SLAVES from the same ethnic groups would always be split up because the plantation owners feared that they might plot a rebellion if they could communicate with each other. Ashanti, Yoruba and Wolof were all scattered around the work forces so that there was no common language.
However the slaves did manage to create a language they could all understand and they made songs together. They did this to keep their spirits up when they were doing hard manual labour such as picking cotton. A lead singer would sing a line and then a chorus would answer. That’s ‘Call and response’, again.
The songs that they sang together as they worked in the plantations were called ‘field hollers’ or ‘work songs’. They became an important part of African-American culture and there was a specific way of singing that came with them.
Some people describe it as a ‘cry’. In any case it was very different to European hymn singing; it wasn’t as polished and had a very distinctive character.
The ‘Call and response’ singing heard on the plantations would eventually make its way into the first black churches in America. The first black church songs were called Negro Spirituals.
They later evolved into a more sophisticated form called gospel. One of the greatest gospel singers of all time was Mahalia Jackson. Listen to the incredible emotion she pours into this song I’m On My Way To Canan.