Last fall I wrote an essay for The Syncopated Times titled, “Reconsidering “Dixieland Jazz”, How The Name Has Harmed The Music”. It encouraged the remaining bands and traditional jazz clubs with “Dixieland” in their name to drop the word because of its inseparable ties to minstrelsy. I concluded that there’s no reclaiming “Dixieland”.
I am open to all kinds of changes in language usage, including those around gender, and I’m glad for the conversations being had. But when we call for a change in national school music curriculum we need to make sure we are prepared with the best information possible. The enemies of progress are eager to point out any evidence of ignorance on our part
Dr. Katya Ermolaeva’s viral essay, Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class calls for the removal of songs with ties to minstrelsy from the grade school curriculum. It sounds perfectly reasonable but the situation is much more layered than she seems to think.
For one, when the origin of her example of a problem song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, is thoroughly vetted, it turns out to be not only appropriate for the classroom but an excellent vehicle for teaching several important eras of Black history.
What the article also misses is that nearly everyone involved in the sanitizing of American folk songs during the ’40s and ’50s did so to reclaim them from their minstrel associations and make them accessible to “The People”, especially the Black people with whom they were organizing along race and class lines.
The book of children’s songs that introduced “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to the classroom, discussed in her essay, sheds light on this misconception.
Songs to Grow On
In 1946 Woody Guthrie released two albums of 78 rpm records under the titles Songs to Grow On: Nursery Days and Songs to Grow On: Work Songs. Most of his work during this period found him in a trio with blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Woody joins them on many of their own records in an uncredited back up roll, as well as joining Leadbelly on some of his most famous recordings for Asch Records.
David Stone Martin drew the covers for both Songs to Grow On albums. A women named Beatrice Landeck wrote the accompanying liner notes and, four years later, she took the name of her own book of children’s songs from the project.
The book in question, Songs to Grow On (1950), was Landeck’s first. Her later works included Echoes of Africa in folk songs of the Americas (1961) and Learn to read, read to learn: poetry and prose from Afro-rooted sources (1975). She also produced a number of children’s records, some featuring songs she had written herself. Dr. Ermolaeva accuses Landeck of willfully whitewashing history. That certainly doesn’t seem to have been her intent.
The feature image Dr. Ermolaeva uses for her article comes from Landeck’s book of classroom songs. The book, like the Songs to Grow On records, was illustrated by David Stone Martin, a bonafide hero of leftist art during the earliest stages of the Civil Rights Movement. He created album covers for Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson, Dizzy Gillespie, and many other icons.
From the tiniest of photographs I’ve concluded that Beatrice Landeck was white, but for a stretch of my research I suspected otherwise.
Dr. Katya Ermolaeva also calls out Pete Seeger for dodging the history of American folk songs. Specifically for liner notes to a 1963 children’s album that “innocuously describe ‘Railroad’ as an ‘old 19th-century ditty’ that ‘just keeps changing and rolling along.’”
Pete Seeger was the man who first published “We Shall Overcome” in his People’s Songs bulletin and promoted it as a nascent anthem for the Civil Rights movement. That was in the mid forties while he was working with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a training camp for activists including Rosa Parks and a young Martin Luther King.
Seeger’s family, going back to the 1910s, had radical roots intimately tied to the reclaiming of folk songs and using them to build class consciousness across race lines. His father Charles was a musicologist. Charles Seeger was fired from Berkeley for opposition to WWI, but not before ensuring that fragile brown wax cylinders from the 1880s containing the voices and languages of local Native Americans, would be preserved forever. Pete’s step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, changed her career focus from composing “Ultra-Modern” classical music (that is what her movement was called), to aiding John and Alan Lomax in recording folk songs for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
The collecting of folk music was always political but it became more so as time went by. The politics of “People’s Songs” kicked up a notch during the Works Progress Administration era of the 1930s, and stepped up another notch in the Civil Rights era. Pete wasn’t singing these songs in ignorance, he was wielding them like a hammer. Written on his banjo were the words “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender”. It was Pete’s nonviolent answer to Woody Guthrie’s more direct “This Machine Kills Fascists”, written on his guitar.
As many of you will be familiar, Pete Seeger’s career always involved songs for children. To build a better society, these activists thought, start with the classroom. In 1956 he recorded “The Ink Is Black“, a children’s song celebrating Brown v. Board of Education. Another Civil Rights song he popularized was the kid friendly version of “If You Miss Me (at the Back of the Bus)“.
In the 1940s and ’50s Folk music was a powerful tool for change. Integrated groups like The Almanac Singers, of which both Pete and Woody were members, were intimately involved in this process. Many of them were blacklisted or otherwise suffered for their “Un-American Activities” during the McCarthy era.
The idea that the racial imagery was taken out of songs like “I’ve been Working on the Railroad” to cover up for our racist past gets it backwards. These songs were reclaimed 75 years ago by early Civil Rights activists who spread them into resistant schools as replacements for songs like “Old Black Joe” and “Massa’s in ‘de Cold Cold Ground”.
The work of replacing problematic songs that Dr. Ermolaeva calls for in her essay may not be complete, but we should honor the people who began that work.
I am a strong advocate of teaching age appropriate history about the lingering influence of minstrelsy in our entertainment culture. The people who introduced these reclaimed folks songs to schools during the 40s and 50s were at the same time fighting to get the last vestiges of blackface off of television and radio. Parents and teachers can pass on these songs, in their current versions, proudly and without shame. They need provide only the Civil Rights history of the songs’ re-creation until the children are ready for the rest of it.
The Complicated History of “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”
There are also some factual errors and misunderstandings in Dr. Katya Ermolaeva’s piece as relates to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” itself. In a search for minstrel material still sung in schools she could have found a better example. For example, I would have a much harder time defending “Camptown Races“. That song was written specifically to be performed in minstrel stage production. I still think that the current version of Camptown Races should fall into the above “reclaimed” category, but will admit the case is less clear.
I’ve concluded something different about “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”. In every meaningful way the song we know was actually composed by either Beatrice Landeck or one of her Civil Rights era contemporaries.
The refrain of “Levee Song”, the origin of the “Working on the Railroad” portion of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, has melodic roots and lyrical variations going back to the 1840’s, if not long before. As “Levee Song” it circulated for 50 years before it was first published at Princeton in 1894. Landeck’s characterization in her book that it was “a community song” is a reasonable description.
Minstrelsy and Minstrel Material
Just because in some variations a certain melody or lyrics were used by minstrels doesn’t make something a minstrel song. Most of the material at minstrel shows was actually published for the general market not specifically for the stage. Alongside racist material at a minstrel show you would hear innocuous popular parlor songs like “Grandfather’s Clock.”
African American spirituals were also sung on the minstrel stage, by whites in blackface, by Blacks in blackface, and by popular Black chorus groups that were not in blackface. A Black entertainer wearing blackface while singing a sentimental “My Wild Irish Rose” in a mock Irish brogue would not be unusual. Sections of opera and other classical pieces were performed, as well as music composed by African Americans, both anonymous and credited. The minstrel stage was the television of the era and you won’t find anything from the 19th century that wasn’t touched by it.
The minstrels who specialized in imitating African Americans were initially referred to as “Negro delineators.” Many of them, however crudely, made honest attempts to mimic the music of African Americans on plantations in the south. Some studied or learned from Black musicians within their integrated minstrel troupes, or from their competitors in African American blackface troupes. This was the start of the banjo’s slow shift from being associated with African Americans in the 19th century to being associated with rural whites in the 20th. The rural whites were primarily exposed to the banjo through traveling minstrel performances.
In the first decades of minstrelsy (1840-1890), during which the precursors to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” emerged, the comedic aspect of racial imitation was secondary to the myth of accurate portrayal of plantation life and especially Black music. Northern audiences were curious about the culture of Southern Blacks and took the portrayals on stage seriously, even if part of their enjoyment was reveling in their “superiority”.
As nearly all of these performers, Black as well as white, were from the North, the portrayal of plantation life and music was largely mythological. This was true even in the case of African Americans Williams and Walker, an 1890s comedy team that billed themselves as “Two Real Coons”. They helped popularize cakewalk competitions, said to have origins on Southern plantations.
Another African American, Ernest Hogan, kicked off the “Coon Song” craze of the 1890s with his song “All Coons Look Alike to Me”. He claimed that the original song, which is sung from the perspective of a women in a brothel, had used the word “pimp” but the sheet music publishers censored it. He subbed in the word “coon” because as a monosyllable, it fit. Before that song the use of the word “coon” was not widespread.
Both of the above examples, cakewalk competitions and “coon songs”, began outside of minstrelsy. By the 1890s new crazes and popular songs were not passing from the minstrel stage to the public they were being absorbed by minstrels chasing what was popular. Like going to a circus and hearing a current radio hit integrated into an act.
Mythological and racist as minstrel portrayals were, they did introduce actual elements of Black musical culture into the mainstream of American life. Minstrel performers picked up musical phrasings, rhythmic patterns, and lyrics that had their origins among African Americans enslaved, or formerly enslaved, in the South. They also utilized the compositions of African American writers in the North, turning some of them into wealthy stars. The influence this had on rhythm in particular, specifically syncopation, led directly into the creation of ragtime and eventually jazz.
You can call the adoption of Black music by whites theft, but to remove all musical phrasings, rhythms, and lyrical passages that were invoked in minstrel performance from the repertoire would require eliminating nearly any influence African Americans had on American music in the 19th century.
(With the notable exception of the blues as a structural form. The blues has 19th century origins but was only popularized in the 1910s, at a point when minstrelsy was no longer the primary driver of American culture.)
Was “Working on the Railroad” a Minstrel Song?
There is no reason to think that the 1894 version of “Levee Song” published by a minstrel troupe at Princeton was in any way definitive. Being the first published version doesn’t necessarily connote the lyrics recorded in that instance were ubiquitous.
The published song has three distinct sections, an opening couplet, the familiar “Railroad” theme, and a second theme. The offensive lyrics are all in that third section including two uses of the “N” word and a reference to a black man in jail. That verse would seem to originate from an unrelated song or limerick. It begins with “Sing a song of the city…” and then proceeds through several food related references to cities. The natural rhythm implies it might have roots as a work song.
The opening also uses a work song call and response form. It would go on to have a variety of lyrics, some of them more offensive than others.
I once knew a girl named grace/ I been workin’ on de levee
She done brung me to dis sad disgrace/ I been workin’ on the levee
All three sections of “Levee Song”, would have had any number of lyrical variations attached to them over the 50 years they circulated unpublished, many made up on the spot. The three sections joined at Princeton also received a new set of lyrics a decade following publication. “The Eyes of Texas”, the popular but controversial U of T fight song composed in 1903, uses the structure of the published “Levee Song” as its basis. As the song was first performed in a student minstrel show it is possible the music was lifted directly from the Princeton version. As written it follows the three section format of the Princeton arrangement, but within just two or three years it was being performed as simply the familiar chorus section. Take note for later that in 1903 the opening couplet had become a fuller opening verse.
Understood as a blackface skit the lyrics to “Eyes of Texas” are horrifying, but a recent investigation concluded that the troubling interpretation wasn’t intended by the authors or early singers of the anthem. The warning to uphold good behavior was directed at students and never implied African Americans even when it was performed by student minstrels in blackface. This is more obvious when the original lyrics are read in full. An interesting example of the exonerating lyrics being the forgotten ones.
The confusion and contradictions within the 1894 Princeton lyrics point to a folk origin for them. Like “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” these lyrics may very well have been sung by railway gangs and levee workers, perhaps as three different songs. Some sources have linked the lyric patterns to either an African American spiritual or an Irish hymn adapted for work gangs.
The mixing of the terms levee and railroad in the published lyrics sounds odd to us now. At that time the term levee was being used generically to refer to any construction site. If you picture the raised bed on which a railroad is laid it makes more sense. Still, various verses added to the song do imply actual water levees, which were being built across the south, and obviously the railroad section refers to railroads.
The origin of the “Railroad” portion of the “Levee Song” score, the portion still known today, is uncertain. One contender is a short theme in Franz von Suppé’s 1846 Poet and Peasant Overture. An interesting, if unlikely, alternative is that the tune shares a common folk root with the Spanish Falangist anthem “Cara Al Sol“.
“Levee Song” would have been heard in many forms in many settings. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that actual railroad and levee workers sang the tune or parts of the lyrics before any minstrels had, and workers certainly enjoyed the song after it became popular. While it may have appeared on the minstrel stage in some form before 1894 its most prominent use as a minstrel song only occurred in the two decades after publication.
When Did “Levee Song” Become The Song We Know?
Using the three printed examples provided by Dr. Ermolaeva; from 1894, 1915, and 1950, we can determine with some certainty that the “Levee Song” verse and melody, (the “I’ve been working on the railroad” part) was combined with the bridge (“Dinah won’t you blow… Dinah won’t you blow…) and chorus (“Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah”) sometime after 1915, and most likely later than 1944.
The 1915 children’s songbook she cites contains the “Levee Song” with a variant of the Princeton couplet introduction followed by the “Railroad” section, it leaves out the offensive second section of the Princeton version. The new opening verse section is more involved than the call and response that opens the 1894 version, it mimics instead the opening to “The Eyes of Texas” from 1903. The simple verses are all borrowed from other common work song material.
It isn’t at all recognizable as our “I’ve been Working on the Railroad” structurally. First because we no longer have an opening verse section and more importantly because it doesn’t include the two “Dinah” sections. It is noteworthy that within 20 years of first publication “Levee Song” was already regarded as children’s song.
The first recorded version of “Levee Song- I’ve Been Working on The Railroad” was released by the Shannon Quartet, an Irish themed vocal group, in 1923. It opens with a simple couplet, like the 1894 version rather than full verse, but does not include the “Sing a song of the city” section. It was marketed as being for Boy Scouts and the specific lyrics may be from the First Chorus Book For Boys (1922). There are no racial lyrics and the song is sung without dialect other than a slight Irish brogue.
The second recorded version of “Levee Song” is from 1927. It is sung in dialect, slowly, by a male chorus and is probably very similar to what would have been heard in minstrel performance up to that time, almost as a spiritual. We associated minstrel shows with rollicking humor but much of the appeal was the mixture of moving or sentimental material with the humor.
The group, known as The Sandhill Sixteen, specialized in religious spirituals and only left six recordings. “Levee Song” was backed on this disc with “Let the Light from the Lighthouse Shine on Me.” Of their other four recordings, three more were spirituals and the other a love song. Because one of the solos is credited to Thad S. Page, who went on to work in the National Archives, it is clear this was a white group, though there is little to distinguish their repertoire from Black church music of the same region.
The 1927 recording uses the opening couplet structure as well as the second offensive verse from the 1894 version. These two sections are performed as “Levee Song” without the “Railroad” section between them. The “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” section follows, recorded as a separate piece consisting of only the familiar railroad verse repeated twice. The “Someone’s in the Kitchen” section has yet to appear.
This suggests that the offensive opening lines and third section (the levee portions) were recognized as a unique composition distinct from the “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” portion. It is possible the two compositions were first joined in the Princeton publication by adding the “Railroad” section as a break in the middle of an existing tune. This would mean the railroad section we currently use originated separately from the sections containing offensive language.
A hot jazz version from 1929 is the first recording at the tempo we associate with the song. The opening section follows the 1915 pattern of an opening verse specifically mentioning levee activities. With nothing left to do the band jams after “Dinah blow your horn”, modern ears are left waiting for the “Someone’s in the Kitchen” section to kick in.
This clip page, collecting references to the song, includes a 1947 folk songbook version that still doesn’t include the Dinah sections. Not a single printed version of the song after the Princeton publication of 1894 includes the offensive “Sing a song of the city” lyrics that probably came from an existing rhyme, were they do appear again, on the Sandhill Sixteen recording, it is as a separate track.
When were the Dinah sections added?
Similar lyrics to the Dinah section were first published in England in the 1840s as the closing of “Old Joe, or Somebody in de House wid Dinah”. The original skit doesn’t have much to offer musically.
The specific section of lyrics that became the modern verse we know were:
Dere’s someone in ‘de house wi’ Dinah
Dere’s someone in ‘de house I know
Dere’s someon in ‘de house wi’ Dinah
Playing on ‘de ol’ banjo
It is sung once, no variations on this verse are included. This section was also sung by English morris dancers set to the tune “Not For Joe“. It is possible the published lyrics were adapted from existing morris dance lyrics, and then the lyrics in use evolved to follow the publication. The same tune had many bawdy variations.
It is true that Dinah was a generic name for fictionalized Black women, but this use of it predates Uncle Toms Cabin and the specific reference to the “untidy cook” named Dinah described by Dr. Ermolaeva. It remained “someone’s in ‘de house“, rather than “kitchen”, for a century. Actually, the verse disappears entirely for a century as far as publication is concerned.
A vocal pop hit copyrighted in 1944 and titled “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” first changed the setting from house to kitchen and surrounded the chorus with many newly penned verses. The new words were by Johnny Lange, and the music by Arny Freeman.
Structurally and topically the song is unrelated to the 1840s minstrel song. The inspiration for the songwriter to adopt, and adapt, those lines is unlikely to have been an obscure English minstrel skit of 100 years before. The verse had passed into folk music at that point (or always had been). It is likely the authors associated it with barroom sing-a-longs rather than minstrelsy.
The new “Dinah” pop song was played by the King Cole Trio and Johny Mercer among others, and was recorded by Ray Charles as late as 1959. This suggests, though doesn’t prove, that the two songs had yet to be combined in 1944.
The music to which we currently hear the Dinah chorus (the 1950 Songs to Grow On version) is from a third 19th century source, “Goodnight, Ladies” (1867 with a previous name and lyrics in 1847). Though “Goodnight, Ladies” was written for the minstrel stage by one of the first titans of blackface minstrelsy, E.P Christy, the original lyrics have no racial element.
The tune of “Goodnight, Ladies” was not used in the 1944 pop number, which suggests it had yet to be connected to those lyrics, but it would have been familiar to any folk musicologist with an interest in children’s music.
Born in 1950
I assert that what we know of as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is a new work. It was likely authored by an actual person whether a member of the progressive folk movement or some other tune-smith. It was an easy leap to combine the two mentions of Dinah from two different songs, particularly after “house” had become “kitchen” by way of the pop tune. The structure was reconfigured, the lyrics tweaked for coherency, and the Dinah chorus was set, for the first time, to a familiar children’s melody. The “Dinah won’t you blow/Dinah won’t You Blow… ” bridge has no lyrical or musical predecessors that I could find, it was freshly composed for the 1950 publication as a means of joining the melody of “Levee Song” and the melody of “Goodnight, Ladies”.
It is possible, likely even, that it was Beatrice Landeck herself who created the song we know for the 1950 book in which she first published it. There were arrangements of true folks song in her Songs to Grow On, but many of the titles were her own. Pete Seeger in the 1960s said it was “some college kids” who joined the two main sections. He could be right. But Landeck seems more likely to have heard the Dinah lyrics in the pop song and thought of “Goodnight, Ladies”. There is no transition period, it suddenly appears in 1950 with the exact setting and lyrics it has today.
At the least, the new song was penned sometime after 1915 and probably very close to 1950. Whoever wrote it, that puts it solidly within the era of 20th century “folk songs” rather than minstrelsy. It combines three very catchy melodic sections into one song and is structurally as well as lyrically unique. The triple threat of a song that is essentially all “hook” is likely a big part of its continued popularity.
This song we know doesn’t have the opening verse section of the 1915 version (which over time had a number of variations in lyric, including racist ones). The objectionable second verse section from the 1894 Princeton “Levee Song” is also missing. The song we know instead ends with the Dinah lyrics from a recent pop song set to the music of “Goodnight Ladies”. This may, or may not have been with the intent of sanitizing the song, particularly as the offensive verse from the Princeton version hadn’t been published in over 50 years. The end result is that none of the current musical sections were ever set to racist lyrics. The musical portions set to racist lyrics evolved out of the song entirely.
The Dinah chorus as it exists now isn’t offensive. There is nothing inherently racist about a Black man playing the banjo, an instrument descended from African instruments. A variation of those words was first published as part of a racist skit about a drunk man coming home to a cheating spouse, but the words themselves may have been picked up from elsewhere.
Humor songs about a drunk man finding a cheating wife at home are as old as music, but if the chorus section was taken from the 1944 pop vocal number rather than the 1840s skit, which seems likely, the song isn’t about jealousy at all. The pop version is about neighborhood curiosity. Who does Dinah have in the kitchen? Why has she been so happy recently? This interpretation mirrors schoolboy erotic intuitions about the song, intuitions that in the 1950s may have been influenced by the recent pop vocal. The pop song is the source of the “making love” variation of railroad, not printed by Landeck or in other children’s versions.
“Working on the Railroad”, as first published with the Dinah section in 1950, does not use dialect. There is no textual reason to assume that either character in the kitchen is Black, aside from, possibly, the name Dinah. The most famous Dinah in 1950 was a white women named Dinah Shore (who in 1971 would publish a cookbook titled Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah). Dinah Washington would soon give her a run for her money.
By 1915 there was already a progressive folk song movement, particularly around children’s songs. That is how in that year, only 20 years after publication, it had already found its way into a children’s song book with the offensive verse removed. It isn’t clear that children singing the “Levee Song”, even by the 1920s, would have assumed the railroad workers were black (as they were in the 1894 version).
Children in 1915 would assume Dinah to be a black cook, the only indication that she is a cook at all is the name Dinah, but that doesn’t mean the workers were assumed to be black. There are countless racist portrayals of white people appreciating the cooking of a black women during this period.
Another interpretation of the “Levee Song” lyrics, before the addition of “Someone’s in the Kitchen”, is that Dinah is not a person or a cook but the name of the train. A black steam train following the railroad as it’s built, carrying supplies. It is even possible the horn is being blown to start the workday rather than to call a break.
Assuming Dinah is a person there is no indication that the workers have any romantic interest in her, only in the hope that she blows her horn to call a break in their labors. The romantic interest was introduced by the 1944 vocal pop number.
Dr. Katya Ermolaeva points to “Levee Song” being sung in the vernacular as evidence of it continuing to be problematic even after offensive lyrics were removed. There are countless examples of folk songs using identical vernacular to represent white “hillbillies” or poor people generally. What’s more, the default image of a railroad worker in the early 20th century was of white immigrants, particularly Irish immigrants. The first recording from 1923, as we’ve seen, had dialect implying Irish workers. Irish workers were also associated with levee camps, even in the south. Black railroad workers by then were more often portrayed as porters and maids.
So the song we know of as a “I’ve been Working on the Railroad” turns out to be a true folk song in the sense that it evolved over time and its author, and even the author of at least one of its constituent parts (the bridge), remains unknown. It has been used self referentially by several American ethnic groups. It is a folk song that retains certain sections of lyric and stretches of melody that were at times taken up by stage minstrels, but one that was never used by minstrels in anything close to its current musical or lyrical structure.
Over the song’s 120 year prehistory (1830-1950) there was no more than a twenty year period (1894-1915) when the settings and lyrics to one of its parts, “Levee Song”, would have been primarily heard at minstrel shows. These were the fading years of minstrelsy. Minstrelsy would linger as a format and a nostalgia item in many forums for many decades. But after 1900 it was no longer the primary driver of entertainment culture it had been.
Even during that brief exposure to minstrelsy the “Levee Song” had a vibrant life as a children’s song, an Irish work song, and, it turns out, elsewhere.
A version with the following lyrics was collected by Ellwood Adams and sent to John Lomax in the 1920s or earlier. It was heard in Utah, “sung by an old time plainsman, who said it was ‘just a few words of an old trail song that they used to sing in the Big Bend country of Texas in the ‘cow days.'” (Lomax Papers; E. Adams, St. Louis, MO; quoted by Norm Cohen in “Long Steel Rail”, p. 539-540).
I’ve been out upon the round-up
All the LIVE-LONG day;
I’ve been out a-punchin’ cattle
Just to pass the time away;
Don’t you hear the cattle lowing,
We get up so early in the morn;
Don’t you hear the foreman calling,
“Cook-ee do blow your horn.”
And there is evidence it was actually sung by railroad workers:
“The opening couplet was collected from black railroad workers at Auburn, Alabama,…” (1915-1916), “the earliest evidence for the song’s currency in oral tradition.” See, Norm Cohen, 1981, Long Steel Rail, Univ. Illinois Press, p. 539.
Both of these instances come 20 years after the Princeton publication but neither hinge on minstrelsy or black caricature. One of them is evidence that Black railroad workers sang the song, the other evidence white workers heard themselves in it.
How To Teach It
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” takes the side of the working man yearning for his lunch break. We don’t have enough songs like that. It wouldn’t help anyone to replace it with another nonsense song. Our children are sheltered enough from political and economic realities.
As Dr. Ermolaeva points out in her essay, the song has:
(L)yrics that reflected the physically abusive and highly exploitative conditions for laborers in railroad and levee camps. The camp workday began early (“rise up, so uhly in de mawn’”), the hours were long (“I been wukkin’ on de railroad all de live long day”), and White foremen enforced abusive conditions through disciplinary violence (“doan’ yuh hyah de capn’ shoutin’”), which occasionally resulted in death.
The lyric can also be interpreted to imply the captain is shouting for Dinah to blow her horn, (as is implied in the cowboy version above,) and not to inflict violence upon the men . That aside, isn’t it wonderful that we have a song like this? How many other songs of worker solidarity do we have that put the situation so succinctly in words suitable for children?
Before the Civil War the first southern railroads were built in part by slaves. Some slaves were owned directly by railroad companies and others rented, sometimes from hundreds of miles away. Free Blacks and white immigrants also worked in the construction of southern railroads before the war. The enslaved people, of course, had the least desirable jobs.
After the war the railroad workers, including immigrants and migrants of all colors, were free men. Conditions were brutal, many died, but the African Americans among them would have been proud of their work none the less.
The folktale of John Henry reflects this pride. Railroad related work was among the most desirable work available to African Americans who remained in the South. This was true from the railroad construction era into the heyday of the Pullman Porters 50 years later.
It is unclear, to say the least, that the railroad refrain ever referred to enslaved people. First published in the 1890s, it seems more likely to refer to workers during the major period of railroad expansion that began after the Civil War.
I see no harm in teaching that the railroad workers in the song were originally black, especially because that would be eye-opening to many. The proud, hard working, and newly free Black men and women who helped build our country by working on the railroad deserve to be memorialized. A catchy song, sung from their point of view, is an excellent way to bring this history into the elementary school classroom. That is exactly what the civil rights workers who introduced the song in 1950 were trying to do.