She works hard for the money

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
All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to She works hard for the money

  1. Roger Wise says:

    The real Rosie the Riveter was Rose Will Monroe who worked as a riveter at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, building B-24 bombers for the U.S. Army Air Force.

    On the current set list of the Twilight Memories Big Band is a work song simply titled “Work Song.” It has been recorded by a number of bands including Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The video shows the band playing in a factory that manufactures musical instruments.

    • What a perfect addition to my post! I didn’t recognize the title “The Work Song,” but once I watched the video, I realized I was familiar with the piece — We listened to a lot of Herb Alpert music when I was growing up.

  2. Riff Noggin says:

    Imagine one of the WWII soldier movies – any one – having a scene where the rugged hero returns from a successful mission and says with pride to a buddy, “I never would have made it if my wife – aw heck, all the girls – hadn’t made this plane so strong!” Or another scene where a mechanic says, as he puts his unneeded wrench into the back pocket of his overalls and smiles lovingly at the engine, “She sure is a beaut’ – those gals really know how to build a fighter!” Wouldn’t that have been great!

  3. Judie says:

    Ross has a picture of his grandmother when she worked in a plant during the war. She looked just like Rosie the Riveter! It’s nice to see your blog again!

    • What a treasure that photo must be! I have piles of family albums and loose pictures “rescued” during my recent trip — to share with you and others at some point. But how will we ever divide them?!

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