Labour Songs. And Songs About Labour.
I’m developing a bad habit of taking down prior posts either because they’re badly written, or because as I learn more about a topic, I get embarrassed by earlier stages of ignorance.
I suspect that this will be one of those posts in the future.
I’m currently working on a project about Western Canadian coal mining songs. You might be surprised, as I was, to find out that the largest coal mine in the country is just west of Edmonton, and that Alberta contains 70% of Canada’s coal reserves. Or, you may not care.
So isn’t it more surprising that there aren’t more coal mining songs from the area? If you look at the traditional music written and performed by labourers in the region, you’ll find oil songs, cowboy songs (though not many of those either), farming, logging, even homesteading songs, but not many coal songs. Mining seems to belong to other Canadian regions. The East Coast comes to mind.
When I was thinking about this limited repertoire, I started wondering about those who write labour songs, who I think are quite a separate category from those who write songs about labour. I’m going somewhere, I promise.
First of all, I’m not referring to, like, actual labour songs. You know, those in the Little Red Songbook, that get pulled out for union rallies and protests against inhumane working conditions. I’ve had the fortunate experience of being on strike once (that’s sarcasm, btw), even though I’ve been in unions for 20 years. As grateful as I am for what unions have done for me, I was not happy to be pulled into a contract faculty strike at York University in 2008, one that did no good in the end. The music staff was paired with political science, and we stood on the sides of the picket line and watched in horror as the poli scientists shared copies of union songs and hollered them out while they marched.
So…I don’t go into the political quagmire of unions and the materials or songs they produce, knowing that neither side of the union debate sits comfortably with me. All you need is season 2 of The Wire to make you rethink, right? Whatever side you’re on.
Where I am going is the difference between labourers who wrote songs to accompany (or distract them from) their work (early examples can be seen in Pete Seeger’s great documentary on folkstreams) and those who write about labour from the contemporary singer-songwriter stance. Again, I’m gonna say that my thoughts here are preliminary…my ignorance might be all too apparent by the end. But then again, I’ve never been labelled as a folklorist.
When you dig into the labour song repertoire, you get tunes that tend to describe one’s duties, maybe in a broader context. Good examples include “The Dally Roper’s Song” in the cowboy tradition, “Clear Away the Track” as a sea song.
Others might be more personal; a songwriter might challenge the boss or company practices; others might tell a tale that goes beyond the scope of their work, like in “Windy Bill”; still others might document the suffering that comes from this kind of work, and long for the release from these hardships.
While the subject matter for labour songs is vast, seemingly limitless, the songs’ commonality lies in their utility. That is, these songs are often first and foremost sung during work. It may be to regulate movement against those of your crewmates, it may be to pass the time through repetitive activities, or it might be to simply get through moments of boredom.
Somewhere in the folk revival and during the following years, songwriters took up the task of writing songs about labour. I have lots of theories for why this is, including that tendency common to roots music towards romanticizing a way of life that is either beyond the songwriter’s experience (aka rural, working-class) or before our time. In other words, contemporary songwriters like James Keelaghan, Tim Hus, or Gordon Lightfoot write about shipwrecks, logging, driving trucks, working the oil rigs, you name it, when most of them haven’t actually done the work themselves (Hus is an exception).
The classic “Log Driver’s Waltz” might be a good example of this.
Of course, this raises serious issues of authenticity that seem to plague folk music scholars and purists when nobody else really cares (umm, Gord, did you actually lay track for the CPR? No? Then don’t write about it.). What are songwriters to do? The few left who have a rural background and/or experience in these professions have to cover a lot of ground. Otherwise, all most songwriters can do is write about their own labour experiences, something that may not amount to interesting tunes. That’s why I never became a songwriter. I was either going to document my grocery-scanning days or my professorship; although I’ve always been a union girl, I can only really complain about the fact that I made $5 less per hour as a cashier than I do as a professor. Do I turn to the “outrageous” incidents for song material? Don’t drop jars of Uncle Ben’s Sweet and Sour Sauce. Or capers, a bitch to clean up. Don’t over-order those entire chickens in a can, because they never sell and the backstock will sit there for years. (’kay, seriously, who eats those things?)
What we’re left with is an oral tradition of labour songs that folklorists continually scramble to document in song collections, but may be dying as those professions disappear, and then a body of work that describes the challenges of the oil rigger or the plight of the truck driver from a new perspective. I think that’s really interesting. Because it tells us that as a broad audience, we’re not holding songwriters to some unachievable pinnacle of authenticity; we recognize that they can tell us a good story, complete with profession-specific lingo, and win us over. It tells us that as we move towards urbanization, and the technologization (is that a word?) and professionalization of our jobs and away from those characterized by outdoor, hard labour, that we can still appreciate – maybe to the point of inappropriate exoticization – those who do that work. And it tells us that in either tradition, there’s still room to challenge the work environments created by large conglomerates, or the corruption of unions, or the misperceptions of these jobs beyond their immediate surroundings, and use that as the basis for great songs.
I don’t know. Take it from here. And let me know if you’ve heard any Western Canadian mining songs.