Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States

Article excerpt

Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States. By Ronald D. Cohen. (Crockett, CA: Carquinez Press, 2010. Pp. 200, color illustrations.)

Ronald D. Cohen dedicates his history of occupational and labor union songs this way: "To Archie, my friend and inspiration." Archie Green, who must have known that Cohen was working on this book, did not live to see its publication, but his presence is felt on every page. Work and Sing narrates a history of work songs and labor union songs in the United States, while giving insight into their use by workers, union organizers, and labor songsters. The book is more about the collecting and publishing of occupational and labor songs, than it is about the songs and their singers. Folklorists may wish for more ethnographic detail on the singing of the songs. That said, Work and Sing can be read as a history of folk song scholarship, with a focus on the US labor movement.

Intended as introductory essay rather than a critical exploration, Work and Sing covers songs relating to work dating from the eighteenth century on through to the early decades of the twenty-first century. The book is organized chronologically. Like others before him, Cohen distinguishes between songs about work and songs sung in order to physically do work. The latter-sea chanteys to raise sails, African American work calls to tamp spikes and line tracks, and waulking songs to work wool-have all but disappeared with the shiftfrom manual to mechanized labor. Labor songs once sung in union halls and on picket lines have now entered the tradition of popular folk music.

Songs about work and work experiences have long pervaded workers' culture in the United States. Cohen begins his book in the colonial period with the work of skilled craftsmen and organized laborers. As he moves on through history, Cohen brings to our attention the collecting efforts of folk song scholars who published collections of street cries and field hollers, the rich lore of African American railroad and stevedores' work chants, cowboy songs, lumber camp songs, and mining songs. Among these are songs that alleviated the monotony and loneliness of work on the range and at sea, as well as the work chants that provided an outlet to express grievances over harsh physical conditions and incompetent bosses. Cohen then moves on, giving historical context to union songs and songsters, the post-World War II songs popularized through the singing labor movement, and the folk song revival. …

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