Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Rhythms of Labour: The British Work Song Revisited

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Rhythms of Labour: The British Work Song Revisited

Article excerpt

The ability of song and music to facilitate the process of manual labour is remarkable. For this reason they have been drawn upon in a wide range of occupations and trades, on land and at sea. While some work has been done on particular forms of work and the songs associated with them, insufficient attention has been paid to the historical diversity of work song in Britain. Studying work song is also beset with problems of definition and aesthetic value. Attending to these is vital if we are to move beyond a superficial understanding of the power of song in the context of work.

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'Work song' is a descriptive term that is widely used but rarely defined. Its broad generality conceals not only the many different working practices in which song has been an integral component, but also the many different ways in which song has had a direct functional bearing on the practice of work itself. In this article we examine the diversity of application and effect associated with the British work song. This diversity has not previously been examined. The focus of attention, in the few specialist sources dealing with the topic, has been on specific types of work song in specific occupations and locations. A more serious lack attends British work song itself. Compared with work songs in North America, it has been relatively neglected as a general category of popular song and singing. This is peculiar because, although the historical evidence is rather scattered, it is clear that, in certain occupations at least, work song was once very common. It is as if, in the scholarly literature, there has been a prejudice against work song in Britain, reducing it to a low aesthetic ranking when compared with the big canonical ballads or even the more durable popular lyrics. Seeking to overcome the neglect of work song in Britain means contesting this implicit order of arrangement and evaluation.

By looking historically at different work songs and their associated practices in relation to one another, we hope to see what they had in common, as well as what distinguished them in their particular occurrences. Their diversity may be attributed to the nature of particular kinds of work, to varying conditions of work, and to forms of social relations in the workplace; but other factors such as gender, family, and community also exerted their influence over the choice of song, mode of singing, and the effect of song on the process and experience of manual work. Because work song in the British historical context applies almost invariably to working-class occupations, gender differentials in the content and uses of work songs thereby take on greater significance, at least at certain times or on certain occasions. Our interest is primarily in these different manifestations of the efficacy of work song in British labour history, not within any particular occupation, region, or period of time, but across the various contexts in which it has occurred, for what is missing in the literature of both labour and music history is any clear sense of the general sets of operative uses and outcomes when work song is considered. These may enable us to see British work songs from a new perspective, looking across their various forms rather than exclusively within them. That is why we refer in the title of the article to 'work song' in the singular.

In addressing the problem of definition, it may seem useful to turn to the work of scholars in the USA, where work song in general terms has received more attention than in Britain, not least because of the occurrence of many rich examples in African-American vernacular culture, ranging from railroad-lining track songs, riverboat roustabout songs, and lumbering songs, to flatweeding songs, cotton-picking songs, rowing songs, field chants, and hollers. Where it is not given over to collection and presentation, much of this work is descriptive, at times richly so, but it rarely troubles itself with analytical scruples and offers either the barest outline of work song or else confusing, even absurd, definitional approaches to it. …

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