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All in a Day’s Work: Rhythm and Song
Grades 4-6, 7-9

Click here for recording
Recorded: Parchman Farm in Parchman, Mississippi, 1959
Performers: Ed Lewis (lead vocalist, hoe) and unidentified prisoners (singing, sounding the hoe)

Activity #1: Rhythmicking, Singing, and Improvising

1.Rhythmicking

  • Ask students to clap along with the rhythm of the tools heard in this recording
  • Keeping the left hand steady, demonstrate alternating clapping with the sound of the tools (on beats 1 and 3) with a wave of the right hand (pausing briefly with the palm of the hand pointed upwards on beats 2 and 4).
    • This motion helps show how movement (so necessary for the work that is the context of this song) can fill in the beats that are not captured in the field recording.

2.Singing

  • Have students to listen to the recording again, with these questions in mind. (Learning by listening is important, and yet staff notation may be introduced past the ora-aural-learning in order to point out certain structural components of the song.) See staff notation.
    • How many people can you hear singing in this recording?
  • One solo singer, and one group of men singing.
    • What is the relationship between the solo singer and the group?
  • Call and Response. The singer sings alone, and the group responds. For each line, they respond “uh-huh” after the first phrase, and repeat the last four syllables of the second half of the line.


  • Note: Transcription by James B. Morford

    3.Singing and Rhythmicking

    * Play the selection again. Have students sing along with the response.
    * Challenge them to sing while clapping and showing movement between the beats.
    * In two groups, switch off between singing and rhythmicking.

    4. Improvising verses

    • Have students write their own verses for this song. Verses should follow the theme of the song, as well as the cadence of the lyrics.
      • The first half of the line should have 6 beats/5-6 syllables (followed by a 2-beat response: “uh-huh”)
      • The second half of the line should have 4 beats/4-5 syllables (followed by a 4-beat response, repeating the leader’s call.)
      • Suggest that students consider writing about their day’s work, and what they like and dislike about it, or about what they will do “when the sun goes down”.
    Verse Structure (example)
    (Call)(Response)
    I’ll be so glad when
    Uh-huh
    the sun goes down
    When the sun goes down
    (Repeats)
    I aint all that sleepy but
    Uh-huh
    I wanna lie down
    I wanna lie down
    (Repeats)
    Activity #2: Song and Rhythm as Communication

    1. A discussion of points below will help to highlight the function of the work song in a Mississippi prison.

    • The men in this recording were prisoners at the Parchman Penitentiary Farm in Mississippi in 1959. Prisoners there also worked in the prison’s plantation-like farm in seeding, tending to, and harvesting cotton, as well as in Parchman’s manufacturing facilities. The notes for this recording mention that Parchman was located at the center of Sunflower county. The men in this recording were working on the Parchman Farm, using basic farming hoes to till the soil, plant the seeds, weed the area, and eventually to harvest the cotton.

    2. Raise a principal question of discussion, and provide further information once student interest is piqued.

    • What role would music have played in this setting for these work songs?
      • Builds camaraderie between the men on the line
      • Helps make the work feel a little easier by lifting spirits
      • The songs were a safety mechanism, keeping people in time helped avoid accidents.
      • For more information, see Alan Lomax’s interview with Ed Lewis (the lead singer in this recording), which can be found here. (Start at approximately 6:00 for a discussion of the function of the music in this setting.)

    3. Offer further focus on a work song’s rhythm. Ask and then follow up on the question, “Why is rhythm important in a work song?”

    • Have students sit in a circle on the floor, facing away from the center of the circle. Give each student a cup (or another object) that can be easily passed to the person next to them.
      • Having their backs to one another eliminates some potential modes of communication that may not have been available to prisoners in this situation.
    • Put the recording on again. Have students pass the cup in front of them clockwise, setting the cup in front of their neighbor to the beat of the hoes in the recording.
      • This exercise helps students feel the rhythm and how it synchronizes individual movements within a group.
    • Once students have the rhythm of the music with the recording, turn the recording off and try again while singing. Experiment with speeding up and slowing down the song.
      • As students fall out of sync with an increase or decrease in tempo, they can begin to feel the importance of a steady caller in this situation. A steady pace for the workers helps everyone to move together, making the work easier and safer.
      • Imagine a line of men swinging axes in a forest, each working to cut down a different tree. If they do not all swing at the same time, in the same direction, someone could get hurt. This was one of the major reasons for keeping work moving in a rhythmic fashion in this kind of setting.
      • For more information, see Alan Lomax’s interview with Ed Lewis (the lead singer in this recording), which can be found here. (Start at approximately 7:40 for a discussion of the role of the leader in work songs.)

      Lesson plan by Claire Anderson

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