Occupational Songs in American Folk Music: The Usual Suspects

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

This paper examines the most commonly found occupational songs in American folk music. The paper looks at the lyrics of the songs to identify the common jobs and activities that are sung about.

What are occupational songs?

Occupational songs are a type of American folk music that celebrates the lives and work of people in various occupations. The songs often include references to the tools of the trade, the dangers of the job, and the camaraderie of the workers. Many occupational songs were originally sung by laborers as they worked, and they often served as a form of entertainment and storytelling.

A brief history of occupational songs in America

In the United States, occupational songs date back to the 18th century. These songs were created as a way for workers to share their experiences and feelings about their jobs. The first occupational song known to have been written down was “The Butcher’s Boy” in 1744.

During the 19th century, occupational songs became more popular as workers began to move westward in search of new opportunities. One of the most popular occupational songs from this era is “The Wabash Cannonball,” which was written by James A. Bland in 1882.

As the 20th century progressed, occupations began to change and new technologies were introduced into the workplace. This led to a decline in the popularity of occupational songs. However, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in these types of songs among folk musicians and music fans.

Themes and topics of occupational songs

Most occupational songs in American folk music are about work, workers, and the workplace. The subject matter of these songs reflects the various occupations of the people who sang them. Themes and topics include:

-Workers and their rights
-Working conditions
-Unions and strikes
-Work songs (songs sung while working)

The musical styles of occupational songs

There are a wide variety of musical styles that can be found in occupational songs, from folk to blues to country. The lyrical content of the songs often reflects the day-to-day realities of the workers’ lives, and as such, these songs can provide a valuable window into American history. Here are just a few examples of the types of occupational songs that have been passed down through the generations:

Folk Songs:
Folk songs are typically passed down orally from one generation to the next, and as such, they often reflect the values and beliefs of the working class. Many folk songs celebrate the hard work of laborers, while others bemoan the difficulties of life on the job. Some well-known examples of folk songs about work include “The Ballad of John Henry,” “Casey Jones,” and “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor.”

Country Songs:
Country music has its roots in the folk tradition, but it also includes elements of blues and gospel music. Country songs about work often focus on blue-collar occupations such as farming, ranching, and coal mining. Some well-known examples include “Sixteen Tons,” “Working Man Blues,” and “The Legend of Wooly Swamp.”

Blues Songs:
The blues is a musical style that originated in the American South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Blues music is characterized by its mournful lyrics and soulful sound, and it often reflects the hardships faced by workers in industries like sharecropping and cotton picking. Some well-known examples of blues songs about work include “Goin’ Down to Louisiana to Work on the Levee,” ” Stack O’Lee,” and “Cotton Field Blues.”

The performers of occupational songs

The performers of occupational songs were often people who actually worked the job that they were singing about. Usually, these were songs that were sung by men, since most women did not work outside the home at this time. The songs were often passed down from generation to generation, and many of them are still known and sung today.

Some of the most famous occupational songs include “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Nine Hundred Miles,” “The Wabash Cannonball,” and “John Henry.” These songs are still sung by folk musicians today, and they have been recordings by some of the most popular artists in the world, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan.

The legacy of occupational songs in America

The roots of American folk music are found in the songs of the working class. laboring people have always used music to express their joys, frustrations, and hopes. The songs they sang on the job, while traveling, or at leisure reflect the everyday experiences of people in all walks of life.

Many occupational songs are about specific jobs, such as farming, fishing, lumbering, or coal mining. Others celebrate the workers themselves, such as truckers or railroad workers. Some occupational songs are simply about the human condition and can be sung by anyone, regardless of occupation.

Occupational songs often have a strong story element. They may be humorous or tragic, but they always offer a glimpse into the lives of the people who sing them. These songs are an important part of our musical heritage and offer a unique window into American history.

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