‘Plantation songs’ as referred in common parlance are Black American slave songs that emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries during the times when predominantly cotton, corn along with, sugar cane, tobacco and potato plantation in America prospered and thrived.
Cotton was the predominant cash crop in America until the end of the 19th century. The south west region extending from Texas to Virginia encompassing Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida was regarded as the plantation belt or the ‘cotton belt’. As at date the vast cotton lands have diminished, though still in existence.
The land owners of such a plantation were rich white – skinned aristocrat masters known as their ‘masa’ – meaning ‘master’ to the work force that comprised of – slaves imported from west Africa due to want of cheap and manageable labor, so that the ‘masses’ could always have a domineering iron hand over them.
The American masters engineered the ‘slave trade’ for this purpose and many thousands of hapless slaves were made to work in these plantations for a meager earning under extreme conditions. Very often the masters punished the slaves, including women by tying them to trees and whipping them mercilessly, even to the point of death.
Most of these Christian slaves brought with them their cultural and native lifestyles which included music, church singing, drums, dancing etc.
As time passed by in the plantations, many chants and songs evolved. These were all work related, mainly to keep their flagging spirits high, to lessen the agony and monotony of work. Songs of their lamentations – longing for freedom from slavery were born as a result. They asked for spiritual deliverance in prayer and chanting – thus giving birth to many gospel songs and songs for freedom. Some of them are called Negro spirituals. But most of them with a plantation related background came to be referred to as plantation songs.
Many are the songs that emerged during these times. What we mostly know now, are songs composed during that period portraying the plantations and signifying the lives of the slaves. Perhaps the best known composer of such songs was Steven Collins Foster (1826 to 1864) responsible for evergreen plantation hits such as Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanne River), Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground, Old Black Joe, Beautiful Dreamer, My Old Kentucky Home and many more. He also composed other black based songs such as Campton Ladies Sing this Song’, Oh Susanna, etc.
Due to the passage of time, these songs became traditionally American folk music. Apart from being an integral part of American culture, they became international all-time hits. In Sri Lanka, these songs are venerated by old favorite lovers and they are a virtual ‘must’ at all vintage singsong get together and sing-along gatherings.
Note: Since the abolishing of the slave trade in the 1860s, the latter day plantation workers got more freedom with some of them eventually becoming stakeholders in these lands.
On a personal note, I am indebted to my parents for nurturing me music wise in a background of such songs rich in artistic value and meaning. I know for certain (though never an academic wizard!) that these songs rich with culture and meaning has molded me and given inspiration to the little bit of music I had done and in my day to day life.