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Slave Work Song: "Shuck That Corn Before You Eat"

Caller: All dem purty gals will be dar,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: They will fix it for us rare,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I know dat supper will be big,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I think I smell a fine roast pig,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I hope dey'll have some whisky* dar,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.

Caller: I think I'll fill my pockets full,
Chorus: Shuck dat corn before you eat.


The Culture of the Corn Shuck

"Husking Corn," Harper's Weekly (April 13, 1861),  p.232. Courtesy, The Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library.African transplants to colonial Virginia arrived largely empty handed. However, much of their culture was maintained through music and dance. As both a source of entertainment and a means of survival, music and rhythm played an important part in the everyday lives of slaves.

Autumn for slaves meant additional labor associated with the harvest. This season was also a time when plantation masters were able to pay their debts and prepare the fields for spring planting. As an incentive, many masters promised to reward their slaves with special meals, rations of whisky, and the opportunity to associate with slaves from other plantations in return for the quick completion of harvesting tasks, such as corn husking. Some masters even allowed slaves from different plantations to compete against one another in an effort to complete the corn husking the quickest. According to the 1870 book Reminiscences of an Old Georgia Lawyer written by Garnett Andrews and published in Atlanta, Georgia, all the slaves in the neighborhood were invited to his neighbor's barn to take part in just such an activity.

To make harvesting tasks less monotonous slaves created songs to match the rhythm of the actions required to complete the harvest. Some of these songs are known as "call and response," in which one individual sings a line and the rest of the group answers in chorus.

The lyrics of the song "Shuck Dat Corn Before You Eat" mention what the slaves could look forward to in return for their labor. The word 'shuck' and the second syllable in 'before' were stressed to provide a rhythm for the activity. At these points in the song, slaves knew to step forward on the right foot, grab the top of the corn with the left hand, and cut the top off with the right hand. In this way, all members of the group worked together to efficiently and quickly complete the task.

For additional information on call-work songs and music within the slave community, consider the following books:

  • Silverman, Jerry, Just Listen to This Song I'm Singin': African-American History Through Song (Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Ct., 1996).
  • Fischer, Miles Mark, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (Citadel Press, Sacramento, Ca., 1991).
  • Cooper, Michael L., Slave Spirituals and the Jubilee Singers (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass., 2001).

* According to Slave Community by John Blassingame, planters offered their slaves whisky and a big meal in exchange for their labor at a corn shuck, p. 117.