The Finest Work Song
for reverie and frisson.
Publisher’s note: It’s Saturday morning, so it’s time for Earlywood. Every Saturday we publish an excerpt from one of the thousands of pieces I’ve written since 1996. Sometimes it’s from a book. Or a magazine article. Or (in this case) an old blog entry. This entry is from December 2011. Each entry has been updated or annotated with some modern context or point of view.
I’ve always been fascinated by work songs – generally a cappella performances where the tempo governs (or is governed by) the pace of the labor. I first encountered these songs after high school while I was working on factory lines at liquor plants, table-making factories and a door-building facility.
These were sung, or sometimes hummed, in pace with the machinery. It is mesmerizing to participate in these songs, and that reverie is much needed when you spend 10 hours doing the same crap over and again. These songs are trance-inducing, like the hum of a beehive or the roar of an interstate.
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The Shakers were known for their work songs, which celebrated such mundane tasks as sweeping. And ever since attending a performance of these Shaker work songs, I have yearned to write ones for woodworking.
Hand-tool woodworking has a rhythm that is absent in the roar of a planer or table saw. It is as regular as our hearts and our breathing.
The day I wrote this post, I was sawing up a bunch of red oak for a project and I tried to find a beat or a tune that corresponded with every stroke. I wanted something as transfixing as these work songs from 1966.
FolkStreams » Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison.
I’m not talented enough.
Others are. At the last Fine Woodworking Live event, Joshua Klein at Mortise & Tenon Magazine taught the audience a work song he’d composed and managed to get the whole group of woodworkers singing along. It was impressive.
It was, for a moment, like being a freshman in college.
One of my most indelible memories from that year is the day after U2 released the album “The Joshua Tree” in 1987. As I was walking through the food line that day the entire staff was singing “With or Without You” in full harmony.
It left me with chicken skin – like the FolkStreams film – that I cannot shake.
Growing up in the same era as you did, i was fortunate to see U2 live, fantastic group even though Bono had recently fallen off a stage and broke his arm, he just had people from the audience come on stage to playthe guitar in his place. I was a big Springteen fanfrom 1979 on but I feel my favorite album/his best work was the Seeger sessions. His verion of some of those work songs was fantastic. I have started listening to more of this music, Woody Guthrie, groups such as Watchtower, Old crow medicine show,Ledbelly,all of the work/‘chaingang’ songs of long ago. Something about that musci that has meaning and a beat that allows you to accomplish your task at hand. My wife recently mentioned how the tool operators in her building, (she handles the social media and marketing for a manufacturer) blares the song black betty everyday. I told her to question them the originof that song and the time frame of when it was written. They were all blown away when they found that its just a cover version of the original by Ledbelly recorded in 1939. It just goes to show that everything remains the same, work to the classics from the 20’s or depression era, they need something to lift their heads up, so do we.
Sorry I have to add one. Today I listened to Israel kamakawiwe’ole’s version of “somewhere over the rainbow” while sawing. Awesome. And goes along with the work songs theme think.