Work Songs  Across the Years and Miles

Wayne Slater-Lunsford

“…I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, “Come men, can't any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead.” And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended on it. It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates. Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.     —Herman Melville, Redburn, His First Voyage (1849)

Burlaki na Volge painted by Ilya Repin

In the mid-nineteenth century, both Russia and the United States were struggling with slavery and how to leave it behind. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, made in 1863, followed one by Czar Alexander II in 1861.  Perhaps the most daunting question was how to return the  serfs of Russia and the slaves of America to lives free not only from overt coercion, but from the forces of abject poverty and social stigma.  In Russia as in the U.S., a large, poor, uneducated underclass was created.  In Russia, this was almost a third of their entire population.  They were now FREE to starve, freeze to death, or sell themselves into indentured servitude- a kind of contractual slavery which at least promised true freedom at the end of the agreement.  While Alexander II's edict contained provisions for the serfs to gradually earn title to land, it was a very complex and harsh arrangement, administered differently in the various parts of the sprawling nation.  It spawned the Burlaks, who roamed across the continent seeking the most onerous and ill-paid work, and suffering an undeserved social  denigration much like African-Americans.  In Latvian, Burlak denotes a rude, dishonest person.  The painting (above) by Repin and the song (below) transcribed and arranged by Balakirev changed the usage of the term, especially outside Russia, to more specifically apply to those employed in one of the most arduous tasks- hauling barges past the rapids and other hazards of the upper Volga river.

Song of the Volga Boat Haulers  

Ey, OOCHnyem!
Ey, OOCHnyem!
Yeshcho razik,
Yeshcho da raz!

Razovyom mui byeryozoo,
Razovyom mui koodryavoo,
AI da da, ai da, AI da da, ai da,
Razovyom mui koodryavoo!

Yo-oh-HEAVE- ho
Yo-oh-HEAVE- ho
Once again,
one more time!

Haul until the curly Birch branch bends!
Sweat ad strain until the long day ends!
YO-and-a-heave-ho, YO-and-a-heave-ho!
Sweat and strain until the long day ends!

Click here for a more complete translation and pronunciation help   

Here's a very different river-boating song, from America.  It has a rousing chorus which I'm sure the whole crew would join in, and someone was probably also making up verses as they went.:

Hard On The Beech Oar  (or Shawnee Town) mp3 from Shanghaied on the Willamette

Some rows up; we floats down
Way down the Ohio to Shawnee Town

Hard on the beach oar, she moves too slow
Way down to Shawneetown on the Ohio

Whiskey's in the jug, boys; wheat is in the sack.
Float them down to Shawneetown and bring the rock salt back.

Now the current's got her boys-  take in some slack.
Float her down to Shawneetown and bushwhack her back

I got a wife in Louisville, and one in New Orleans.
When I get to Shawneetown I’ll see my Indian Queen.

The water's mighty warm boys, the air is cold and dank.
And the fog is so damned thick you cannot see the bank .

Click here for more background and a very nice version of the song by Cathy Barton and Dave Para

Many of these work songs use a counterpoint based on call and response.

When appropriate, I have noted the call with Cx and the response with Rx:

Flyin’ Fish Sailor  (variant of Blow The Man Down)

Cx = I’m a Flyin’ Fish sailor just home from Hong Kong


Cx = Just give me some whiskey and I’ll sing yez a song


As I was a-rollin' down Paradise street (Rx1)
a handsome fat p'liceman I chanced for to meet (Rx2)

 Sez 'I see yer a Black Baller by the cut of yer hair
 and them long red-top sea boots I see that you wear. 

 Oh mister, oh mister, you does me great wrong! (Rx1)
I’m a Flyin’ Fish sailor just home from Hong Kong. (Rx2)

So I spat in his face and I stove in his jaw (Rx1)
Sez " Look here young fellah, yer breakin' the law! (Rx2)

They gave me six months down in old Walton Town (Rx1)
fer bootin' an' kickin' an' blowin' him down. (Rx2)

So all you young sailors wot follows the sea, (Rx1)
put yer vents on the wind, boys and listen to me. (Rx2)

Yes all you young sailors you heed wot I say- (Rx1)
Steer clear of fat p'licemen; you'll pine an' you'll pay! (Rx2)

Many of the verses used with Blow the Man Down are actually about life on the Black Ball Line, which was known for punctuality and its vicious treatment of crewmen.  The swabbie portrayed in these verses probably didn't want to be associated in any way with that surly lot, yet chose a rather incongruous way to express his objection.


Simple Gifts (Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. 1848)

Simple Gifts was a work song sung by the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (more commonly called the Shakers), whose last community in America (Hancock Village) died in 1960. It is now a museum.  Aaron Copland used this lovely tune as the heart of his ballet score, "Appalachian Spring":

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.

This Caribbean song must have helped the workers through the long, torch-lit nights, harvesting bananas before the cruel heat of day drove them into their huts to sleep:







Ya work all night for a drink of rum Rx1.
Chop banana ‘til the morning come. Rx2

A beautiful bunch of ripe banana, Rx1
Hide the deadly black tarantula, Rx2

The Library of Congress has field recordings of two different versions of this song.  This one is basically the same as the one Harry Bellafonte used.  The Tarriers combined both variants in their 1956 recording.

Field hollers communicated information from one field to another, or from the farm house out to the fields and back.  This one was often used to call the plowmen in for dinner:

Way Down Yonder (field holler)

Way down yonder in the middle of the branch
We taught those buzzards how to dance

Cx = Hallo- Rx = Hallo- When you coming over?

Had a little mule, an' he wouldn't go gee.    [turn right]
I hit him in the head with a single tree. (Cx  & Rx )

Field hands weren't the only ones anxious to rest-
quitting time is one of the most popular themes of work songs in general:

Leave her, Johnny, leave her

        Cx= Oh the work was hard and the wages low.
Rx1= Leave her, Johnny, leave her
 (rising pitch)
        Cx=  It’s time for us to roll and go.
Rx2= And it's time for us to leave her (falling pitch)

Leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh, the voyage is done and the winds don't blow
And it's time for us to leave her

Oh, pull you lubbers or you'll get no pay Rx1
Oh, pull you lubbers and then be-lay Rx2

 Oh the skipper was bad, but the mate was worse Rx1
He'd blow you down with a spite and a curse Rx2

 And I thought I heard the old man say Rx1
It's a long, hard pull to the next pay day Rx2

These sailors are ready to hear the watch bell signaling the end of their shift,
 but it looks like they are in for a lot more work before they can rest:

Strike the Bell

Up  on the poop deck and walking about,
There is the second mate so steady and so stout;
What he is a-thinkin' of he doesn't know himself
And we wish that he would hurry up and strike, (strike) the bell.

Strike the bell second mate, let us go below;
Look well to windward you can see it's gonna blow;
Look at the glass, you can see it has fell,
And we wish that you would hurry up  and
(strike), strike the bell.

Down on the main deck and workin' at the pumps,
There is the larboard watch just longing for their bunks;
Look out to windward, you can see a great swell,
And we wish that you would hurry up and strike, strike the bell

Forward on the forecastle head and keepin' sharp lookout,
There is Johnny standin', a-longin' fer to shout,
Lights' a-burnin' bright sir and everything is well,
And he's wishin' that the second mate would strike, strike the bell.

Aft at the wheelhouse old Anderson stands,
Graspin' at the helm with his frostbitten hands,
Lookin' at the compass through the course is clear as hell
And he's wishin' that the second mate would strike, strike the bell.

Aft on the quarter deck our gallant captain stands,
Lookin' out to windward with a spyglass in his hand,
What he is a-thinkin' of we know very well,
He's thinkin' more to shorten sail than strike, strike the bell.

Hugill lists three shore songs which have the same tune as this pumping (or hand-over-hand halyard) chantey:
the Scots tune Ring the Bell Watchman, the Welsh air Twill Back y Clo,
and the Australian tune from the shearing sheds, Click Go the Shears:

Click Go The Shears

Out on the board the old shearer stands
Grasping his shears in his long bony hands
Fixed is his gaze on a bare-bellied "joe"
Glory if he gets her, won't he make the ringer go

 (ringer= fastest shearer on the team)

Click go the shears boys, click, click, click
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow
(blow = a stroke of the shears)
And curses the old snagger with the blue-bellied "joe"
(snagger: lucky fella; blue-bellied Joe= sheep with completely-shaved belly)

In the middle of the floor in his cane-bottomed chair
Is the boss of the board, with eyes everywhere
Notes well each fleece as it comes to the screen
Paying strict attention if it's taken off clean

The colonial-experience man he is there, of course (Colonial Experienced Man=  Humane-Society inspector.)
With his shiny leggin's just got off his horse
Casting round his eye like a real connoisseur
Whistling the old tune "I'm the Perfect Lure"

The tar-boy is there awaiting in demand (tar= antiseptic ointment for cuts. Looks and smells like its name.)
With his blackened tar-pot and his tarry hand
Sees one old sheep with a cut upon its back
Here's what he's waiting for "Tar here Jack!"

Shearing is all over and we've all got our cheques
Roll up your swag for we're off on the tracks
The first pub we come to it's there we'll have a spree
And everyone that comes along it's, "Come and drink with me!"

Down by the bar the old shearer stands
Grasping his glass in his thin bony hands
Fixed is his gaze on a green-painted keg
Glory he'll get down on it ere he stirs a peg

There we leave him standing, shouting for all hands
Whilst all around him every shouter stands
His eyes are on the cask which is now lowering fast
He works hard he drinks hard and goes to hell at last

You take off the belly-wool clean out the crutch
Go up the neck for the rules they are such
You clean round the horns first shoulder go down
One blow up the back and you then turn around

Click, click, click, that's how the shears go
Click, click, click, so awfully quick
You pull out a sheep he'll give a kick
And still hear your shears going click, click, click


High in the belfry the old sexton stands
Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands
Fix'd is his gaze as by some magic spell
Till he hears the distant murmur: Ring, ring the bell

Ring the bell, watchman! ring! ring! ring!
Yes, yes! the good news is now on the wing.
Yes, yes! they come and with tiding to tell
Glorious and blessed tidings. Ring, ring the bell!

High in the belfry the old sexton stands
Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands
Fix'd is his gaze as by some magic spell
'Til he hears the distant murmur: Ring, ring the bell

Hear! from the hilltop, the first signal gun
Thunders the word that some great deed is done
Hear! thro' the valley the long echoes swell
Ever and anon repeating: Ring, ring the bell

Bonfires are blazing and rockets ascend
No meagre triumph such tokens portend
Shout! shout! my brothers for "all, all is well!"
'Tis the universal chorus: Ring, ring the bell

SIXTEEN TONS (Merle Travis)

The poor miner speaking through this song has gotten mixed up with one of the many companies
which extended credit to workers and managed to entangle them in a never-ending web of dependence
on the "company store," which amounted to indentured servitude.
Even today, thousands of migrant farm workers are trucked around our nation, often illegally
 from Mexico or Central America, and treated much like the Burlaki, or serfs of the dark ages.

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man's made outta muscle an' blood.
Muscle an' blood an' skin an' bone,
A mind that's weak an' a back that's strong. (ch)

You load sixteen tons, an' what do you get?
Another day older, and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company sto'.

I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine.
I picked up my shovel an' I went to the mine.
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal,
An' the straw boss hollered, "Well, bless my soul!" (ch)

I was born one mornin' in the drizzlin' rain.
Fightin' an' trouble are my middle names.
I was raised in a cane break by an ol' mama lion.
Can't no high-born woman make me toe the line. (ch)

Well, if you see me comin' better step aside.
A lot of men didn't and a lot of them died.
My left fist's iron an' the right one's steel,
An' if the first don't get you then the second one will.  (ch)

Lazarus apparently got snagged by the same kind of unscrupulous gang as the miner in the song above.  He might have worked the railroad, logging, or any number of jobs that lent themselves to work camps.  These communities, whether mobile tent cities or stationary, were often called shanty towns.  The men in them were known as shanty men, and their songs often referred to as shanties.  Strong evidence suggests that the term "Sea Chanty" or "Shanty" simply identifies it as one variety of work song, sung by shanty men who happened to work on the sea rather than the forests or swamps.  Poor Lazarus is one among many work songs having the characteristic A-A-B-B form where an expletive leads to the repeat of the B.  Lazarus usually dies, but on the Jacksonville Florida Prison Farm we gave him a break:

Po’ Laz’rus Duval County FL variant of Lord Lord adapted by Bettina Makley and Wayne Lunsford, 1970
(Group repeats the leader's first line of each verse, noted by %)

Cx: Well, ol’ Laz’rus, he got fed up
        He went an’ broke in the commissary winder.  Rx:% (everybody repeats the line)
Cx: He couldn’t take it no more;
Rx: Lawd, Lawd!  He couldn’t take it no more! (everybody adds 'Lawd, Lawd' and repeats the line)

Well, the High Sheriff, he call the deputy
he said a-go out an’ get me Laz’rus.  %
I want him dead or alive! LL%

Well, the deputy, he tol’ the High Sheriff
Don’ want no truck wit’ no Laz’rus.  %
He’s a dangerous man! LL%

Well now, the High Sheriff, took out his Walker Colt
and reloaded all of the chambers,  %
with a double charge. LL%

When the High Sheriff, come up on Laz’rus
he was a kneelin’ between two mountains  %
prayin’ “Spare my life!” LL%

When the High Sheriff, he fired his Forty-Four
the double charge blew out the chamber  %
It blew the hammer right off. LL%

Well, the hammer, it hit the High sheriff
smack in the middle of his forehead  %
and it killed him dead. LL%

Well the town folk, they took the High Sheriff
an laid him on the commissary counter.  %
and they left him there.  LL%

Well the town folk, they told the Captain
‘all your men are gonna leave you  %
Cause the Sheriff’s gone, and now you’re all alone;
I said you’re all alone %%

Po’ Lazarus version recorded by John Lomax at Angola Prison  c1936
(Group repeats the leader's first line of each verse, noted by %-- and if the type of work being done would allow it,
 they would often rest their tools for a second and drag out the end of the repeat in a high wail)

High Sheriff, he told the deputy, he says, "Go out and bring me Lazarus."
High Sheriff, he told the deputy, he says, "Go out and bring me Lazaru--us. (pause to really holler out the last syllable)
Bring him dead or alive, Wo, Lawdy, bring him dead or alive."

Oh, the deputy begin to wonder, where in the world he could find him. %
"Well I don't know, Wo, Lawdy, I just don't know."

Oh, they found poor Lazarus way out between two mountains. %
And they blowed him down, Lawd, Lawd, and they blowed him down.

Old Lazarus told the deputy he had never been arrested. %
By no one man, Wo, Lawdy, by no one man.

So they shot poor Lazarus, shot him with a great big number. %
Number forty-five, Wo, Lawdy, number forty-five.

And they taken poor Lazarus and they laid him on the commissary counter. %
and they walked away, Wo, Lawdy, and they walked away.

Lazarus told the deputy, "Please gimme a cool drink of water. %
Just before I die, Wo, Lawdy, just before I die."

Lazarus' sister run and told her mother. %
"Poor Lazarus is dead, Wo, Lawdy, poor Lazarus is dead."

Lazarus' mother, she laid down her sewing. %
She begin to cry, Wo, Lawdy, she begin to cry.

Lazarus' mother, she come a-screaming and a-crying. %
"That's my only son, Wo, Lawdy, that's my only son."

Lazarus' sister, she couldn't go to the funeral. %
Didn't have no shoes, Wo, Lawdy, didn't have no shoes.

Cap'n, did you hear about - all your men gonna leave you?. %
Next pay-day, Wo, Lawdy, next pay-day.

This form was popular any place a large group had to work in concert.
It could be heard on the trawlers of the North Florida coast:

Here's a proper shanty from the woods:

Cutting Down the Pines

Friends, if you will listen, I'll sing to you a song,
All about the pine woods and how they get along.
A jovial lot of fellows as ever you will find
Spent the winter pleasantly cutting down the pines.

Some will leave their own dear homes and friends they love so dear
To the lonesome pine woods the boys will have to steer.
The sawyers and the choppers, the quiet mechanics too.
Learn all sorts of trades as part of the lumber crew.

The sawyers and the choppers, they lay the timber low:
The skidders and the swampers, they haul it to and fro;
On come the teamsters before the break of day:
They load up their log-teams, to the river haste away

"Noontime is coming!" loud the foreman screams,
"Lay down your saws and axes and haste to pork and beans
Time for your dinner!" you hear the foreman cry:
You ought to see them bound around, for they hate to lose their pie.

"Hurry up there, Tom, Dick or Joe,
You'll have to take the water pail and for some water go
Arriving in the shanty is when the fun begins,
Bringing out the water pails and rattling of the tins.

After dinner's over, 'tis amongst the crew,
We'll load up our pipes and smoke till all is blue
"Time for the wood, boys," you'll hear the foreman say;
We'll gather up our hats and caps, to the woods we'll haste away.

So merrily ring their axes until the sun goes down
"Hurrah! Now, my boys, your day's work is done."
Arriving at the shanty with cold and wet feet
All hands pull off our hats and caps, for supper we must eat

Our boots and our shoes are all thrown to one side;
Our mittens and our socks are all hung up and dried
"Time for your supper!" You all get up and go;
'Tain't the style for one of those boys to miss his hash, y'know!

Nine o'clock and thereabout, into our bunks we'll climb
To dream away the dreary hours while cutting down the pine
Four o'clock and thereabout, you'll hear the foreman shout,
"Hurrah, there, you teamsters, it's time that you were out!"

The teamsters, they'll get up all in a frightened way:
One cries, "I've lost my socks; my mittens've gone astray!"
Another one cries, "I've lost my cap, I don't know what to do
While another one says, "I've lost my hat, and I'm ruined too."

The choppers, they'll get up: their mittens they cannot find;
They lay it to the teamsters, and curse' em almost blind.
If any of you from this way should happen there,
You'd kill yourself a-laughing at the boys in despair.

Springtime is coming, merry be the day;
Lay down your saws and axes, and haste to clear the way
The floating ice now is gone, and business is to a ram:
Three hundred able-bodied men are wanted on the jam.

If any of you disbelieve in this song, or think these lines aren't true,
Just go to Bravy's shanty, ask one of Bravy's crew.
It was in Jack Bravy's shanty this song was sung with glee,
"This is the end of The Lumber Woods," says L. D. E.

From Folk Songs of the Catskills, Cazden Haufrecht and Studer ;Collected from George Edwards

Some work songs are even more practical- helping the singer to remember something needed to get the work done, as in the pilot verses used by the ancient Polynesian, Norse and other mariners:

Hartlepool Collier Rhyme (A Pilot Song of the British Isles, to remember navigational information)

First the Dudgeon, then the Spurn,
Flamborough Head is next in turn,
Filey Brig as you pass by
Whitby Light bears northerly
Huntley Cliff the great highland
Is five and twenty from Sunderland
Our Old Man says, if wind holds right
With luck we'll be in Shields tonight

Isaiah Jeremiah (Wayne Slater-Lunsford, 2003) memory aid for books in the Bible

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel are the Major books
Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah__ Jonah Micah Nahum Habbakkuk (Habbakkuk!)
Zephaniah Haggai__ Zechariah Ma-la-chi
Known as the minor prophets, they still were called by God to prophesy (prophesy!)

In the United States' Antebellum South, slaves sang work songs that sounded like spirituals or nonsense,
but secretly communicated the path to freedom.  They were actually Pilot Verses.

Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd

Rx = Follow the drinking gourd! Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom if you
Follow the drinking gourd.

The old man in this chorus was Peg Leg Joe, a sailor-turned-carpenter who had lost part of his right leg in an accident at sea.  Joe wintered in the South doing odd jobs, from plantation to plantation. When he wasn't working, he taught the slaves this song containing a secret escape route to freedom in the North.

“The Drinking Gourd” is another name for the Big Dipper, which points to the North Star.  By following the North Star the slaves were able to consistently navigate northward.

When the sun goes back and the first quail calls, Rx
For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom, If you Rx

Part of the journey to freedom involved crossing the Ohio River, which was too dangerous to swim in summer.  When the quail began to migrate South, it was a sign that winter was coming, when they could walk across on the ice.

The riverbank makes a very good road,
Dead trees will show you the way,
Left foot, peg foot traveling on, Rx

By following Peg Leg Joe’s peculiar footprints and the dead trees along the uninhabited bank of the Tombigbee River, the slaves could avoid the hounds and their owners.

The river ends between two hills, Rx
There's another river on the other side, Rx

When the Tombigbee ended, the slaves must continue northward, over the hills to the Tennessee River, where Peg Leg Joe would guide them to the Underground Railroad.  Many songs were sung about  Long John or Old Riley escaping.  He might try feeding the hounds, but more often he'd swim or wade along a river so they would lose his scent.  This song draws a parallel between Long John and Moses:

Wade in the Water

Wade in the water; Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water;
God’s gonna trouble the water (wo-o-oh!)
Rx = God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

Cx= Well, who are these children all dressed in red? Rx

Cx= Must be the children that Moses led Rx

COMPARE: Slave Work Song: Shuck That Corn Before You Eat

Can’t You Line ‘Em / Shove it Over  (traditional, arranged by Leadbelly)

Lomax recording of 1936 from We Shall Be Free, Volume 2 (Albatross VPA 8303)

Cx= Oh boys, is you right?

Rx = Done got right!

All I hate 'bout linin' track
These ol' bars 'bout to break my back

Oh boys, can't you line 'em, Rattle-Rattle (3x)
 See Eloise go linin' track.

Moses stood on the Red Sea shore
Smotin' that water with a two-by-four

If I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood

Mary an' the baby lyin' in the shade
Thinkin' on the money I ain't made

Another lining song, sung by Zora Neal Hurston:

Another type of work song is used to aid in selling a good or service.  The Rag & Bone man (junk dealer) would drive his cart down my street in Leicester (UK) singing the likes of, "Rags and bones, and what you may; Tomorrow I'll sell wot I haul off today."  Someone was inspired by the songs and shouts of hawkers to write this beautiful three-part round:

Street Cries

A watermelon seller in Savannah, Georgia used to sing: and a fish monger in South Carolina advertised thus:

After the Napoleonic wars, many soldiers and seamen returned to find their jobs, families and fortunes gone.  Some of them took up selling handmade novelties on the street, and usually tried to market their wares with a dance, a recitation or a clever song:

Needle Cases     

I’m a poor wandering fellow my name it is Jack
No shoes to my feet scarcely a rag to my back
My belly is empty my feet they are sore
Wont you by a case needles from poor wandering Jack?

Needle cases wont you buy some you can buy some I’m sure
Won’t you by a case needles from Jack that’s so poor.

I once had a table all covered with good food
Over eating and drinking and all that was good
But now I’ve no table no friends and all that
Wont you by a case needles from poor wandering Jack? (Refrain)

I once was a farmer and followed the plough
Don’t you think I’m a charmer just look at me now?
All covered with rags from the bottom to the top
Don’t you think that I’ve become a poor wand’rin’ rag shop? . (Refrain)

Oh if you won’t buy some I shall take my leave
But to leave such good company it does my heart grieve
To leave you to leave you but if I should come back
Won’t you by a case needles from poor wandering Jack? (Refrain)

Cowboys often redeemed  the many hours they spent on the trail by making up songs.  Some of them served to calm their horse and the cattle:

Doney Gal

From the singing of Joe Hickerson.  Additional verses from Songs of the Great American West (Silber and Robinson)

A cowboy's life is a weary thing
Rope and brand and ride and sing
Yes, day or night in the sleet and hail
He'll stay with the dogies out on the trail.


Rain or shine, sleet or snow,
Me and my Doney Gal are bound to go
Rain or shine, sleet or snow,
Me and my Doney Gal are bound to go.

We're up and gone at the break of day
Driving them dogies on their lonesome way
The cowboy's work is never done
We're up and gone from sun to sun.

We yell at the rain, laugh at the hail
Driving them dogies down the lonesome trail
We'll yell at the rain, sleet and snow
When we reach the little town of San Antonio.

Rain or shine, sleet or snow,
Me and my Doney Gal are on the go.
We travel down that lonesome trail
Where a man and his horse seldom ever fail.

We'll ride the range from sun to sun,
For a cowboy's work is never done.
He's up and gone at the break of day
Drivin' the dogies on their weary way.

Travelin' up the lonesome trail
Where a man and his horse seldom ever fail,
Joggin' along through fog and dew,
Wishin' for sunny days, and you.

Over the prairies lean and brown,
On through the wastes where there ain't no town.
Swimmin' the rivers across our way,
We fight on forward day-end on day.

Trailin' the herd through mountains green,
We pen the cattle in Abilene.
Round the campfire's flickerin' glow
We sing the songs of long ago.


CATTLE CALL  (Tex Owens- as recorded by Slim Whitman)

When the cattle are prowlin'
The coyotes are howlin'
Out where he doggies bawl
Where spurs are a jinglin'
This cowboys a singin'
A lonesome cattle call
(long yodel)

I ride in the sun
Till my days work is done
Roundin up cattle each fall
(short yodel)
Singin my cattle call

For hours I will ride
On the range far and wide
Night winds blow up a squall
I don't care what the weather
My hearts light as a feather
Singin' my cattle call.
(long yodel)

There is also one version with the lines:
He's brown as a berry
From ridin' the prairie
And he sings with an old western drawl....

The Industrial Revolution spawned a new type of mind-numbing drudgery, in the factories where both adults and children were set to various tasks that machinery had not yet mastered.  In the early days of steam, a small boy would often spend all his waking hours operating a valve to send the huge cylinder out and back.  For generations, as engineers improved automation, workers were moved to smaller numbers of ever more complex and exacting tasks, and from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century, many skilled hands were required to operate lathes:

Turning Steel ©Colin Dryden 1969 

Ya wake up in the mor-ning, the dawn’s as black as night.
Yer ma’s a shouting up the stairs, and ya know she’s winning the fight.
Well, ya best venture out of bed me lad, ‘cause ya know it’s getting late;
then it’s down the stairs and up the street, and through the fact’ry gate.

Turning steel, how do you feel,
as in the lathe you spin?
If ye felt like me ye’d roll right out
and ne-ver turn a-gain.

Cold and dark the morning as you squeeze in the gate.
As you clock in, the bell will ring - eight hours is your fate.
Off comes the coat and up go the sleeves and "right lads" is the cry.
With one eye on the clock, the other on your lathe, you wish that time could fly.

But time can't fly as fast as a lathe, and work you must -
The grinding, groaning spinning metal, the hot air and the dust.
And many's the time I'm with me girl and we're walking through the park,
While gazing down at the spinning steel or the welder's blinding spark.

Well, old Tom, he left last week - his final bell did ring.
His hair as white as the face beneath his oily sunken skin.
But he made a speech and he said "good-bye" to a life time working here,
As I shook his hand, I thought of hell - a lathe for forty years.

When my time comes, as come it must, why then I'll leave this place.
I'll walk right out past the chargehand's desk and never turn my face.
Out through the gates, into the sun, and I'll leave it all behind,
With but one regret for the lads I've left, to carry on the grind.

Long hours of purely physical labor have always been the most fertile ground for work songs.  Manual labor is gradually giving way to more cerebral tasks, asking for the sort of mental concentration which precludes musical composition.  It's also easier now to have recorded music soothe or buoy up one's spirits while on the job.  Still, some songs are so uniquely appropriate for some jobs:

Drivin’ My life Away (Eddie Rabbit 1975...)

Well the midnight headlight blinds ya on a rainy night
steep grade up ahead slow me down makin' no time,
but I gotta keep rollin'
those windshield wipers slappin' out a tempo
keepin' perfect rhythm with the song on the radio
but I gotta keep rolling

Ooh I'm driving my life away, looking for a better way, for me.
Ooh I'm driving my life away, looking for a sunny day…

Well a truck stop cutie comin' on to me
tried to talk me into a ride said I wouldn't be sorry
but she was just a baby
Hey waitress pour me another cup of coffee
pop it down, jack me up, shoot me out flyin’ down the highway
lookin' for the morning (chorus)


work song n.
A song sung to accompany work, typically having a steady rhythm. --The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000,  2003 Houghton Mifflin Company.

Any song that belongs to either of two broad categories: songs used as a rhythmic accompaniment to a task and songs used to make a statement about work. Used by workers of innumerable occupations worldwide, work songs range from the simple hum of a solitary labourer to politically and socially conscious protests against working conditions or the quality of workers'--"work song." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.  30  Sept.  2005 

Hugill, Stan: Shanties From The Seven Seas: Shipboard Work-Songs and Songs Used as Work-Songs From the Great Days of Sail  Mystic Seaport, Mystic CT.  1961

Lomax,  John A. and Alan: American Ballads and Folk Songs McMillan & Co., 1934

Whall, Capt. W. B.: Sea Songs and Shanties Brown, Son & Ferguson Ltd. Glasgow, 1910

The American Folklife (Library of Congress) audio archive:

Florida WPA collections 1937 - 1942:

Ethnic and Cultural Groups Recorded by the WPA in Florida

Music from California's migrant camps during the Great depression:

Shanties recorded in California by Robert Winslow Gordon, 1922-1932:

Zora Neale Hurston, a cultural anthropologist who lived her subject:

Stetson Kennedy interview (NPR)

Stetson Kennedy about collecting folk songs in Florida:

Negro Work Songs and Calls (Library of Congress recordings):

The Erie Canal:

Why so many cowboy songs are sung in triple meters- Cowboys like the canter...
Horse gait:
Burns, T.E. and Clayton, H.M. 1997. Comparison of the temporal kinematics of the canter pirouette and collected canter. Equine Veterinary Journal Supplement 23, 58-61

Definition of Whippletree / Singletree

patent drawing for a back band:

Various comments on the Drinking Gourd



National Geographic:

Slave Narrartives: