Friday, September 5, 2008

All the pretty little horses, and labor songs

Well, the Republican Convention is over, and I must resume the normal routines of my life (in this case, going to exercise at the gym at 5:00 in the morning), despite little sleep last night.

I awakened before four o'clock, with a new song, yet another earworm, again a lullaby (see previous entry) burrowing gently through my brain, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to lure me back at least briefly to slumber:

Hush-a bye
Don't you cry
Go to sleepy little baby

When you wake
You will have
And all the pretty little horses

(Oddly, in my first recollection, the above line drifted up as "when you wake, you will have cake . . . ."--an interesting illustration of the process of mutation in the lyrics of folk songs.)

I first heard this in a college concert, perhaps 1961, sung by Pete Seeger, with a banjo accompaniment of exquisite, almost unbearable innocence and simplicity; as I could recall no such renditions from my own childhood (though I must ask my siblings if there were any in our family), this song settled into my mind as the quintessential gentle lullaby--full of comfort and the wonders of discovery:

Brown and bay
Dapple and gray
Coach and six a-little horses

This was the second time I had heard Seeger singing live, the earlier being when I had slipped away in high school (perhaps 1959) to what I now recall to be a union meeting--though logic suggests that this was more likely a public program with some union connection (perhaps sponsorship, possibly in a high school auditorium). I imagined that my father, a manufacturer and staunch Republican, would not have been happy at my excursion into the most Democratic of venues--though this was most likely a fantasy of rebellion. In any case, it was then that I became aware of the power of song to mobilize strong, even passionate political feelings, and to bring groups together in pursuit of a common goal (a later example of the political power of music was of course "We shall overcome," the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.) As he still does so beautifully even now, in his upper eighties, Seeger, with his signature powers of captivation, engaged the audience in singing along.

Last Monday being Labor Day--an American holiday established in 1894 to observe the dignity of hard work, particularly manual and factory labor--I was thinking of writing here about the genre of labor songs, many of which I sang in my college days as a "folkie", or folk musician. There are many sub-groups of labor songs, but perhaps the ones which spoke most powerfully to me were the songs of protest at the conditions that miners have had to endure over the ages. Perhaps my favorite (since at the time I was planning to be a geophysicist) was "The Ballad of Springhill", a song composed by the great Scots folksinger Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger (Pete Seeger's half-sister) which began

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia
Down in the dark of the Cumberland Mine
There's blood on the coal and the miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun nor sky

And ended:

Eight long days and some were rescued
Leaving the dead to lie alone.
Through all their lives they dug their grave
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.

The song, based on an actual tragedy, describes the miners' hard lot, and the failure of the company to provide safe conditions for the workers, resulting in a number of deaths.

It is worth noting that the evocative power of the first song perhaps contributed to the title of Cormac McCarthy's Novel, All the Pretty Horses; and we are reminded of the title poem of Richard Brautigan's collection, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster.

Worker and union songs played an important role throughout the history of the labor movement in the U.S., and were a central to the repertoire of many of the singers in the folk revival mentioned in my previous posting, though the folksingers themselves may well have been raised in middle class families with no first-hand experience of the worker's struggles portrayed in the songs.

Interestingly, there seem to be no significant instances of management songs . . . .

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