Call and Response: The First Call

In the first section of Call and Response that we had to read as a class (pages 1-68), it was said that this would be the first “call” in the book. I am here to argue that there are actually two calls and one response within these pages. The first call happens between pages 1-18. This first “call” was meant to be a call of information. It was meant to inform people about where African culture is found in Euro-America and how it got there. Here, the authors talk about the origins of the oral African tradition. This includes sections on “African proverbs,  Folk Cries, Work Songs, Spirituals, and Folktales” (Hill 1-18). The main idea that the authors discuss in this section is how there are “African proverbs and slave proverbs” (Hill 11-12). These proverbs are two very different things as African proverbs grew their roots only though African culture and slave proverbs grew their roots in Euro-American culture. Although, slave proverbs have been proven to have African origins as well as Euro-American origins. In fact, J. Mason Brewer did a comparative study that showed that “black people brought at least 122 proverbs directly from Africa” (Brewer 11-12). What this means is that African Americans combined African tradition with the hardships that they had to face from enslavement in the Americas to create their own culture in “the New World” (Hill 12). This section goes on to explain how these proverbs have been found in work songs, spirituals, and folktales told by African Americans. It is within these songs that African culture can be found. Predominantly in the way that the words to these songs are spoken, and the emotion that begs for the need of freedom within those words that are said. Therefore the first call was about information on African oral tradition and was meant to set up the first response of the book.

The first response in this section occurs between pages 19-27. Here, we find some answers about African literacy and how writers incorporated ideas from oral tradition in their writing. Specifically, this is a response to the call of freedom that was found in all of the African American work songs and spirituals found on pages 1-18. In this response, we can find examples of African American scholars who “articulated the theme of freedom in a variety of ways” (Hill 19). These scholars took the traditional African oral stories and wrote them in a way for people to have an understanding of African culture as well as the enslavement way of life. The freedom aspect found in many of these scholars’ writings was found in the way they wrote about enslavement. These writers not only wrote about the need for freedom from slavery, they also wrote about the need for freedom from Euro-American views on life. This response to the first call is monumental in the understanding of how African tradition has not faded away due to Euro-American ideologies. It is important to note that even African American writers who were “free”, as well as enslaved writers during their time all, agreed that African culture needed to be brought to life in their writing. Whether it be personal accounts that they had to embark on or stories that they had heard from fellow African Americans, the response stayed the same. The need to keep African culture alive through their writing was of utmost importance to them.

            These writers influenced the last call in this section. This call is a more detailed version of the original call that occurred on pages 1-18. This call takes place from pages 28-68. This section goes into further detail about the proverbs in the songs, what they mean and how they first came about. It is in this section that you can find song examples from every category mentioned earlier. These songs get broken down to show what type of spiritual or folk cry it is and how they differ from one another. In this section, the “call” is meant to be a call of understanding. To help people understand the different types of songs that were sung by African Americans as well as the meanings behind those songs. This is done so that people who aren’t familiar with this genre of music are able to educate themselves on what these songs are and the meaning behind them. This last call starts off by comparing slave proverbs to African proverbs and how although they look significantly different, the meaning doesn’t change. For example, the slave proverb “distant stovewood is good stovewood” and the African proverb “distant firewood is good firewood” have the same meaning that “things look better from a distance” (Hill 29). This is just one example to show the differences between the two proverbs. This section goes on to show the songs and how there are calls and responses within the songs that African Americans sang as work songs, spirituals, and cries. The calls in the songs are the leader of the song singing the first verse and then the response is the chorus singing in an echo back. So, the idea of call and response being found in African American tradition is not so uncommon as seen in their singing. For example, on page 33 of Call and Response, the work song “An Old Boat Song” is sung like this:

“(Lead Singer) We are going down to Georgia boys, (Chorus) Aye, Aye. (Lead Singer) To see the pretty girls, boys. (Chorus) Yoe, Yoe.”

This song shows how African American songs and phrasing often act as a call and response to the experiences they have had. Going on in this section of the final call, more examples are found of how work songs, spirituals, and cries have this type of leader and chorus methodology about them. The examples found in the final call for this section create an understanding of how African oral tradition has become a part of songs and folktales. It is through songs and folktales that we are able to understand and respect a culture that has survived many hardships throughout the decades.

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