Music and Social History
Social history is the history of the everyday experiences and beliefs of ordinary people. The topics studied in social history are numerous—for example, a social historian might be interested in family life, recreation, work, social life, religious beliefs, education, and more. The sources used in social history also vary, and include the songs people sing.
For example, consider work songs. Work songs were usually sung while performing repetitive tasks and typically had a rhythm to synchronize repetitive physical movement. A number of work songs representing different ethnic communities can be found in the Florida Folklife collection:
- "Canto Juajiro," a Cuban farmer song
- "Ej Orác," a Slovak plowing song
- "To tragoudi to psara," a song sung by Greek fishermen while pulling their nets
- "Lord, Lord," a sea chantey sung by an African American crew on board the fishing vessel (a text transcription is also available)
- "John Henry," an American classic, sung while driving railroad spikes
Listen to several of these songs and answer the following questions:
- What type of work was done while these songs were song? Can you hear or feel the rhythm of the task being done by workers as they sang the song?
- How might the singing of a work song relieve boredom from performing repetitive tasks?
- What do these different ethnic work songs have in common? How do they differ?
- What does the existence of work songs across ethnic groups suggest about the daily lives of early Floridians?
- Work songs are less common today. Why do you think that might be the case? What in the history of work might help explain this trend?
Religious songs also provide insight into social history. Listen to the choir of Greek Americans singing Agiasmos, a liturgical ceremony with the blessing of water, recorded at the Greek sponge fishing community of Tarpon Springs. Tarpon Springs was a Greek community where, according to notes provided by the FWP workers, Hellenic customs, habits, and traditions were practiced, at times, even more closely than in Greece itself.
The collection also includes several spirituals sung a cappella by James Brown and Rufus Bland:
In contrast, a youth choir with organ accompaniment performed a Slovak Easter song.
- What moods do these the different religious songs create?
- How might religious songs unique to a particular cultural group help maintain that group's cultural identity?
- Can you see any evidence in your community today that cultural groups have tried to preserve the unique religious music of their past?
FWP fieldworkers also wanted to preserve unique dialects, including that of the Gullah typical of African American settlers of the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The Gullah or Geechee preserved elements of their unique language, a mixture of various African dialects and Elizabethan English. Listen to the recording of a Florida Missionary Baptist minister imitating a Geechee preacher reminiscent of sermons from his childhood.
- What is the story revealed in the sermon?
- How difficult is it to decipher what is being preached?
- How important is the preservation of the Gullah language in maintaining cultural heritage?
Fieldworkers recorded a number of children's songs and descriptions of games. In some instances, they recorded young children singing or explaining typical games they played. The following are some examples:
- "Cachumbambe" a short Cuban song sung while see-sawing
- "To mikro potamaki" (The Little Book) a children's play song sung in Greek
- A Conch "Alphabet Song"
- Minorcan "Song of the Alphabet" in Spanish.
- "I Lost My Jersey Cow Last Year" a song sung by African American children while "playing church"
- "Pipi Sigallo" a children's game popular in the Cuban quarter of Key West and in Ybor City
- The "Melon Game" another game popular among Cuban children
Listen to several of the songs listed above and answer the following questions:
- What similarities and differences do you note among these songs?
- What can you learn about childhood during the Great Depression from listening to these songs?
- Do children still sing songs as they play today? Give examples to support your answer. What values (e.g., teamwork, obedience) are embedded in these songs?
- Do you think children's songs are a useful tool for developing values in children? Why or why not?