Round the Corn(er), Sally

Traditional, 1700s

What sounds can you hear on the recording, besides singing? Grunts of men working. If they are on a ship, what job might they be doing? Raising sails. How do you raise a sail? Pull ropes. Will someone who has sailed before show us the motion? Raise arms above head, grab the rope, pull down with great effort. How are sails handled on huge ocean-going “tall ships”? A crew pulls the ropes.

With all that work to do, why did sailors bother singing? To coordinate their movements. Why was it important to do this? No one person was strong enough to raise heavy sails.

Let’s try doing this motion together without the music. (After giving a start signal, have students stand to repeat the motion, trying to stay together for ten repetitions just by watching each other. Repeat while singing along with “Round the Corner, Sally,” pulling down on the word “round.”) How did we do? Which time did we do a better job working together? With the song. What else was better about working with the song? More fun, didn’t seem as long. (Explain that work songs were common when most work was done by human muscles. Explain the origins of the song as a slave work song.) What other kinds of work might this song accompany?

When sailors adapted this slave song, what word changed? “Corn” to “corner.” What was the “corner”? Cape Horn. What is the sailors’ destination? Califronia. (Calio = California.) Why did ships from the East Coast go all the way around South America to get to California? Cheaper, faster than going over land. What later inventions made going “round the corner” unnecessary? Railroad, Panama Canal.

"Round the Corner, Sally" performed by Pat Sheridan and Brasy on Rolling Home, © 2010. Available on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube.

This recording is historically authentic, using the call and response style characteristic of work songs.

View the lyrics and music for "Round the Corn, Sally."

View the lyrics and music for "Round the Corner, Sally."

Illustration in Mary Ashton Rice Livermore's The Story of my Life, or, The Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years (Hartford: A.D. Worthington & Co., 1897), p. 336. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Often novels and memoirs are the only sources for learning the history of a song. Such is the case with “Round the Corn, Sally.” Because it is mentioned in several early American novels, it is one of the earliest known examples of an African American slave song. Dena Epstein notes the presence of “Round the Corn, Sally” in one of the first novels of plantation life, George Tucker’s The Valley of Shenandoah (1824). In the novel The Old Plantation and What I Gathered There in an Autumn Month (1859), James Hungerford cites it as a rowing song. It is also mentioned in Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840).

Eileen Southern notes that “Round the Corn, Sally” was used to coordinate the movements of work teams. Enslaved people loading cotton along the Eastern Seaboard or Mississippi River likely sang “Round the Corn, Sally,” where it was adapted by the seafaring population and turned into a sea chanty. Interaction between various singing populations often gave rise to new songs. The melodies and rhythms of the two versions are similar, and they share a call-and-response structure. The expert chantyman improvised lyrics of the repeating phrase, while the sailors, hard at work, would repeat the chorus. This chanty was likely used to coordinate the crew’s movement raising sails, a strenuous effort made easier by singing. This version of the sea chanty probably dates from the mid-1800s (after California became a US territory), but “Round the Corn, Sally” is a much earlier slave song.

Compare this song to:

The French paddling song, "En Roulant ma Boule," also in this unit.


Novels that mentioned "Round the Corn, Sally":

George Tucker's The Valley of Shenandoah (1824)

James Hungerford's The Old Plantation and What I Gathered There in an Autumn Month (1859)

Richard Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840)

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