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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Traditional Work Songs

In traditional cultures around the world, work is often accompanied by song. Americans have developed work songs for many occupations, from agricultural jobs like picking cotton, to industrial ones, like driving railroad spikes. Iconic American figures such as cowboys had their work songs, as did sailors, whose songs kept work going smoothly on tall ships throughout the age of sail.

Work songs are typically sung for two reasons: to coordinate the labor of a group of people working together, which improves the efficiency of the work, and to relieve the boredom of a tedious job, which improves the lives of the workers.

In southern cornfields and cotton fields, workers often relieved their boredom with an "arwhoolie," or "Cornfield Holler:" a plaintive chant with only a few words, sung by a worker in the fields. Sometimes, a plantation worker or sharecropper in one field would hear a neighbor's arwhoolie carried on the breeze, and would answer with his own. There were often special calls for quitting time, such as "Oh the Sun Done Quit Shinin,'" and even for mealtimes, such as "She Brought My Breakfast." Similarly, when out cutting sugarcane on a cold fall morning, a Texas singer might complain:

Ain't no more cane on the Brazos
They done ground it all up in molasses

It's impossible to be bored when thinking up lyrics like that!

A good example of the kind of song needed to coordinate labor is the railroad work song. When hammering in spikes to hold down the rails and ties, workers swing ten-pound hammers in a full circle, hitting the spike squarely, one after the other, without faltering or missing. The most efficient way to do this is to get the workers into a rhythm, which is traditionally provided by chants or songs, such as "Steel Driving Song," collected from Henry Truvillion by John and Ruby Lomax in Louisiana in 1939. In the same way, realigning whole sections of railroad that have been shifted by trains - rails, ties, and all - requires a crew to tap on the rails with hammers or pull on them with crowbars. If one man taps the rail alone, or five men tap it at different times, it won't move at all, but if five men tap it at exactly the same time, they can move it. Songs like "Track Callin'" provide the rhythm to get them all tapping or pulling at the same time.

Moses Platt (Clear Rock), Sugar Land, Texas. Alan Lomax, photographer. 1934. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG--ppmsc-00285. Platt sang a number of songs for John Lomax., including "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos."

Most field recordings of work songs were not made while the singers were actually working. The remoteness of the typical work locations was inconvenient to the collectors, while the presence of the recording equipment was inconvenient to the workers. In the prison environment, however, the presence of the collector was an interesting novelty to the prisoners, who in any case had no choice but to obey their wardens, and work tasks, such as chopping down trees or hoeing fields, could be undertaken for the purpose of getting a recording. Field recordings made under such conditions, which include "Early in the Mornin'" and "Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad," are useful for getting a sense of how the work went together with the song.

American sailors had a very developed work-song tradition, and Library of Congress folklorists collected these songs from retired sailors in the 1930s and 1940s. Seagoing work songs, known as chanteys or shanties, had different structures depending on the task they accompanied. Typically, a lead singer, or shantyman, would sing the bulk of the song, and the men who were working just sang refrains and choruses. Short-drag, or short-haul shanties, such as "Haul Away," had just short refrains suitable for a few pulls on a rope. Stamp-and-go or walkaway shanties, such as "Drunken Sailor," for jobs that required walking a few steps to take in a rope's slack, had slightly longer refrains. Halyard shanties, such as "Hangin' Johnny," which were used for moving the wooden yards that held the sails up and down, had still longer ones. Finally, capstan shanties and pumping shanties, for long, sustained labor, had a slower pace and full choruses, such as "Away, Rio." It's interesting that sailors were allowed to complain about working conditions only through the medium of their shanties - the songs were so important to keeping things moving that the officers tolerated a little grumbling in the lyrics.

Detail from 139. As STAR OF ALASKA, 1925. Crew members at the forecastle deck capstan. (J9.28,516n) - Ship BALCLUTHA, 2905 Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: HAER CAL,38-SANFRA,200--139.

In addition to work songs, which are sung during work, folklorists recognize a related category generally called "occupational songs." Most work cultures that had work songs had occupational songs too, but occupational songs predominate in occupational communities in which work is done by individuals rather than coordinated teams, such as coal miners and loggers or lumberjacks. Occupational songs frequently tell stories about workers on the job, warn against the dangers of the occupation, or teach about the tools and techniques required to be a successful worker. Examples include "The Miner's Doom," recorded from Dan Walsh by George Korson in Pennsylvania in 1947, and "The Lumberjack's Alphabet," collected from Gus Schaffer by Alan Lomax in Michigan in 1938.

Because women's work was not always recognized as labor by male collectors, most work songs have been collected from men. However, women created work songs as well. In California folklorist Sidney Robertson Cowell found waulking songs, used by Gaelic-speaking women in Scotland for fulling woven cloth; an example is "Fhillie duhinn s'tu ga m'dhi (My brown-haired lover, I'm without you)," Most folklorists now recognize lullabies as work songs too; after all, putting children to bed is a traditional parental job in all societies. Like other work songs, lullabies contain an element of protest, in which mothers express consternation with their lives and even hostility toward their babies: why else sing about putting your baby in a tree-top, so that "when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall?" Of course, this hostility is not serious, but it allows parents to vent just a little bit about the frustration that sometimes comes with the joy of parenting. Library of Congress fieldworkers have recorded lullabies in several languages across the United States, including the English-language "Come Up Horsey, Hey, Hey," the Icelandic-language "Budar ei lofti," and the Arabic-language "Ughniyah li al-Atfal."

Just like parents communicating with babies who haven't yet learned to talk, cowboys needed to use pure sound to communicate with their animals. When trying to control a herd of horses or cows, they made soothing, murmuring sounds, and occasional shouts and grunts. They sometimes incorporated these sounds into songs, and literally sang to their animals to keep them calm and on-track. One of these songs, called the "Night Herding Song," was collected by John Lomax from its author, the Texas cowboy Harry Stephens. Because of the popularity of Lomax's publications, versions of this song have since been recorded by Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Don Edwards, and other popular cowboy singers.

The "Night Herding Song" is only one example of a work song incorporated into popular culture. From the earliest days of recorded popular music (especially the blues and country music) work songs have been adapted to fit the styles of singers who then became models for later generations. In 1929, Mississippi John Hurt recorded the popular tune "Spike Driver Blues," his adaptation of the traditional "Take This Hammer." The work song "Black Betty," first documented by the Library of Congress, has been recorded by rock bands Ram Jam (1977), Spiderbait (2004), and The Melvins (2011). Thus, in the driving rhythms and sad lyrics of contemporary pop music, one can still hear echoes of the chopping, hammering, and daydreaming of centuries of American workers.