The Long, Hard History of the Work Song Men and women have long made music to accompany their labor, and musician Ted Gioia says that work songs are more than a musical genre, they're a transformational tool. The author of the new book Work Songs, shares some of his favorites with us.

The Long, Hard History of the Work Song

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(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) How delightful to see in those evenings of spring when the sheep are all going to fold. The master do sing...


On this Labor Day weekend we're going to dwell a few moments on songs of work. From the sheep shearers of the British Isles...

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...and the dog goes before them when called.

ELLIOTT: the sulfur miners of Sicily...

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: I must go I know that. Go...

ELLIOTT: ...and the oyster shuckers of Virginia.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Go wade in the water...

ELLIOTT: Men and women have long made music to accompany their labor. Musician Ted Gioia says work songs are more than a musical genre. They're a transformational tool.

Mr. TED GIOIA (Musician): It made the work less arduous. The hours rolled by. It allowed them to have some sort of mastery over their work conditions, which often were very demeaning ones.

ELLIOTT: Ted Gioia is the author of the new book Work Songs. We asked him to share some of his favorites with us. The work songs span all cultures. He drew from the rich traditions of the African Diaspora. Ted Gioia, you write in your book Work Songs that the rhythms of work often influenced the meter of the work song. So I'd like for us to listen for that relationship in a song that many of our listeners may recognize. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song Po' Lazarus)

Unidentified Men (Prisoners): (Singing) Well the high sheriff told his deputy won't you go out and bring me Lazarus. Well bring him dead or alive. Lord, Lord, bring him dead or alive.

Mr. GIOIA: One of the great joys of the work song is it coordinates the labor. This was very valuable in many conditions because you could no longer pick out one worker for not working as fast as the others. The recording took place in 1959. This was really the end of the era of the prison work songs. And Alan Lomax, the great folk music collector, made this trip to Parchman Farm, a prison in Mississippi in 1959.

(Soundbite of song Po' Lazarus)

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Well he's a dangerous man. Lord, Lord he's a dangerous man.

Mr. GIOIA: This was his last trip. And even at this late stage he found this extraordinary example of music making, a song called Po' Lazarus. This song, although it was never intended for commercial release, had an interesting later story when it was used in the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, and had the surprising impact on, you know, the public psyche and became a huge seller, winning a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and selling eventually seven million copies. I think this testifies to the power of this music, that even though the music was not intended for commercial release, it has this appeal to people; the hypnotic power of it reaches audiences even today.

ELLIOTT: What happened when this song did become such a big hit for the actual prisoners who were singing here?

Mr. GIOIA: It took them some time to track down James Carter, who was the lead singer. And in fact he didn't even recall making the recording when they found him. But when he was presented with the royalty check, he was delighted to receive it. And when told that his recording was then outselling Michael Jackson, he laughed, sat back, and he said, well, I'll slow down a little bit and I'll give Michael a chance to catch up with me.

ELLIOTT: Now, prison work songs are some of the more common work songs that you hear. There's another one that I'd like for us to listen to that's also recorded by Alan Lomax at the Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Men: (Singing) I'm going home. Oh yes, I'm going home. Oh yes, I'm going home. Lord, Lord I'm going home. I'm going home. Lord, Lord, I'm going home. My baby's just, just crying. My baby's just, just crying. Brother come home. Lord, Lord, brother come home. Brother come home. Lord, Lord, brother come home.

Mr. GIOIA: At this point in time the prison work song had almost faded away. And you know, only a few years earlier Elvis Presley had recorded his song Jailhouse Rock with this extraordinary image of rocking and rolling prisoners. And then you moved to this very moving recording with its deep pathos. And it reminds you of the - you know, the realities of prison labor, these prisoners singing about going home. These were people that were, you know, not going home anytime soon. And you can, you can sense the emotional depth and the melancholy in their singing.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Lord, Lord, come on home. I'm going home. Oh yes, I'm going home. Oh yes, I'm going home. Lord, Lord, I'm going home. I'm going home. Lord, Lord, I'm going home.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk now a little bit about how these songs get passed along from worker to worker over the generations. In particular, there's a piece that you sent us from an oyster shucker in Virginia.

Mr. GIOIA: Yes. Creola Johnson learned these songs from her grandmother back in the 1920's and 1930's. They were songs that her grandmother had sung in the fields while picking tobacco in Virginia. And Creola brought them with her to her various jobs, in a tobacco factory when she fed the tobacco leaves into a stemming machine or into a textile mill, and finally late in life as an oyster shucker where she led the other workers in these songs that she had learned 40, 50 years before.

(Soundbite of song I Don't Want Nobody Stumbling Over Me)

Ms. CREOLA JOHNSON (Oyster Shucker): (Singing) I don't want that liar stumbling over me, stumbling over me, stumbling over me. I don't want that liar stumbling over me. That is why I pray Lord...

ELLIOTT: I love the way you can hear the shucking sounds in the background as she's singing.

Mr. GIOIA: Often you find that the task involved in work imparts an important rhythm to the music. You listen to these songs and you can almost not imagine them taken away from the setting that gave them birth because the sound of the hammers, or the axes, or the shucking in this instance become almost a type of percussion that moves the piece along.

ELLIOTT: Now, what's interesting here is that this song was recorded in 1979. That's pretty recently.

Mr. GIOIA: That's right. This was a researcher - Glen Henson(ph) had gone to Virginia to find the last examples of work songs. And it was difficult at this stage. Now, when Creola Johnson sang that she found that many of the younger coworkers she had did not want to sing along. They did not want to be associated with a work song. And you find this often. There really are different attitudes towards this. There's an attitude that looks at the work song as something demeaning, as a reminder of a day and age that many people would like to forget.

I prefer though to look at these songs as statements of human dignity. And I believe that fundamentally all work is dignified. The very practice of work, or transforming your environment, adds dignity to your day-to-day life. And these songs were able to take even the worst, more de-humanizing situations, even of a prisoner, or of a slave laborer, and find some moment of self-expression and dignity to that.

ELLIOTT: Ted Gioia is the author of Work Songs. He joined us from member station KERA in Dallas. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. GIOIA: Thank you for having me.

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