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date: 12 April 2021

Field hollerfree

  • Paul Oliver

An extemporized form of African American song, sung by southern laborers to accompany their work. It differs from the collective Work songs in that it was sung solo, though early observers noted that a holler, or “cry,” might be echoed by other workers or passed from one to another. Though commonly associated with cotton cultivation, the field holler was also sung by levee workers, mule-skinners, and field hands in rice and sugar plantations. As described by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1853 it was 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 (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 Farm penitentiary 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). It is believed that the holler is the precursor of the blues, though 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, Black Patti) by the harmonica player Jaybird Coleman, show strong links with the field holler tradition. A white tradition of “hollerin’” may be of similar age, but has not been adequately researched. Since 1969 an annual “hollerin’” contest has been held in Sampson County, North Carolina.

Bibliography

  • F.L. Olmstead: A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States in the Years 1853–1854, 2 (New York, 1856, 2/1904), 19–20
  • R.B. Brown: “Some Notes on the Southern ‘Holler,’” Journal of American Folklore, 67 (1954), 73–7
  • A. Lomax: “Murderer’s Home,” Negro Prison Songs, Tradition 1020 (1957) [disc notes]
  • D. Epstein: Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (Urbana, IL, 1977), 181–3
  • S.F. Hendson, M. Wilson, and the Rounder Collective: Hollerin’: the Ceased Music, Rounder CD 0071 (1995) [disc notes]