To celebrate this year’s Labor Day, I thought I would pick out some of my favorite folk songs about working (or not working) to share. Mainly because many of these songs were written before the existence of the holiday and many portray the feelings of people which lead to there being a celebration of the labor force here in America.
This is probably the most famous and classic of songs about working because it shows how the spirit of a man or woman to work can take them to new heights as a human being. “John Henry” is about a man who has a manual labor job (in some versions he drives steel and in others he hauls cotton bales) and tries to outwork a machine that could steal his job. In most versions of the song, John Henry succeeds for awhile in beating the machine but eventually dies from overwork. “John Henry” still is relevant today as more and more machines replace human workers. Hell, there are even computer programs that can write music and lyrics. They’re coming for me too!
Looky Looky Yonder
While this tune may not be entirely about working, it was most definitely sung in a work setting. If you listen to the points where Leadbelly stomps, claps, or hollers it would be the same time a hammer would drop on a pile of rocks or spike for a railroad. This is a song sung by people working in a line to keep their movements the same. Some verses are to keep their mind off their work, like “Addie got a gold mine… way above her knee”. While others try to make the work go faster like in the refrain “Looky looky yonder… where the sun done gone”.
Everyone knows this old folk song where I’m from because the Eire Canal plays such important part in the history of upstate New York. Not only does “Erie Canal” pay tribute to the people who worked on the canal but also to the types of people who worked and lived near it. “You always know your neighbor and you always know your pal” is a line that sums up the great people a worker could surround themselves with while traveling along the Erie Canal.
Pick a Bale of Cotton
During the time of slavery and after the Civil war as well, workers in the field would sing to help move the work along a little bit faster and forget their troubles. “Pick a Bale of Cotton” was one such song but it may have also been a satirical piece poking fun at the bosses and captains who required outrageous day quotas for harvests.
Who can forget the Bob Dylan favorite “Maggie’s Farm”? Even though he may have written this song to tell the folk music community at the time that he didn’t want to be their voice for political change, the song still tells a story of bad working conditions, little pay and poor treatment as a worker.
The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn
Finally, this traditional song is about what happens when you don’t work. “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” tells the story of a lazy farmer who kept putting off his farming duties and when he eventually got around to it, it was already too late and his crops were doomed. He then tries to court women but they are turned off by his lack of work ethic. Basically this song says that if you don’t work hard it will effect every aspect of your life.