Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go…

You know what I want to do?

I want to write a work song for my story. We can probably blame this on an over-exposure to sea shanties of late (Hey-ho, Chicken on a Raft!), but still!

Sailors have work songs. The black slaves in early America had work songs. Lots of different careers have work songs, some of which are still well-known to us. (Cape Cod Girls, anyone?) (That actually may be another shanty… I think I’ve got a shanty-addiction.)

So! What goes into a work song? (This is by no means an all inconclusive list.)

It’s catchy. (Okay, that’s not mandatory, but I love spirituals and shanties and folk songs in general and they tend to be catchy to me, at least the upbeat ones. If I’m going to write a work song, it had better be catchy.)

A lot of them have a line that’s repeated as part of the chorus and part of the verses. Not all, but a lot.

Erie Canal, for example:

I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

Blow the Man Down

Come all ye young fellows that follows the sea
To me, way hey, blow the man down
Now please pay attention and listen to me
Give me some time to blow the man down

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

Why? Because there’d be one person or group sing the first line and everyone else would reply back with the repeated line. It also gives freedom to make up new verses easily. For example:

Oh, I’ve got to go to bed real soon

Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

Because I can’t sleep in till noon

Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

Okay, that wasn’t great, but do you see what I mean?

Another thing I just realized: the repeated line often has some meaning to those singing it. Do you guys know what “chicken on a raft” is? It’s eggs on toast! “Fifteen miles” was originally “fifteen years” and that’s how long the mule worked on the Erie Canal.

So. My workers getting a work song are Sand-Wizards. They move sand all day (if any job ever needed a work song…). First thing I would do, is establish that repeated line and give it a meaning to the workers. Then the chorus. And then the verses.

And the verses of work songs can be about anything. Spirituals tend to have Christian meanings in the verses. Many shanties are about women (unfortunate, but true). And Cape Cod Girls… it’s basically just a fun song about fish guts. Which is really odd.

I leave you with a song about Dixie (which sounds like it’s about homesickness to me):

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

In Dixie Land, where I was born in,
early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land…

So, does anyone have a favorite folk song, shanty, spiritual, etc.?


27 thoughts on “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go…

  1. Hehe, writing a work song sounds cool. The only songs I know that are anything like this are ones my uncle used to sing, and I don’t know the names of any of them. Nor can I really remember much of the lyrics, unfortunately…

  2. Not really. I don’t know many. If…any. It’s a cool idea, though I doubt I’d be any good at writing one. Have fun with yours, though! I hope you’ll let us read it when you’re done… 🙂

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