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Slave Work Songs

Hoeing in the tobacco fields.Songs are a very important part of our history. They tell us a great deal about people of the past—how they worked, how they entertained themselves, and what their daily lives were like. You can analyze these songs with your students to help them better understand the attitudes, feelings, and beliefs of people from the past.

"Hoe Emma Hoe" is a work song that was collected from the folk tradition by Colonial Williamsburg in 1960 and used in the film The Music of Williamsburg. Slave work gangs used these kinds of call-and-response work songs to regulate the pace of their work. These songs also became an opportunity for slaves to talk about their masters, their overseers, and their condition. Of course, slaves had to be careful about expressing their own opinions so they often "coded" their improvised lyrics.

We see this happen in the February 6, 2003 Colonial Williamsburg Electronic Field Trip "Chained to the Land". The program begins with a scene of plantation field hands working in the tobacco field. We hear them sing the original version of the song—the version collected in 1960.

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Caller: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Emma, you from the country.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Emma help me to pull these weeds.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Emma work harder than two grown men.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.
(Repeat)

In the second segment of the program we see the plantation carpenter, a slave named Joseph. He is an older man and it's obvious that he has done something to upset the overseer. The singers change the verses of "Hoe Emma Hoe" to tell a story about Joseph and speculate about his future. Play this version of the song for your students and let them analyze what's going on. Who is Joseph? What has happened to him? And what do the singers think will happen to Joseph?


Caller: Old Joseph was a wood workin' man.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: When he got old he lost his way.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Makes that boss man right mad.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Needs a young man to learn his trade.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe. (Repeat)

Slaves also used their work songs to make comments about their masters and overseers. They could not refer to the overseer or the master directly so they created code words—animals or figures from the Bible like Pharaoh—to represent the master and overseer. In this version of "Hoe Emma Hoe," the overseer is the "possum." What are the singers saying about the overseer?


Caller: Now see that possum he works hard.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: But he cain't work as hard a me.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: He sits a horse just as pretty as can be.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: He can ride on and leave me be.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around dig a hole in the ground, Hoe Emma Hoe.
(Repeat)

At the close of "Chained to the Land" the master sells some of his slaves. In this version of the song the slaves talk about losing friends and neighbors. What are they saying? How do they code their feelings about the master? What do feel should happen to their master?

Caller: Master he be a hard hard man.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Sell my people away from me.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Lord send my people into Egypt land.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, Hoe Emma Hoe.

Caller: Lord strike down Pharaoh and set them free.

Chorus: Hoe Emma Hoe, Hoe Emma Hoe, Hoe Emma Hoe.
(Repeat)



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