Rhythms of Labour an Important Collection of Bygone Work Songs

Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain
Harbourtown Records

Can you imagine it? Noon rolls around and office workers begin to sing: “Boss man called a meetin’/At a time I should be eatin’/Didn’t hear a word he said/Just wanted to get fed/Got them working lunch blues, un huh….” Or you walk into Target and wage earners sing as they restock shelves in unison.  From the wings you hear administrators lining out “The Ballad of the Busted Copy Machine.” Workers do still sing, of course, but these days it’s more likely to occur among non-English-speaking migrant workers or on (an increasingly rare) picket line. By the time Stan Rogers penned “White Collar Holler” back in 1979, one of the things that made it so funny was the very idea that postindustrial workers had any sort of folk community.

Rhythms of Labour takes us back to the days in which English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh workers sang to set the pace of work, pour out their aspirations, build community, and wile away the time. It is a two-disc companion piece to an academic investigation into work songs by professors Marek Korcznski (Nottingham), Michael Pickering (Loughborough), and Emma Robertson (La Trobe, Melbourne). The 50 songs contained herein are mainly those once commonly called “source songs,” those collected in the field by folklorists and ethnomusicologists and then reinterpreted by professional folk musicians.  Featured are songs from now-passing occupations such as droving, quarrying, cloth fulling, shepherding, street vending, wooden ship sailing, hand milking, doffing, and hop picking. Most of these are field recordings made from the 1920s though the early 1970s, though there are a handful of songs from contemporary performers such as Lee Enstone, Laura Hockenhill, Brona McVittie, and Will, Ed, and Ginger, who have mined old song collections. Only a handful of the source singers bear familiar names: Harry Cox, Lizzie Higgins, Stan Hugill, Sam Larner, Flora MacNeil….

Another way that Western society has changed is the way we hear music. Casual listeners will need to readjust their habits to appreciate the richness of these songs. Their value as historical documents is obvious, but these songs come from common folk and the voices are often rough, sparse, unaccompanied, and unhurried. A superb 48-page booklet accompanies the collection and gives detailed information on the material, performers, and collectors, but appreciating the scope of this impressive project requires patience. It is very much unlike anything pop-weaned, ear-bud-wearing workers today experience.  More’s the pity. I wish someone would create a similar encyclopedic sampler of North America’s bygone work traditions. I’d like to imagine push back against latter day straw bosses.

Rob Weir

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