Goethe said: One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.
Music is all around us, rowers still chant and call their strokes, campers sing around the fire, auctioneers and street vendors, sing to sell their wares, mothers sing to their children, father’s too. Protestors sing on the picket lines. Music comforts the sick and weary and inspires writers, and thinkers and all of us to grander effort, or to lighten our mood. Music wafts through stores and elevators, and one is never far from television and radio. And, music for the most part is poetry.
I’ve been rummaging around in folk anthologies about working people’s songs.
Most of us can remember Sixteen Tons, Eight Hours, The Old Chisholm Trail.
I got caught up in the music and forgot they were real men working real jobs and suffering exploitation by the “company.” I knew Sixteen Tons was about back-breaking work at a low pay-day after day where the coal miner was unable to get out of the trap of indebtedness. Employers knew how to set up that invisible net to keep them in that trap.
And, of course, I’m familiar with the happy sounds of Ty Yi Yippy, Yippy, Yea… of the Old Chisholm Trail . Somehow I didn’t hear the other verses of the song that make the exploitation clear. The boss can fire you on a whim and dock your pay if he sees fit and they always did.
A-ropeing and a-tying and a-branding all day,
I’m working mighty hard for mighty little pay,
I went to the boss to draw my roll,
He had me figured out ten dollars in the hole.
The boss says to me, “I’ll fire you,
Not only you but the whole damn crew.”
We organized a union and it’s going mighty strong,
The boss minds his business and we all get along.”
The song, Eight Hours was a rallying song from the late nineteenth century when people worked from sun-up to sun-set, the whole year, no vacations, time off, no cushion against illness. Unions made things better, but young people today, don’t recognize what they owe to unions and in some ways, our current middle class is working very hard for low wages, often both parents and not getting ahead. I see some similarities.
The song says:
We mean to make things over, we are tired of toil for naught,
With but bare enough to live upon and never and hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine and we want to sell the flowers,
We are sure that God has will’d it, and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from the shipyard , shop and mill,
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will.
Carpenters won an 8-hour day in 1890, but it took decades before the majority of workers won a shorter work day.
For me it was a repeat education and a reminder of what we owe unions and a treatise on the power of the people when they are maligned.