By Nadine Blank
American folk music is known largely for its use in the 20th century as a rallying cry for the working class left. We often think of the music made or popularized by people such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. However, if folk is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “relating to or originating from the beliefs and opinions of ordinary people,” then folk music and culture must have been a prevalent piece in earlier American cultural periods. However, upon more internet research into the timeline of American folk, there were far more journals and articles on the twentieth and twenty-first century.
This is understandable, in part because the technology needed to spread a song was either just being developed or not even fathomed yet. Word of mouth could only go so far. As a result, most Americans would not recognize the handful of tunes and melodies from the 1800s that historians managed to salvage and archive from different regions, eras, and walks of life. There is, however, one song that has almost become a nursery rhyme; most Americans know it, but most likely don’t think of or realize the historical context behind it. “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” is possibly the only nineteenth-century folk song to break through barriers of time and culture, imprinting itself into modern day popular culture.
While the origins of the melody itself are unknown, the lyrics are quite self-explanatory. The song was a demonstration of the workers’ patient longing for a basic, limited-hour work day. “Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, rise up so early in the morn” is a testament to the early mornings that begin a terribly long work day, and the horn waiting to be blown is most likely the signal for a lunch break or end of day. This catchy tune seems like a worker’s lament but in a major key, one which makes the complaints of the workers into a unifying chant that they all could know and appreciate together.
The primary evidence provides a completely different characterization of workers in the Gilded Age, when this tune was most likely founded, compared to the American Railroad Journal which “bemoaned in 1858 [that the workers] lack ‘the right kind of sentiment.’ They established their own ‘rules for the regulation of their own conduct'” (Licht 97). This is not what we see in the culture–if the culture was anything like the music. Workers would argue that the “rules” they want to establish, whether through unions or protests or strikes, were basic workers’ rights. The reason folk found such a home in blue-collar communities such as railroads is because of this; the culture these communities embodied were consciously aware and weary of the wrongs being done to them.
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” began as an obvious and specific outcry of railroad workers, but it still lives on in America to this day–but why? Something about the patient lament of a long day stuck with the working class; my own grandfather sang the song almost every day until he died, though he’d never worked on a railroad. Charles Keil in Folk Music and Modern Sound suggests that the meaning of the song will never truly die:
Why not just talk about people’s music, or the working people’s music that’s not dependent on state subsidy or corporate mediation, and then celebrate the fact that it changes in striking ways from old country to new, from rural to urban settings, from one city to another, and from generation to generation (Keil, 58).
Eventually, no one will work on the railroad anymore, but we may still be singing this old tune because the new “folk”–whether it be blue-collar country music or Woody Guthrie proteges or any other working class anthem from any genre–reflects the old railroad songs inherently. We will always remember “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” because we will always be working; whether our rat-race takes place on a railway or a farm or an urban office, the patient lament guides us, and it guides our folk culture.
Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Keil, Charles . “Ethnic Voices.” Folk Music and Modern Sound, University Press of Mississippi, 1982.