Folklore from the Working Folk of America

Folklore from the Working Folk of America

Folklore from the Working Folk of America

Folklore from the Working Folk of America

Excerpt

The word "song" in connection with American occupations naturally suggests the work songs: the chanteys, the chain-gang moans, the bargeman's choruses. But there are more than just this. The sailor sings in the forecastle as well as upon the decks, the cowpoke camps on the lone prairie and sings of his mother and sisters back home, and the brakeman whiles away the time in the caboose and sings of the wreck of Old 97 or days on the L.&N. Narrative songs, especially ballads, exist wherever the American working groups exist. Such narratives are really little more than legends set to music telling of adventures and heroes, describing unusual behavior, establishing models for conduct. Fair Janie Reynolds is abducted by her ghostly first husband and is never seen again. A milliner's daughter and a handsome shanty boy from the Big Eau Clair have a tragic love affair. During a stampede a noble cowboy gives his life to save the boss's daughter. And there are lyric songs, too, songs that speak to God or that glorify a "home on the range."

As the folk occupations become semifolk, the need for such ballads and lyrics lessens. Radio stations beam their "Top Twenties" and the "Grand Ol' Oprys" out across the nation. Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Tammy Wynette sing their city lyrics and commercial "ballads" around campfires and in what shanty houses still exist. The songs survive as occupational songs only where they still have a function: as novelties, as aids to work, or as rallying points. In respect to this final point, the unions, recognizing early the inspirational and fraternal value of folk songs, did much to keep America's occupational ballads and lyrics alive. Union singers have always sung about Casey Jones, not because he is a symbol of the derring-do needed to survive in the railroad business, but because he was a casualty of poor safety regulations, a victim . . .

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