What is a Work Song?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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A work song is a song about work or a song to which work is done. A work song of the first type may be used to celebrate a profession or a person who works in the profession or to alert people to difficult labor conditions or protest in some other way. A work song of the second type is often used to keep time when multiple people must perform a task in rhythm. Work songs are used in a variety of professions, including in the military and by sailors, lumberjacks, and field workers.

Work songs that are about the job or particular workers or particular events include the railroad song “Casey Jones,” which tells of the railroad engineer who ordered his fireman to jump but stayed aboard himself to slow the train when a crash was unavoidable, and in doing so saved all his passengers but lost his own life. Whether based on a man or a myth, “John Henry” is another song that celebrates the railroad worker. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” celebrates the soldier and expresses longing for his return from the battlefields. “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill,” on the other hand, calls attention to the working conditions of the men doing the blasting work so the railroads could be laid down.


The second type of work song is sometimes characterized by call and response, a back and forth between a song leader and the rest of the workers. This is true in the military, where a military cadence is used to help soldiers move in formation. There are standard cadences with variations for different speeds, and individual drill sergeants also make up their own words. Sometimes the words left and right are actually inserted into the lyrics, which provides further assistance to soldiers who need help to keep in step. The lyrics may be critical, comical, off-color, or refer to situations and feelings that are judged to be typical of military life, for example, homesickness.

A sea shanty, or chantey, is a type of a work song to keep rhythm. Examples include “Haul Away, Joe,” “Blow the Man Down,” “Cape Cod Girls,” and “South Australia.” In each of these examples, there is a verse and a refrain, but the verse is interrupted after each line with a line like “Heave away! Heave away!” in “Cape Cod Girls”—this is a key part of the genre that helps keep everyone working together. The different speeds and patterns derive from their use for different tasks, and the shanties are categorized by names that indicate this, such as long-haul, short-haul, capstan, etc. The shantyman was thus a very important person on a ship.


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Back in the days of railroad construction, there were teams of mostly African-American men called gandy dancers. Their job was to straighten the rails until they were parallel with each other. In order to do this, the gandy dancer crew would sing work songs that ended on a definite beat. At that exact moment, they would all strike the rail with their hammers. This would go on all day, until all of the rails were bent back into perfect shape.

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