Around Labor Day, I bring out songs about work — good old-fashioned physical labor in mines, on factory lines. Loading ships, laying railroad.
I played my first worker song at age seven: “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” (Yo, yo, heave ho!). It appeared in my beginner’s piano book, Teaching Little Fingers to Play, to introduce the concept of a minor or “sad” key. (The book has a 1936 copyright date, well before Glenn Miller released his upbeat jazz arrangement of the tune in 1941.)
“The Song of the Volga Boatmen” didn’t make it onto my work-themed set lists. For those selections, I turned to The People’s Song Book, a small paperback I picked up at a used-book sale years ago. This collection was a project of People’s Songs Inc., an organization founded by Peter Seeger and others intent on bringing traditional folk music and working men and women together.
In The People’s Song Book, I found “John Henry,” a 19th century ballad about an American folk hero who took a stand against new machines that were replacing human labor. John Henry worked himself to death pounding steel spikes into railroad ties in a race against a steam drill.
And of course the book includes union protest songs: “We Shall Overcome,” “Solidarity Forever,” “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
To round out a program centered around work songs, I add the sea shanty “Shenandoah,” and two more recent numbers:
“The Banana Boat Song” (or “Day-O”) – The best-known version of this Jamaican folk song with a calypso beat is Harry Belafonte’s, from 1955. The lyrics tell of night-shift workers loading bananas onto ships. At daylight, they call for “Mister Tally Man” to come and count up their work, so they can go home.
“Sixteen Tons” – Tennessee Ernie Ford’s deep-voiced, finger-snapping version of this coal-miner’s lament soared to #1 on the country music charts in 1955. Another song about the miner’s life, in quite a different style, is Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit, “Workin’ in a Coal Mine” (whoop, about to slip down…). Remember?
And finally, there’s my recent discovery of a song applauding the woman war worker: “Rosie the Riveter,” released by The Four Vagabonds in 1942, the year before Norman Rockwell’s famous image appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The song begins:
While other girls attend a favorite cocktail bar,
Sipping dry martinis, munching caviar,
There’s a girl who’s really putting them to shame,
Rosie is her name.
Here’s the rest (listen for the voice imitating a riveting machine):
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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