19th-Century Labor Songs
January 29, 2022 7:25 AM   Subscribe

A friend is writing a play set in 19th-century Pittsburgh. She would like to include songs that would have been sung by or about steelworkers or any kind of laborers in the late 19th century. What she's hoping to find are songs that would have held a place like "Which Side Are You On?," but forty years earlier.
posted by jocelmeow to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know how accurate it is, but this list with publication dates for quite a few songs might have some options to consider. (The only one I personally recognize is The Railway Strike Song. I've no idea who would have known it at the time.)
posted by eotvos at 7:57 AM on January 29, 2022

I think this was first published in 1905, but IWW published a songbook. The assumption might be made that at least some of them were from that era, since it's highly unlikely they just published them al from scratch that year. Since most of them are 'to the tune' of something else, it might be worth looking into when those songs were first published for at least a closer span of when the song could have been used.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:59 AM on January 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Apparently Philip Foner wrote a book. (Foner was a pioneering American labor historian, and he and his brothers worked as musicians after they were all fired from their academic jobs as part of the anti-communist blacklist.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:03 AM on January 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Check out the work of music educator, researcher, historian, and author Jacob A. Evanson, employed by the Pittsburgh Board of Education from 1937 until he retired in the mid-60s:
Jacob Evanson: Song Catcher
Guide to the Jacob A. Evanson Papers c. 1844-1959: "Evanson [...] also made house-calls during which he listened to Pittsburgh residents recite published and unpublished songs that had been passed down from previous generations. He transcribed the lyrics as well as the melodies [...] In 1949, Evanson contributed a chapter entitled “Folksongs of an Industrial City” to Pennsylvania Songs and Legends, an anthology of essays edited by George Korson. Evanson’s essay provides an historical overview of song-making in Pittsburgh and includes transcriptions of over twenty songs from Evanson’s collection. [...] To coincide with Pittsburgh’s bicentennial in 1959, Folkways Records and Service Corp. released Vivian Richman Sings Folk Songs of West Pennsylvania [language: English and Slovak], the songs of which were selected from Evanson’s collection. Evanson also wrote the album’s liner notes."
Industrial Folk Music.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:37 AM on January 29, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The Musical Saga of Homestead

"Workers sang during strikes not only to state their beliefs and goals, but because singing helped bind workers together. The Homestead strike of 1892 even had its own Homestead Strike Songster, and the story of the strike can be traced in the lyrics of the following four songs. “The Homestead Strike” explained that Carnegie’s efforts to “lower our wages” was the basic cause of the strike. “The Fort That Frick Built” described Homestead manager Henry Frick’s transformation of the mill on the eve of the strike into a fortress with barbed-wire fences. The death of nine strikers was chronicled in “Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men.” And “Song of a Strike,” written by George Swetnam, retrospectively commemorated the Homestead strikers' courage in defending their homes and their jobs against the overwhelming might of the Carnegie Steel Company and their hired "bum detectives.""
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

1892, but not necessarily Pittsburgh: The Labor Reform Songster (which includes sheet music for "Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men" and "The Pennsylvania Miner").
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:35 PM on January 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Miner's Lifeguard (aka A Miner's Life, Union Miners) is a real banger and has been recorded many times, by among others, The Weavers and The Longest Johns. Unattributed Internet comments date it to the 1890s.

The legend of John Henry dates from the mid-19th century so there probably would be a ballad of John Henry current at that place and time but I wouldn't be so sure that it's the one that's best known today (When John Henry was a little baby, etc.)

I was going to say that they would have sang something to the tune of Marching Through Georgia, and sure enough there are alternate lyrics in the songster that MonkeyToes posted (as "Marching to Freedom"). There's another one to the tune of "John Brown's Body". But the exact lyrics aren't super important -- the thing about these is that they're very easy to write new words to and everyone would have known the tune and they're very rousing to sing in a group.

Unfortunately many of the best known labor songs come a decade or two too late for you -- you miss Casey Jones and also Joe Hill and the IWW.
posted by goingonit at 4:59 PM on January 29, 2022

Noodling on this some more, I think you are unlikely to find that many original songs by steelworkers, about steelworkers from the late 19th century. There are a few reasons for this:
  • Steel mills are loud! Can't sing work songs if you can't hear them!
  • Steel mills are urban. Unlike farm workers and sailors, who often have to make their own entertainment for long stretches of time, steel workers have amusements close at hand.
  • Steel mills were very new at the time. Most of the people living in Pittsburgh in say 1890 would have been born elsewhere -- the city quadrupled in population between 1870 and 1900 -- so the songs that they would be singing would be from the folk traditions they brought with them. This could be Polish, Czech, German, or indeed Irish/Scots by way of Appalachia.
If you look at the songs in that Labor Reform Songster, they're about a third gospel hymns with new words, a third Civil War songs with new words, and a third originals. That doesn't surprise me (indeed, some of Joe Hill's best-known songs were gospel parodies!) and that would be a clue as to the songs that an audience of laborers would know well and be able to sing as a group.
posted by goingonit at 5:45 PM on January 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, folks! She confirms this is 1880-1892, so I marked as best the ones that line up most closely. All appreciated.
posted by jocelmeow at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2022

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