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

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Labor songs have long pervaded workers culture in the United States, beginning in the colonial period and running into the 21 century. Labor unions published songbooks, labor schools encouraged singing, and radical organizations used songs about unions in political organizing, while scholars collected and published numerous books about work songs. Work and Sing documents the publication and collecting of occupational and labor union songs, and attempts to understand their use by workers and their supporters. It is not clear how many songs were actually sung at labor rallies and on picket lines, or while at work, and by how many; but the fact of their being recorded in print or sound indicates some sort of popularity, however brief or limited. There are also numerous illustrations and a bibliography of labor songbooks.

Review:

The Bible tells us to encourage ourselves with the signing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Workers have, if nothing else, been following that dictum ever since. Richard Cohen, in his essay, attempts to walk the reader through the stories of a collection of various groups of songs, and in doing so, gives us glimpses of America’s past while in many ways, lamenting our current state.

His focus is not on the origins of the songs but on the collection of them; however, even in doing this he provides a narrative of how those songs came to be and what role they would play in certain eras of American history. He starts off by examining Cowboy, Sailor, Hobo, Socialist and Lumberjack songs, their differences, and their uses. What many of us in the era of the Top 40 fail to realize, which Cohen attempts to get across, is that the songs of these workers, and their occupations, were more than a brief interlude of labor, but a part of the ties that bound the workers and their occupation together. While most of the occupations listed above were hardly protest songs, they never the less provided relief against the backbreaking, for the sailor and the lumberjack, and the lonely, of the cowboy, work.

Consider time is then given, first, to the African American protest and solidarity songs as well as the various eras of Labor Songs usually sang for something more than to tell the story or break up the monotony of the day’s duties. Instead, these songs take shape, with the foundation usually borrowed from existing hymnody, but replenished with the words of the worker’s occupations. From the textile workers to the clerks at Yale University to the hollers and rebel yells at picket lines of the United Mine Workers of America, Cohen presents a beautiful patchwork picture of the American worker and their move against the indignity suffered during the heady days of the Industrial Revaluation. These songs present, especially in the attempt to articulate their collection process, a vital part of human flourishing, that of resistance.

Cohen finishes his narrative by lamenting the fact that ‘by the first decade of the twenty-first century labor unions had effectively abandoned music as an organizing tactic.’ (p158) While perhaps not fittingly neatly into his collection narrative, Cohen misses the labor groups such as Jobs with Justice and the Interfaith Workers Justice group which have collected songs and still use them in protests, gatherings which sometimes are as lively as many church services, and sit-down strikes.

Cohen has written a wonderful history, and without attempting to do anything more, brings to light the role that these songs played as well as their attempt at collections, botched attempts at professionalization, and he also shows us about our past, calling attention to the forgotten days of worker’s justice. The book is a small but substantive volume complete with a few black and white votes and beautiful, glossy photos of the collections. For those interested in folk songs or songs of the American worker, I would heartily recommend this book.

I would like to thank the University of Illinois for sending me this review copy.

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