Monday, January 26, 2015

"I've Been Working On the Railroad'
(Original Authors Unkown)
First Published 1894 by The Sandhills Sixteen

       The song "I've Been Working on the Railroad" also called "The Levee Song" rose to popularity in the late 19th century. The song as we know it today was first written down in 1894, but the authors are unknown. The original version is a fusion of two older songs, the first about railroad work, and the second about Dinah in the kitchen. It's difficult to know for certain from where these songs came, but it's likely "I've Been Working on the Railroad" either descended from the tradition of African American spirituals as freed slaves moved west, or it could also be adapted from an Old Irish Hymn as large influxes of immigrants moved west to find prosperity. It's worth noting that this song need not have belonged to railroad gangs, as minstrel shows or wild west shows could have brought the song to the urban centers to the East. [Daniel Patti]

American immigrants working on a railroad to the west

Folk music as we have described, is “Any style of music which represents a community and can be sung/played by people who may or may not actually be trained musicians, using the instruments available to them.” Therefore, its purpose is to be easily played, for the words to be easily remembered, sang and shared. I’ve been working on the Railroad along with many other folk songs from this era, are usually sang while working, or with friends or family. This song and most folk songs made people feel happy, as most of them were allegories for everyday life. Also, because they were so simple to learn and play, songs like Ive been working on the railroad became popular with adults and young children of the lower class. Which is why most Folk songs have become children’s music today. Ive Been working on the railroad was not particularly innovative on its own, but it did fit into the genre of Folk Music which was innovative as a genre. Folk Music was a simple way for people to play simple songs with often homemade instruments instead of electrical instruments, making it popular for the working class. During the time of Minstrel Shows, this song may not has been considered controversial, but today this song would definitely be considered taboo. The song was sung with a “Minstrel Style” and a lot of the original lyrics can be quite racists. Another controversial point is the mention of "Dinah". "Dinah" was a derrogitory term for an African American female house worker during the time of this song. 
This song is without a question about the building of American railroads, but during the late 1800’s most of the railroads were built through slave labor by African American slaves, and Irish and Chinese immigrants. This song most likely got its roots though being sung to make the horrible working conditions more bearable through song. [Matthew Parrish]

Considering that the lyrics are a conjunction of at least two older songs, it becomes very difficult to suggest that this originally existed as a work song listened to (and sung by) railroad laborers. Additionally there is no record of this song existing through oral tradition among black laborers. The first evidence of its existence was when it was published in 1894 in the Carmina Princetonia, though it existed in some form as a minstrel song. Minstrel shows were on the decline in popularity at this point so its appeal to that audience was limited. However, the Carmina Princetonia had eight editions by 1894 and this song did not appear in the seventh edition published in 1890. This suggests that the song rapidly increased in popularity among college students (at least at Princeton) in the early part of that decade. However, it apparently also had nationwide popularity as University of Texas’ school spirit song “The Eyes of Texas” (written in 1903) was set to the tune of I’ve Been Working on the Road.

    The role of African Americans in society changed drastically following the Civil War. The song made light of the struggles of African American laborers for the purpose of entertainment. It shows a lack of acceptance for the integration of African Americans. This reflects the attitude held at the time that African Americans, though despite having been emancipated, were still viewed as less valuable members of society than their white counterparts [Donald Calabrese]

The 19th century in the US is a period most easily characterized by primarily west-ward expansion interrupted only by a civil war. Just before our chosen period of 1870-90's, the Oregon Trail allowed people to move as far west as their wagons would take them, and later the push for a Trans-Continental railroad. The focus of the US shifted decidedly away from the east coast and onto the expanding western wildernesses. Now “I've Been Working On The Railroad” captures an extension of the spirit of Manifest Destiny and pushing into new frontiers, but it also highlights the somewhat casual, and oftentimes very serious racism of the day. Our period encompasses Reconstruction in the South immediately following the Civil War, and while working on the railroad seems tame, extant verses that have fallen out of favor tell a different story. The version of the song published in 1894 includes a verse sung in a dialect typical to minstrel shows of the time, aimed to poke fun at the presumably unintelligent and poorly-spoken former southern slaves. We were able to spark a bit of discussion by asking whether people see songs like this in our modern culture: working songs that may be somewhat racy and/or insensitive, and why has this song remained popular even though America's social norms have changed. The class mostly mentioned that the song could have remained well known due to modern audiences' ignorance of lyrics. One person mentioned that this is similar to Ring Around the Rosie and it's ties to the bubonic plague. [Jesse Lane]

Today's version of "I've Been Working On the Railroad". Adapted into a children song. 

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