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People have been making up songs to accompany their work since time immemorial. American occupational songs paint vivid pictures of how work has been done in the United States from colonial times to the present. Songs and ballads have been sung to describe and/or accompany the work of lumberjacks, farmers, sailors, slaves, textile workers, cowboys, mothers, miners, railroaders, factory workers, and many others.

As labor unions formed and took shape in the United States during the 19th century, songs beckoned workers to join and support them. The labor press printed countless songs, ballads, and verse which described problems such as poor working conditions and unemployment, as well as songs that expressed specific demands of workers, such as shorter working days and better wages. In the labor publications, generally just the lyrics were printed, along with the name of a well-known traditional or popular melody to which they should be sung.

In the 20th century, music of the labor movement remained vital, inspirational, and influential with songwriters such as Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, and the Almanac Singers (including Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, and Woody Guthrie) writing and singing classic songs such as "Solidarity Forever," "Union Maid," and "Which Side are You On?" These and other labor songs exhibit the fighting spirit of the workers and their determined struggle to improve their conditions through organization.

"Labor Song" was compiled by Matthew Sabatella, borrowing verses from many different 19th and 20th century labor songs. The lyrics are printed below with footnotes indicating the original song sources. The chorus lyrics and melody are based on a labor song called "All I Want (I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister)," the tune of which is a version of the old mountain song "East Virginia." The words to "All I Want" were written by Jim Garland who was blacklisted from the mines of Harlan County, Kentucky in the 1930s amidst bitter struggles between miners and mine owners.

lyrics

Labor Song
(lyrics)

chorus:
I don't want your millions, mister
There’s hard times somewhere every day
All I want is the right to live, mister
Honest work for honest pay

verses:
I drove the plow in virgin soil
My weary feet the furrow trod
At last I gathered golden grain
‘Twas mine, hard-earned by toil and pain (1)

I carried rock from granite hill
Laid stone on stone till giant mill
Transformed my grain to tempting food
‘Twas mine, hard-earned by sweat and blood (2)

(chorus)

How little do the rich men care
When they sit at home secure
What dangers all the workers dare
And the hardships they endure (3)

Here’s to the delver in the mine
The sailor on the ocean
With those of every craft and line
Who work with true devotion (4)

(chorus)

When toiling millions work to fill
The wealthy coffers strong
When hands are crushed that work and fill
There must be something wrong (5)

John Henry told his captain
A man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let this steam drill beat me
Gonna I’ll die with my hammer in my hand (6)

(chorus)

And by union, what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill
Singly none, singly none (7)

Freedom’s name is mighty sweet
All this world is gonna meet
Keep your hand on the plow
Hold on, hold on (8)

(chorus)

Sources:

1.adapted from 'Labor’s Demand'; written by Frank I. Fisher for the San Francisco assemblies of Knights of Labor c. 1882
2.adapted from 'Labor’s Demand'; written by Frank I. Fisher for the San Francisco assemblies of Knights of Labor c. 1882
3.adapted from 'Down in a Coal Mine'
4.adapted from 'A Toast for Labor'; printed in Boston Daily Evening Voice, July 3, 1867
5.adapted from 'There Must Be Something Wrong'; printed in Voice of Industry, February 12, 1847
6.adapted from various John Henry songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries
7.adapted from a poem that headed the constitution of the American Miner’s Association and was put to music and sung by union membership c. 1861
8.from 'Keep Your Hand on the Plow'; a folk song product of labor and singing by both blacks and whites

credits

released August 28, 2010
Matthew Sabatella: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
Chris DeAngelis: bass, vocal
Sean Edelson: mandolin, vocal
Lynn Griffith: banjo, vocal
Jack Stamates: fiddle, vocal

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Matthew Sabatella and the Rambling String Band Florida

With vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass fiddle, Matthew Sabatella and the Rambling String Band bring to life music that is woven into the fabric of the United States: traditional folk songs, fiddle tunes, old-time country, bluegrass, Appalachian music, ragtime, blues, spirituals, railroad and cowboy songs, work songs, sea shanties, reels, breakdowns, ballads, and more. ... more

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