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Folk Songs for Labor Day

Geoff Kaufman, a Connecticut sea shantyman and folk singer, plans the Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival in Mystic, Connecticut.
Eric Heupel
Geoff Kaufman, a Connecticut sea shantyman and folk singer, plans the Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival in Mystic, Connecticut.

IPR's Karen Impola created a list of five great folk songs to listen to for Labor Day.

Songs about work, and songs used to accompany work, exist in every culture around the world. Song is a great tool for organizing and synchronizing people’s movements when there is hard physical work to be done. In honor of Labor Day weekend, here are a few examples of traditional work songs. And since we have the labor unions of the 19th and 20th centuries to thank for the fact that we have weekends and holidays in the first place, I’ll share a few labor movement songs as well. Happy Labor Day!

Music of the Sea: The Chanteys of Mystic Seaport

The Sea chantey is probably one of the most commonly-known types of work song. This clip from the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, featuring the music of Geoff Kaufman, demonstrates how chanteys were used on deep-water sailing ships.

Menhaden Chanteymen - I’m Going Home

Chanteys were not only used on sailing ships. Off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia, African-American fishermen used small skiffs arranged in a circle around a net. They sang to coordinate their movements as they pulled the nets up by hand, and then held the net tight with their feet while they scooped out the fish. Here you can see the performers pantomime pulling the nets as they sing. If you’d like to know more about this now-obsolete fishing method and the singers who are preserving its songs, here is a short documentary feature.

Scottish Waulking Song

In pre-industrial times, the process of making woolen cloth included a stage called “waulking”, or “fulling”. When wool first comes off the loom, it is quite stiff and there are gaps between the strands. Women would soak the wool and then pound it by hand in order to shrink and soften it. This was an all-day process. Improvised songs kept the work going in rhythm and the workers entertained. If you’ve seen the TV series Outlander, you’ve seen this process.

Florence Reese - Which Side Are You On

Florence Reese was the daughter and wife of coal miners. Her husband Sam was a union organizer in the mines of Harlan County, Kentucky, during a strike in 1931. One evening, Sheriff J.H. Blair and his deputies came to the Reece home. They had been hired by the mine owners to provide security for the men who were still working at the mines, but they took their mission to stamp out union activity outside the mines as well. Sam Reece was not at home. The men ransacked the house, and then waited outside with guns in case Sam should appear, terrifying Florence and her children in the process. In response, she wrote “Which Side Are You On”, taking the tune from a Baptist hymn. The song has been sung by Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, and many others, with words updated to reflect the events of the times.

Folk Hogan - There Is Power In a Union

Joel Hagglund, who later took the pen name Joe Hill, was a labor organizer, songwriter, and cartoonist. Born in Sweden in 1879, he emigrated to America in 1902. He worked at a variety of jobs, and joined the International Workers of the World. He traveled as an organizer for the IWW, writing songs, poems, cartoons, and giving speeches on their behalf. In 1915, he was convicted (and probably framed) for murdering a grocery store owner and his son. He was executed at Sugar House Prison in Utah. In one of his last letters, to a fellow IWW leader, he wrote, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”The band Folk Hogan recorded this video of his song “There Is Power In A Union” on the centenary of his death, in the park where Sugar House Prison once stood.

Karen Impola is the host of IPR's The Folk Tree