A field holler, also called a holler, is an extemporized form of black American song, sung by southern labourers to accompany their work. It differs from the collective work song in that it was sung solo, though early observers noted that a holler, or ‘cry’, might be echoed by other workers or passed from one to another. Though commonly associated with cotton cultivation, the field holler was also sung by levee workers, mule-skinners and field hands in rice and sugar plantations.
Field hollers are also known as corn-field hollers, water calls, and whoops. They were sung solos and normally expressed by the southern labourers (most often slaves). These songs expressed many different topics, many times cries for water and food, cries about what was happening in their daily lives, to let other people know that they were out in the fields working on that particular day, and many other cirumstances that that one would feel like singing about. Some were even about the slaves religious devotions. Field hollers were even used as an outlet for southern laubourers to sing about their troubles and hardships in their everyday lives.
It is believed that the holler is the precursor of the blues, though it may in turn have been influenced by blues recordings. No recorded examples of hollers exist from before the mid-1930s, but some blues recordings, such as Mistreatin’ Mama (1927, Black Patti) by the harmonica player Jaybird Coleman, show strong links with the field holler tradition. A white tradition of ‘hollerin’’ may be of similar age, but has not been adequately researched. Since 1969 an annual ‘hollerin’’ contest has been held in Sampson County, North Carolina.