Arwhoolie (Corn Field Holler)

Traditional African American field holler

When you were little, were you ever called to dinner? How do you get someone's attention who is half a block away? What happens when you yell really loud? Try yelling "hey, you!" as loud as you can? Ouch! Yelling loud strains your vocal cords! Now holler "yoo-hoo" like you're singing. You can stretch out the sound as long as your breath lasts.

This is an African American cornfield holler. Why would workers in a cornfield communicate this way? How high does corn grow? Seven feet tall. No one could see each other, so sound was the only way to keep in touch.

Why did workers need the extra volume of hollering? Long distances in the field, lots of other competing noise. What other noises would they need to compete with in the fields?

Why is "hollering" loud? What sounds work best? Open vowels make your mouth and sinuses into large open cavities that "resonate" and amplify the sound—like a guitar.

Hollers have very few words (consonants don't carry). From the few words, what time of day was this holler sung? How would you feel at the end of a day in the field? Tired, hot, dusty, hungry, thirsty. Would your voice sound excited or tired? The "descending tone" of the blues came from field hollers.

"Arwhoolie" performed by Thomas J. Marshall on Negro Work Songs and Calls, Washington D.C.: Library of Congress Recording Labs [AAFSL8], Library of Congress, © 1970. Available on Spotify and YouTube.

This holler was originally recorded in the 1940s as a 78 and later transferred to LP. The "caller" on this song is Thomas J. Marshall, who at the time was a student at the Southern Christian Institute of Mount Beulah College in Edwards, Mississippi. The simple holler is spontaneous and full of emotion—two characteristics that eventually found a home in the blues.

View the lyrics for "Arwhoolie."

Field hollers undoubtedly have a long history among African Americans, but they first began to be noticed by others during and after the Civil War, when Blacks began farming their own land and working as sharecroppers. Field hollers were a practical way of communicating over long distances in competition with other noises. Laborers working on individual tasks almost always sang hollers solo, so they differ from work songs that were sung by a group to keep time to rhythmic work like rowing or hammering.

Field hollers were predecessors of the blues. Solo performance and descending tones after a long tiring day in the field led naturally into the first blues songs that originated in this era.

Yodeling is similar to hollering. It originated in Switzerland to communicate through the Alps and was used later in the southern Appalachians in America. Cowboys yodeled to compete with the noise of wind and cattle across distances on the prairies.

Thomas J. Marshall, the caller on the accompanying recording, believed the term "Arwhoolie" was the original name of the cornfield holler or "howlie."

Men and women in the field by T.B. Thorpe of Louisiana. Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1853-54), vol. 8, p. 456.

Men and women in the field by T. B. Thorpe of Louisiana. Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1853–54), vol. 8, p. 456.

Find out how corn is grown and all the different jobs that must be done.

Find out more about African American methods of companion planting. Why were peas and beans planted with corn? What recipes resulted from this efficient farming practice?


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