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Transcript of African American Work Songs

African American Work Songs in Prison
Transcript

00;00-Clip 1: Opening Sequence

[SINGING]
('Let your Hammer Ring[1]', lead by Chinaman)

[FADE FROM BLACK] (Convicts singing while cross-cutting trees)

SINGING PRISONERS: Let your hammer[2] ring!
A well butt-cut[3] crackin'[4]
Let your hammer ring!
You better watch-a my timber
Let your hammer ring!
[TITLE APPEARS] You better watch-a my timber
Let your hammer ring!
'Cause there won't be no more jackin'[5]
Let your hammer ring!
'Cause there won't be no more jackin'

PRISONER (V/O): I remember when I first came in prison, boss wouldn't let me cut no wood. He asked me, said "You ever cut wood?" I said "I never cut no wood in my life" He said "You put that axe down" And he said "It cuts wood here. You stand right there, I'll show you how they cut wood" And he hollered at old Chinaman and said "Old Chinaman, sing son!" And he'd be singing the lead on 'Let the Hammer Ring' variety of verses, and everybody be in chorus with him. "Let the Hammer Ring!" And all of the axes would be dropping. And when the timber's on the ground, there would be three hundred axes dropping with it all in harmony, and that's something to hear. I have never seen nothing like that in my life.

01;08-Clip 2: Texas Prison

[PRISON SIGN] (Ellis Unit Texas Department of Corrections)

[SINGING FADES]

[PRISONERS RUN OUT OF BUILDING] (Run to transport wagon)

[GUARDS AND DOGS WALK OUT OF BUILDING] (Guards on horses)

[WAGON TRANSPORTS PRISONERS TO FORESTS]

Narrator (V/O): Unlike many prisons in the north were men often spend most of their days sitting around in cells, the inmates worked in Texas prisons. In the old days, work in a field sometimes amounted to a death sentence by degree. The guards were brutal, the days lasted from dawn to dark, the work-pace was vicious. But Texas now has the most progressive of the southern prison systems, and those old days are gone. Even so, some of the negro inmates maintain a tradition that developed them to help a man survive; the prison work song.

[WAGON ARRIVES AT FOREST] (Prisoners get off wagon)

02;13-Clip 3: Work

[PRISONERS CROSSCUT TREES WHILE SINGING]
('Grizzly Bear'[6], lead by Benny Richardson)

SINGING PRISONERS: Grizzly, Grizzly
Grizzly Bear
Oh Lord have mercy!
Grizzly Bear
You know my papa went a-huntin' for
Grizzly Bear
He died huntin' on the Brazos[7] for
Grizzly Bear
It was early one mornin'
Grizzly Bear
I heard a shootin' and a callin' and
Grizzly Bear
Well Grizzly, Grizzly
Grizzly Bear
Oh, Lord have mercy!
Grizzly Bear
He find the bear on old Brazos
Grizzly Bear
He found him down on old Brazos
Grizzly Bear
You know, I ain't scared of no bear
Grizzly Bear
Because the workin' squad they killed him there
[GUARD WATCHING] Oh, Grizzly, Grizzly
Grizzly Bear
Well Lord have mercy!
[PRISONERS] Grizzly Bear

03;21-Clip 4: Afternoon Labor

[PRISONERS SINGING WHILE CROSSCUTTING TREES]
('Down the Line'[8], lead by Chinaman)

SINGING PRISONERS: Down the Line[9]
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line
I got a lead on row[10], for you and
Down the Line
I got a lead on row, for us and
Down the Line
What mother hated was a lonely driver
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line
I got a timber ready for you can
Down the Line
I got a timber ready, so you can
Down the Line
Big lumber in the line for you
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line
I want to come alone brother, and we can
Down the Line
I want to come alone brother, and we can
Down the Line
Come alone a-with your driver and we can
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line
Oh, a pull-do[11] can't hold 'em, we can
Down the Line
Oh, a pull-do can't hold me, we can
Down the Line
Well, a pull-do can't hold me, we can
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line
Well I got a hammer, we can
Down the Line
Well I got a hammer, we can
Down the Line
Watch my hammer ringin' on so we can
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver

[ONE GROUP OF PRISONERS SHOUTS] (Tree falls)

[SINGING RESUMES]

SINGING PRISONERS: Down the Line
If you cut down a timber, you can
Down the Line
If you cut down a timber, you can
Down the Line
Let your timber get alone so we can
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line
Would you help me holler? We can
Down the Line
Would you help me holler? We can
Down the Line
Help me holler in the right, so we can
Down the Line
It takes a number one driver
Down the Line

[ANOTHER GROUP SHOUTS] (Tree Falls)

[SINGING RESUMES]

SINGING PRISONERS: It looks like a thing when we can
Down the Line

[GROUP SHOUTS] (Tree Falls)

[ALL PRISONERS MOVE TO ONE FALLEN TREE]

[PRISONERS TAKE A BREAK]

NARRATOR (V/O): In the old days, the wooden barracks were heated by wood burning stoves. Wood was also needed for the refining plant. So after the men cut down trees, those who were not good enough to be lumber were chopped into sections for burning.

06;49-Clip 5: Chopping Logs

[PRISONERS ALL IN ONE LINE] (Over fallen tree)

[PRISONERS SING WHILE LOGGING]
('Julie', [12] lead by W. D. Alexander)

SINGING PRISONERS: Need to call my baby
Need to call my baby
Julie!
Hear me when I call you
Julie and the baby
Julie and the baby
Baby's going home
Baby's going home
Baby's going home
Oh, my Lord
We would like to go
We would like to go
We would like to go
Oh, my Lord
Governor won't care
Governor won't care
Governor won't care
Oh, my Lord
Got to go to dad
Got to go to dad
Got to go to dad
Oh, my Lord
Julie!
Hear me when I call you
Julie and the baby
Julie and the baby
Gettin' sort of worried
Gettin' sort of worried
Gettin' sort of worried
Oh, my Lord
Better get the sergeant[13]
Better get the sergeant
Better get the sergeant
Oh, my Lord
Rattler[14] can't hold me
Rattler can't hold me
Rattler can't hold me
Oh, my Lord
Gonna see my Julie
Julie and the baby
Gonna see my Julie
Oh, my Lord
Hear me when I call
Hear me when I call
Hear me when I call
Oh, my Lord

09;41-Clip 6: End of Day

[PRISONERS LOGGING TO A DIFFERENT SONG]
('Drop 'em Down'[15], lead by Chinaman)

SINGING PRISONERS: Drop 'em Down
With my four-tooth diamond[16]
Drop 'em Down
With my four-tooth diamond
Drop 'em Down
Oh, Maybelle
Drop 'em Down
Oh, Maybelle
Drop 'em Down
Won't you help me
Drop 'em Down
Won't you help me
Drop 'em Down
Won't you help me
Drop 'em Down
Won't you help me
Drop 'em Down
Please help me
Drop 'em Down
This morning
Drop 'em Down
On a live oak
Drop 'em Down
On a live oak
Drop 'em Down
My partner
Drop 'em Down
[SCENE SWITCH 1] My partner
Drop 'em Down
He got the first butt-cut
Drop 'em Down
He's got the first butt-cut
Drop 'em Down
[SCENE SWITCH 2] Oh, Cowboy
Drop 'em Down
Oh, Cowboy
Drop 'em Down

[1: PRISONERS UNLOADING WAGONS]

[2: PRISONERS PUSHING WAGONS]

PRISONER (V/O): Very soon they used the work song, they don't use the work songs in the field chopping because they don't chop, they don't work the fields now like they used to work, well they have... they have tractors now to do the work that we did with hoes. The tractor supply was close to eliminating a lot of our work, so the turnrows we don't have to clean them no more becuase it got craters that would grade off the turnrow[17]. Now you'd have to chop a row, back up, and the squad would line up to clean off the turnrow and that called for a lot of chopping in the high grass on the back of the turnrow, probably clear across the next ditch. Well everybody would get together in union, in harmony, and make the work seem easy even when it's hard when they're singing.

11;43-Clip 7: Hoeing

[PRISONER WRAPS CIGARETTE IN FIELD] (Fellow prisoners in a line with hoes)

[PRISONERS START TO HOE FEILD WHILE SINGING]

SINGNG PRISONERS: I've been away
I've been wasting all day
Where have I been all this day?
I've Been Moving All Day
[PRISONER JOINS] Oh, Lord Knows, Ho!
I've Been Moving All Day
I've Been Working the Hoe
I've been absolutely run down

SOME PRISONERS: Look at him! Look at him!

SINGING PRISONERS: Just about to run free
A truckload of women

SOME PRISONERS: Ready!

SINGING PRISONERS: Every time, boring
I've Been Moving All Day
Oh, Lord Knows, Ho!
I've Been Moving All Day
I've Been Working the Hoe
I've got a little blunt hoe

SOME PRISONERS: Yeah. Talk about it!

SINGING PRISONERS: It's getting the same thing
Well with all of my chores done
There's a cuttin' for me
I've Been Moving All Day

PRISONER(V/O): I'd never seen so much work did, so many different things did with a hoe in all of my life when I come in prison. Man, we'd even build roads with the hoes, just hoes alone, we'd build roads.

13;31-Clip 8: Working in the Field

[PRISONERS HOE TOGETHER IN OPEN FIELD] (Prisoners sing while hoeing)

SINGING PRISONERS: Well, I'm gonna try on my long white robe
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Well, I'm gonna try on my long white robe
Down by the River Side
I'm gonna study war no more
Well I ain't gonna study war no more
And I ain't gonna study war no more
Well I ain't gonna study war no more
Gonna meet with Mr. Pete
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Gonna meet with Mr. Pete
Down by the River Side
Gonna study war no more
Well, I ain't gonna study war no more
Well, I ain't gonna study war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more
I'm gonna try on my long white robe
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Gonna try on my long white robe
Down by the River Side
Don't study war no more
Well, I ain't gonna study war no more
Well, I ain't gonna study war no more
Well, I ain't gonna study war no more
Gonna try on my golden wings
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Gonna try on my golden wings
Down by the River Side
Gonna study war no more
Well, I ain't gonna study war no more
Well I ainít gonna study war no more
Well I ainít gonna study war no more
Gonna try on my golden shoes
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Gonna try on my golden shoes
Down by the River Side
Gonna study war no more
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the River Side
Gonna study war no more
Well I ainít gonna study war no more
Well I ainít gonna study war no more
I ainít gonna study war no more
Well I ainít gonna study no more
Well I ainít gonna study war no more
I ainít gonna study war no more
Gonna meet with the one above
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Down by the River Side
Gonna meet with the one above
Down by the River Side
I ain't gonna study war no more

[TRUCK MOVING DOWN ROAD] (Lumber cart attached)

19;36-Clip 9: Loading Logs

[PRISONERS PICK UP ONE LARGE LOG] (Place it on lumber cart)

[PRISONERS ADJUST LOGS ON CART]

[PRISONERS PICK UP MORE LOGS FORM PILE]

[PRISONERS LOAD ANOTHER LOG] (Log almost falls from cart)

[TRUCK DRIVES OFF WITH ALL OF THE LOGS]

21;02-Clip 10: Work Song Existance

[PRISONERS WALK TO FIELDS]

NARRATOR (V/O): The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased.

[PRISONERS WORKING IN FIELDS]

NARRATOR (V/O): Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation, that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. Prison is the only place left in this country where the work song survives, and its days are numbered. Another generation or two and the only source will be the archive. But, considering the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long, one can hardly regret their passing.

21;33-Clip 11: Ending

[PRISONERS SINGING WHILE CROSSCUTTING]
('Jody'[18], lead by Benny Richardson)

SINGING PRISONERS: I've been working all day long
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Pickin' this stuff called cotton and corn
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
We raise cotton, cane and a-corn
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
'Tater and tomatoes and a-that ain't all
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Back is weak and I done got tired
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Got to tighten up just to save my hide
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Boss[19] on a horse and he's watchin' us all
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Better tighten up[20], don't we'll catch the hall[21]
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Wonder if the major[22] will go my bail
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Give me twelve hours standing on the rail
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
I see the captain[23] sittin' in the shade
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
He don't do nothin' but a he get paid
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
We work seven long days in a row
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Two sacks a Bull[24] and a picture show
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
In the wintertime we don't get no lay[25]
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Cuttin' cane and makin' syrups a-every day
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
When it get wet in the cane field
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
All the squads work around the old syrup mill
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah,
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah,
Yeah, yeah
Two more months and it won't be long
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Gonna catch the chain[26][27] 'cause I'm goin' home
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Goin' back home to my old gal Sue
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
My buddy's wife and his sister, too
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Ain't no need of you writin' home
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Jody's got your girl and gone
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Ain't no need of you feelin' blue
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Jody's got your sister, too
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
First thing I'll do when I get a-home
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Call my woman on the telephone
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah,
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah,
Yeah, yeah
Gonna settle down for the rest of my life
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Get myself a job and get myself a wife
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Six long years I've been in the pen
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Don't want to come to this place again
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Captain and the boss is drivin' us on
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Makin' us wish we'd a-stayed at home
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
If we had listened what our mama say
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
[CREDITS*] We wouldn't be cuttin' wood a here today
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Captain and the boss is drivin' us on
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Makin' us wish we'd a stayed at home
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
We had listened what our mama say
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
We wouldn't droppin' big timber here today
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah

[CREDITS*] Afro-American Work Songs In A Texas Prison

Filmed by Toshi, Daniel, and Peter Seeger
Narrated by Bruce Jackson, W. D. Alexander
Edited by Daniel Seeger
Advisor and Consultant, Bruce Jackson

We would like to thank George J. Beto, Ph.D., director of the Texas Department of Corrections, his staff, and the singer-inmates of the Ellis Unit, Huntsville, Texas. Without their gracious cooperation and assistance, this film could not have been made.

Folklore research Films, Inc. March 1966

Acknowledgements to: transcript by Zach Nicholls

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