From seafaring chants to mind-numbing elevator tunes, music at work has a deep history. Generations ago, however, it was much more serious business.
ON THE JOB
Work songs have been documented since people started keeping track of history itself. From domestic trades to agricultural work, sea shanties to cowboy songs, chain gang chants to paperboys hawking their wares, tunes have long been utilized for a range of productive reasons.
Some songs helped keep communities together during a task, like hunting or harvesting. During hunting, especially in Africa, some groups included whistles that would help the hunters keep track of each other’s locations.
Tunes sung during such tasks as corn picking were more for entertainment during what would otherwise be an unbearably mundane job, to keep spirits up.
The patterns and rhythms of many work songs would also help a “team” stay synced, whether they were turning soil for planting, or setting down rails for trains as part of a convict chain gang.
In the deep South of the U.S., many “slave songs” originated from African music, and were sung as much to remind the slaves of their homeland as to keep everyone working efficiently. But overall, the songs chosen during the workday were always highly tuned to the job situation, from rowing (slow and steady sung patterns, to match the rhythm of the rowing itself) to the more boisterous, call-and-response patterns of railway workers, who also had to fight loudly against the noise of clanging picks and shovels.
But work songs weren’t limited to just work.
The art of song craft continued after the job for many, especially since the job itself consumed so much of their waking hours.
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, sea shanties became more prevalent, an extension of the rowing songs of prior decades.
Because sailors also had to work together in rhythm, these swinging songs followed very precise patterns as the crew worked the sails and cordage.
Many of these songs, popular among the men, would carry over onto the shore, as they made landfall and spilled over to sing throughout the night in the nearest local pub.
Cowboy songs were also more popular outside of the actual job than on it, as lonely cowboys and ranchers would move their herds around on the open range.
Once they stopped for the night, the campfire became the perfect place to fend off isolation with a few tunes on instruments that were easy to carry, such as harmonicas.
And military call-and-response tunes with their specific cadences kept soldiers marching in time as they moved to their next outpost.
The most familiar even to civilians is probably the “Duckworth Chant,” with its catchy “Sound off! (One, two!) Sound off! (Three, four!) One two three four, one two – three, four!”
Once workers started transitioning into more modern-day jobs, such as factory work, the tunes transitioned, too.
Now that less synchronization was needed due to the arrival of automated systems, the songs morphed into other forms, carrying over old melodies with lyrics that now reflected this new workday age.
Places like coal mines and farms still carried out the old work song traditions, but with more people working indoors, more songs were being sung after hours instead in places like coffeehouses, diners, and bars.
Once the folk scene hit in the ‘60s, work (and traveling to find work) became a prime source of lyrics for such songwriters as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, a tradition that continued into the ‘80s via the working-class, blue-jeaned rock songs of Bruce Springsteen.
Work songs haven’t vanished entirely, though. They’ve just changed into yet another form: electronic media.
You may not have realized it before, but you probably utilize “work songs” every day through such modern routes as Pandora. With earphones plugged into your computer at work, or smartphone apps with music, you’re bringing music along to your job or exercise routine just as people have done for hundreds of years.