Deep in the isolation of the COVID-19 lockdowns, a song of hope spread across TikTok and embedded itself in pop culture. As we awaited the vaccine, voices rang out for the Wellerman to come “to bring us sugar and tea and rum.” This shanty cry for a supply ship to bring relief went viral — a recognition of the power of work songs across time and context.
Before orchestras could fit into pockets and work was done alone with earbuds in, there were work songs. The story of music cannot be told without recognizing its deep roots in labor. Rock and roll owes its existence to the blues, which in turn evolved from the songs of chain gangs and the antebellum work songs before them. From the boats to the fields and hills to the factories, laborers sang songs of better days, of struggle and of unity.
These are the songs of the workers.
Before the era of sea shanties came to an end due to the rise of steam engines in the 1880s, wooden ships crossed oceans with only ropes, canvas and the sailors who knew how to operate them — and who knew the songs to work to.
For a song to be a shanty, it must have been a song used by sailors in the midst of labor — otherwise it’s just a sparkling sea song.
Shanties took different forms depending on what tasks they were associated with. Halyard shanties were sung while raising and lowering sails, a process requiring quick bursts of well-coordinated force among large teams. “Blow the Man Down” is full of energy and uses a call and response format to keep everyone on pace. Capstan shanties were sung while turning a large crank, called a capstan, to raise the anchor. This process was grueling and would take hours of constant whole-body pushing in circles, and thus were where sailors sang songs like “Shenandoah.” This song held a steady rhythm while telling the story of being far from comfort.
These ships went from port to port and continent to continent, picking up and dropping off workers as they went. The songs went with them.
“Shenandoah” originated as a riverboat song and “Blow the Man Down” is believed to be an adaptation of the song “Knock a Man Down,” which was sung among African American workers, possibly as they were loading cotton and other goods onto merchant ships while working as roustabouts. “Roll ‘Im On Down” is another version of that tune, this time originating in the Bahamas. And the halyard song “Pay Me My Money Down” likely originates with Black sailors from the West Indies, who then spread the song to Black roustabouts, the title for this work, loading lumber onto ships at Georgia ports.
The fields and hills
At the same time, in hills and fields across the United States, enslaved people sang “slave songs.” An oral tradition among the most oppressed, there are few written records of what these songs would sound like.
Given the lack of written records and the wide variety of culture and tradition among enslaved people, it’s hard to know when or where songs originated. The book “Slave Songs of the United States” was published in 1867, after the end of the Civil War, by abolitionists who likely interviewed freedmen about their experiences as enslaved people. This was the first project of its size, transcribing songs from diverse regions of the south. Yet, it makes no note about the context around each song’s use. Some were gospel songs sung on Sundays, others were sung for recreation and some songs, often called field hollers, were sung by enslaved people at work. These specifics may remain unknown forever.
This is not the case for what came next: chain gangs. The passing of the 13th Amendment ended all slavery in the U.S., yet kept the notable exception of labor as punishment for crimes. After the end of Reconstruction in the 1890s, Southern states quickly passed laws known as the Black Codes to exploit the prison exception by criminalizing nonsense like loitering to create a system for Black Americans to be arrested, imprisoned and put back into forced labor. These wouldn’t be phased out until the mid-1950s.
The recency of chain gangs should be alarming but also means there are relatively extensive recordings of their songs as well as interviews with their singers. Between 1933 and 1939, musicologist John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan recorded nearly 250 songs sung at Mississippi State Penitentiary. Yet, due to limitations of the technology and the reality of recording over a hundred people working outdoors, it was impossible to get quality recordings of the singing in the actual field. John Lomax would instead ask the workers, both individuals and some small groups, to reenact songs during their lunch breaks. In a 1947 interview with Alan Lomax, blues artist Big Bill Broonzy described his experience singing while laying railroad on a chain gang as:
“One guy maybe would be saying something or moaning or humming or something and I set the spike and I hit one lick then he’d come over and hit the lick … and back and forth like that. They don’t care whether it was in time or what note it was, it would just be singing and humming around. There wasn’t any words [most] of the time. Sometimes you’d say a word … some of them didn’t rhyme and some did rhyme. It didn’t make any different with them.”
Laying down railroad tracks required rhythm and coordination within teams, just like raising sails. Songs like “Long Hot Summer Days” and “John Henry” reflect this in their combination of steady rhythm with call and response to create the enchanting yet haunting tone that would directly become the somber, soulful sound of the blues.
While the Black Codes forced Black Americans to work in chain gangs, capitalism forced immigrants and other poor Americans to work for wages. In 1905, the International Workers of the World, a labor union nicknamed the Wobblies, was established. In 1909, they published the first edition of their “Little Red Songbook” as a one-page leaflet emblazoned with the phrase “Beware of a movement that sings.”
The most recent edition of the “Little Red Songbook” was published in 1990 and contained 41 songs. Many of these songs were written by a man named Joe Hill. “The Preacher and the Slave” lampoons religious promises of heaven with the chorus, “You will eat, bye and bye/ In that glorious land above the sky/ Work and pray, live on hay/ You'll get pie in the sky when you die.” This is traditionally followed by the crowd shouting, “That’s a lie!”
Hill was executed in 1915 after being convicted of murder with no more than circumstantial evidence. Over 30,000 people showed up to his funeral in Chicago, galvanizing him as an icon of the labor movement. His story inspired other labor songs including “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” in which Hill’s ghost returns to say his spirit lives wherever workers organize.
One of the most infamous stories is that of the Bread and Roses strike. In January of 1912, textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts lowered wages by 32 cents per week. This was the last straw for a workforce, mostly young immigrant women — some as young as 14-years-old. They were already living paycheck to paycheck despite working over 54 hours per week, and a third of them were dying before reaching 25-years-old.
Ten thousand workers went on strike with the cry for bread and roses. This slogan was taken from a poem by James Oppenheim published the year before. They turned it into a song which was later performed by Judy Collins. The opening stanza reads, “As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day/ A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray/ Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses/ For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!” The song also became a mainstay of women’s suffrage rallies during the decade and in 1920, the 19th Amendment passed granting women the right to vote.
These organizing songs remain present and powerful today. “Solidarity Forever” is written on the first page of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook and was first added to the book over a century ago in 1919. In October of 2022, artist Billy Bragg led a singing of “Solidarity Forever” for a parking lot of unionizing Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York. After the first chorus, he called a worker up to the microphone to lead the singing of what is the third verse in the Little Red Songbook. She punctuates the last line with a fist in the air:
“Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite/ Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?/ Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?/ For the Union makes us strong!”
These songs hold a power that eclipses the time and place they originated. “Wellerman” connected with TikTok users, the blues serves as a pillar of nearly all American music and organizing songs live on in today’s unionizing efforts. Yet, songs did not move ships across the sea, emancipate enslaved people or bring about women’s suffrage. This is not their power.
After finishing “Solidarity Forever,” Bragg said, “Music has no agency, it cannot change the world. The job of changing the world is the job of the people: to organize, to come together, to make that difference. But what music does do — what music can do — is make you believe that the world can change.”
Jeffrey Brown is a former Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. He writes for The Beet occasionally and does some drawing and photography too. He is a senior majoring in Sociology. Do not feed him after midnight.