some have elaborated syllables and melismas, such as the long example recorded at the Parchman Farm penitentiary in Mississippi in 1947, by "Bama", of a Levee Camp Holler.[5]

When verbal, improvised lines were used as cries for water and food and cries about what was happening in their daily lives, as expressions of religious devotion, a source of motivation in repetitive work, and a way of presenting oneself over across the fields. They described the labor being done (e.g., corn shucking songs, mule-skinning songs) recounted personal experiences or the singer's thoughts, subtly insulted white work intendants, or used folk themes. 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.[6] Call and response arose as sometimes a lone caller would be heard and answered with another laborer's holler from a distant field. Some street cries might be considered an urban form of holler, though they serve a different function (like advertising a seller's product); an example is the call of ‘The Blackberry Woman’, Dora Bliggen, in New Orleans.[7]


Picking cotton in a cotton field

Field hollers, cries and hollers of the slaves and later sharecroppers working in cotton fields, prison chain gangs, railway gangs (Gandy dancers) or 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 rhythm and blues, 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.[8][9]

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. ^ Maultsby, Portia. "A History of African Amerian Music". Carnegie Hall. Retrieved 12-8-14.  Check date values in: |access-date= (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. ^ 1950, Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Folkways
  5. ^ 1947, Negro Prison Songs, Tradition
  6. ^ 1941, Negro Blues and Hollers, Library of Congress
  7. ^ 1954, Been Here and Gone, Folkways
  8. ^ Harris, Sheldon (1979). Blue's Who's Who. De Capo Press, Inc. p. 125. ISBN 0-306-80155-8. 
  9. ^ 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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