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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Songs of Work and Industry

During the 400 years of the settlement, territorial expansion, migration, industrialization and urbanization of what would come to be known as the United States, the nature of making a living and the technological and economic factors on which it rested changed profoundly. In colonial North America the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural with farmers producing much of what they needed for themselves and their communities. Typically, only surplus produce would make it to wider markets and trade was principally carried out face to face. Travel could be unreliable and roads unpredictable with routes clogged with mud during winter months.

The situation changed dramatically between the American Revolution and the 1850s. First, as emblemized by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the National Road in 1833, the network of roads, turnpikes and canals expanded rapidly. Beginning in the 1830s, and accelerating in the 1840s and 1850s, railroad growth exploded. One measure of these developments can be seen in the fact that in 1800 a trip from New York City to Detroit took four weeks, while the same trip in 1860 could be completed overnight. With a transportation network in place and a growing number of urban wage earners, farmers increasingly produced for regional and national markets.

These sweeping changes deeply affected the nation's musical life. Some of these changes were quite direct. The technological refinement and industrial production of pianos made them affordable for a burgeoning middle class, and they became a widespread fixture in parlors across the country. Between 1829 and 1910 annual per capita piano sales increased twentyfold with over 365,000 sales in 1910 alone, or one for every 252 citizens. Sales of sheet music paralleled this growth in piano sales.

Other effects were more ephemeral. In particular, there was a wistful, nostalgic tone to the lyrics of many popular songs published in the mid 19th century. Songs like "Ah, Sing Again" evoked a nostalgia for a vanished past "When fortune ne'er denying/Did give us home and friends that made it dear." Such sentiments resonated with Americans who had left the communities of their youth to migrate west or to urban centers. Another example of this sentiment is J.R. Thomas's ballad "The Old Farm House" in which the narrator remembers a happy childhood in his farm house home, but the structure is currently "bowed with decay"and its "stones like dead friends lie apart."

Erie Canal at Salina Street, Syracuse. In album prepared by Detroit Photographic Co. to use as a catalog in its office. [ca. 1900] Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

But there was also a triumphal tone that reflected Americans' faith in progress in many of the song lyrics of the time. One example of this attitude can be found in the song "Riding on a Rail" by Charles Converse. The song not only celebrates the speed of the train as it is "Singing through the forests"and "Shooting under arches,"but it also imagines the train as promoting democracy by leveling the social scale:

Men of Different Stations
In the eye of fame,
Here are very quickly
Coming to the same;
High and lowly people,
Birds of every Feather,
On a common level,
A travelling together

Construction train of the Union Pacific in the early 1860s. Union Pacific Railroad Company. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-123536

The rapid technological change and shifting business organization in the last third of the 19th century led to the growth of large corporations serving national and international markets and rapid industrialization. The process involved intense struggles between managers and their workforces that, in cases like the strike at Carnegie Steel's Homestead Steel Works in the summer of 1892, escalated to open warfare. Sentiments on these issues were registered in a number of popular songs. Songs like "Give the Working Man a Chance," "Money is Power," "The Anti-Monopoly War Song," "Equal Rights, Justice and Liberty, or Don't Abuse Your Power," "Eight Hour Strike," expressed many of the goals and frustrations of labor in the late 19th century. Views less sympathetic to labor can be seen in the satirical "Go Join Coxey's Army," a song targeting Jacob Coxey's popular march to Washington in protest of unemployment during the economic depression in the 1890's.

The labor troubles at Homestead, Pa. - Attack of the strikers and their sympathizers on the surrendered Pinkerton men. Illus. in: Frank Leslie's illustrated weekly, July 14, 1892, p. 41. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-75205. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In contrast to labor songs critical of the inequalities produced by the industrial economy, many popular recordings made in the early 20th century celebrated the technological advances on which the economy was increasingly based. Works relating to the telephone had been published at least since 1877 when E. H. Harding published "The Telephone Polka." Songs about the device remained popular on the recordings in the early decades of the 20th century. Victor Records counted among its releases "Hello Frisco! (I called you up to say 'Hello!')," "Whenever You're Lonesome (Just Telephone Me),"and "Hello Central give Me Heaven." Advances in aviation were covered in "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine."

Problems with new technology also made their mark on songwriting, although they were often treated as comedy. Hazards of commuting from the suburbs, which had seen dramatic growth in the decades following the Civil War, figure in "On the 5:15." The song tells the story of a man who ends up in divorce court after repeatedly missing the train to and from work and escaping to a bar. The dangers and enticements of the city figure prominently in the top selling tune "The Bowery" in which a young man is led astray after "one of the devil's own nights"in the district and vows never to return. Although such songs as "In My Merry Oldsmobile"and "The Little Ford Rambled Right Along" tended to praise the automobile, "He'd Have to Get under, Get Out and Get Under" chronicles a man's desperate attempt to take his date on a pleasant drive with a car that repeatedly breaks down causing him to get out and get under to repair it.

Americans continued to be divided in their response to the modern economy and its effects on traditional, rural values. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural areas. The economy was increasingly geared to selling goods to a mass consumer market. In that decade, too, Joe Hill, labor activist and member of the International Workers of the World, wrote a number of labor songs that were widely circulated. Hill himself was memorialized in songs recorded by Paul Robeson, and members of the folk revival, Pete Seeger, Joe Glazer and Phil Ochs and others. Other labor leaders like labor organizer and activist, Mother Jones, were eulogized in the folk tradition as can be seen in "Sprinkle Coal Dust on my Grave" performed by Orville Jenks. Coal mining could also be the subject of commercially recorded popular music. For example the Merle Travis song "Dark as a Dungeon," which was later covered by Johnny Cash on the album "At Folsom Prison," describes an Appalachian mine as "dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew/ Where the danger is double and pleasures are few."

"In my automobile." Words by James R. Homer, words by Rennie Cormack. New York: George M. Krey Co., 1906.

Many other popular songs of the post-World War II period, however, continued to pay tribute to the products of the industrial economy. Standard reference sources list over eighty-five separate songs about the Cadillac alone. The Beach Boys had three hits about hotrods: "Shut Down," "409,"and "Little Deuce Coup." To be sure, some songs like Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" and the teen tragedies "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las and "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning detailed car accidents, but these were far outweighed by songs depicting America's love affair with its principal means of transport.

Work and the emergence of industrialism in the United States played an important role in the nation's musical memory. Song has been used while working such as hoeing songs, track lining songs and shanties. In addition songs have used the work and the workplace as a topic such as coal mining songs which provided important repertoire for protests and union activities. Finally, there have been a huge number of songs inspired by the growing prosperity that industrialization brought and such byproducts of industry as trains, ships, and automobiles.


Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor 
Traditional Work Songs