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Work Songs and Other Laborlore for Labor Day

With Labor Day approaching, I’d love to introduce you to some of our resources on the folklore and folklife of labor. This area of study has many names, from the more formal “occupational folk culture” to the more colloquial “laborlore.”  It also has many sub-areas, from the study of occupational folk speech, including jargon, to full-blown ethnographies of working communities.  There’s an awful lot to explore!

My particular love in this area is occupational folksongs.  In fact, a few years ago, before the existence of Folklife Today, I wrote an essay that became both the script for a curator talk video, and a section of a longer essay on the Library of Congress website.  Now it’s available in both forms, each with its own advantages.  In the video, you can hear snippets of the songs, see great images selected by the Library’s curators, and (of course) see and hear me!  You’ll find that in the player below:

In the essay form, you’ll find links to mp3 versions of many of the field recordings I’m using as examples. Here’s one of my paragraphs to whet your appetite:

In southern cornfields and cotton fields, workers often relieved their boredom with an “arwhoolie,” or “Cornfield Holler:” a plaintive chant with only a few words, sung by a worker in the fields. Sometimes, a plantation worker or sharecropper in one field would hear a neighbor’s arwhoolie carried on the breeze, and would answer with his own. There were often special calls for quitting time, such as “Oh the Sun Done Quit Shinin,'” and even for mealtimes, such as “She Brought My Breakfast.” Similarly, when out cutting sugarcane on a cold fall morning, a Texas singer might complain:

Ain’t no more cane on the Brazos
They done ground it all up in molasses

It’s impossible to be bored when thinking up lyrics like that!

You’ll find the full essay at this link. 

The essay above is from the Library’s huge online presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.  Related essays within that presentation include “John Henry,” “Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor,” “Western and Cowboy Songs,” and Songs of Work and Industry.

In 2007, the American Folklife Center presented a symposium with the Fund for Labor History and Culture, called Laborlore Conversations IV: Documenting Occupational Folklore Then and Now.  The link on the title will take you to the main symposium page, which has links to webcasts of the  whole event.  It also features a selected list of AFC archival collections about laborlore, and an extensive resource list on the topic.

In 2010, we followed that symposium with another one, Work and Transformation: Documenting Working Americans, which we produced with help from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Again, the link on the title will take you to the symposium page, where you can find webcasts of the whole symposium.  It even has another resource list packed with ideas for studying work and culture.

Finally, AFC is contributing to the ongoing documentation of laborlore, through the Occupational Folklife Project, a multi-year documentation project that seeks to capture a portrait of America’s workforce during a time of transition.  The project gathers community-based interviews with workers across the United States, discussing their workplace experiences, training, and occupational communities.

As I said at the beginning, there’s an awful lot to explore–it might even take you a long weekend!



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