William Rossiter

Load Sixteen Tons, and What Do You Get. . .? Working Men and Women “Sing It Like It Is”

Speaker: William Rossiter

From “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to “Take this Job and shove it,” Americans have been singing songs and telling tales about their jobs, whether they’re nine-to-fivers or dawn-to-duskers. Some are outright protest songs, while others give a thoughtful look at what it means to show up day after day, whether it’s at the office, the mill or the mine.

When the subject of work songs comes up, we naturally think of the “Hard-Time Hungries,” when wages are low and conditions tough. Workers came together to ask for – or to demand – a few more bucks per week, a shorter work week, safer conditions and a little help with injuries. They worried about the management attitude that “there are ten more waiting for your job.”  They worried that their kids were destined follow them into a career in the mill or the mine. Their songs provided a voice that both clarified the issues and inspired workers with the fact that they were all in it together. Workers’ movements as far back as the 1770s had their songs and slogans, and during the depressions of the 1800s and, of course, the “Dirty Thirties,” they tried and failed and tried again to make these songs echo in the corridors of power.

Today we are pondering these questions again – and again: What are the real issues? Who allots the “fruits of labor”? Do the workers “own” their labor? Are these controversies about rights or are they about privileges? Does “the system” slant one way or the other? Not an easy question in the bunch, but maybe we can get a little insight into what’s going on today by looking at what went on back then, when singing at a rally or a march or a meeting was the equivalent of opening with a prayer.