Work Songs

Work Songs

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: Published: April 2006

Author: Ted Gioia

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Music

All societies have relied on music to transform the experience of work. Song accompanied the farmer's labors, calmed the herder's flock, and set in motion the spinner's wheel. Today this tradition continues. Music blares on the shop floor; song accompanies transactions in the retail store; the radio keeps the trucker going on the long-distance haul.

Now Ted Gioia, author of several acclaimed books on the history of jazz, tells the story of work songs from prehistoric times to the present. Vocation by vocation, Gioia focuses attention on the rhythms and melodies that have attended tasks such as the cultivation of crops, the raising and lowering of sails, the swinging of hammers, the felling of trees. In an engaging, conversational writing style, he synthesizes a breathtaking amount of material, not only from songbooks and recordings but also from travel literature, historical accounts, slave narratives, folklore, labor union writings, and more. He draws on all of these to describe how workers in societies around the world have used music to increase efficiency, measure time, relay commands, maintain focus, and alleviate drudgery.

At the same time, Gioia emphasizes how work songs often soar beyond utilitarian functions. The heart-wringing laments of the prison chain gang, the sailor’s shanties, the lumberjack’s ballads, the field hollers and corn-shucking songs of the American South, the pearl-diving songs of the Persian Gulf, the rich mbube a cappella singing of South African miners: Who can listen to these and other songs borne of toil and hard labor without feeling their sweep and power? Ultimately, Work Songs, like its companion volume Healing Songs, is an impassioned tribute to the extraordinary capacity of music to enter into day-to-day lives, to address humanity’s deepest concerns and most heartfelt needs.


“Gioia reinforces his reputation for combining inquisitive scholarship with lucid readability. . . . An inspiring book on a wide-ranging subject. . . .” — Andrew Green, Classical Music

“Highly recommended.” — R.D. Cohen, Choice

“Music educators, in particular those inspired by a Kodály philosophy of using folk music, will appreciate Gioia’s insights into individuals who have collected and contributed to the sons of the American social landscape. . . . The breadth and surprising depth of the stories Gioia chooses to tell makes this transformative nature of work songs even more palatable. . . . In Gioia’s examination of music through Work Songs, he confirms that people of all ages and professions value songs for how music connects us to our human experiences—our activities, our hopes, our fantasies, and our despair.” — Aubrey Berger Cardany, Kodály Envoy

“This is a wonderful book. Work Songs invites the reader into the best of two worlds—serious theory and fun content. It is written in a clear and easy style, sprinkled here and there with verbal wit and passionate eloquence.” — Maura Kealey, Journal of Folklore Research

"[Work Songs and Healing Songs] share much beyond a conviction that music speaks most eloquently when it is grounded in human life. Both break through the cultural and genre boundaries that determine the scope of most books on music, seeking out unsuspected parallels between widely separated cultures.” — Ivan Hewitt, The Telegraph

"[A] stimulating and well researched journey right back to the dawn of music. . . . Gioia's handling of the material is exemplary, and although he has undertaken an impressive amount of research and condenses a tremendous amount of information, his writing moves along with a briskness and vitality. . . . The musical history Work Songs powerfully details offers a glimpse of how we can re-establish a vital link between music and our everyday lives. . . ." — Mike Barnes, The Wire

"[A] volume to cherish for its documentary insights. . . . Work Songs is alive with feeling and sensitivity. Though the subject may sound academic, this material is by no means dry. The pages burst with intensity and emotion. Many thanks to Gioia for a fine book, one that is both a scholar's delight and a reader's sweet dessert! Highly recommended."

— Lee Prosser,

"[Gioia] paints vivid pictures of how song has historically accompanied the farmer's labors, calmed the herder's flock, ritualized the raising and lowering of sails, given power to the swinging of hammers and the felling of trees, and set the rhythm of the spinners wheel. . . . Gioia's deep research gives us wonderful, lyrical examples of prison chain gang laments, sea chanteys, lumberjack ballads, field hollers, corn-shucking songs of the American South, pearl-diving songs of the Persian Gulf, and the a cappella singing of South African miners. . . . In the two books, which can be read separately or as two volumes of an intricately interwoven study, we are given a wide range of examples to explain why music has always been, and continues to be, such an integral part of the human experience.” — Lahri Bond, Dirty Linen

"In this unique companion to his Healing Songs, noted scholar Gioia poignantly tells the story of work songs sung by everyone from prehistoric hunters to today's consumers. . . . [H]e succeeds in making the broader connections of thebig picture: that music exists for us all. This book provides an opportunity to re-experience the history and dignity of our human toils. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries." — Elizabeth M. Wavle, Library Journal

"The author’s erudition is impressive and without contrivance or pretension. The text flows naturally, interspersed with sparkling asides and forays into numerous disciplines. If you find some academic writing dreary, tendentious and theory-laden, this book will restore your faith in the possibility of writing that is at once informative, stimulating, passionate, and entertaining." — Rick van Heerden, Journal of International Library of African Music

“In previous books, Ted Gioia proved himself one of our most incisive thinkers about jazz. Now he has integrated vast expanses of knowledge and recordings from cultures across the globe to shed valuable new light on work songs. A dazzling accomplishment.” — John Edward Hasse, Curator of American Music, National Museum of American History

“Ted Gioia enriches and makes real the powerful message that music is, and has always been, an integral part of the toolkit that ordinary humans have used to navigate life. He shows that, far from being a pastime to fill idle moments or a distraction from everyday preoccupations, music addresses fundamental issues of human existence, survival, and liberation. Gioia’s work offers hope to those who fear that the corporate mass media may have suffocated the age-old impulse of ordinary people to make music their own.” — John Sloboda, author of Exploring the Musical Mind


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Price: $37.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ted Gioia, pianist, composer, and one of the founders of Stanford University’s Jazz Studies program, is the author of Healing Songs, also published by Duke University Press, as well as several celebrated books, including West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945–1960. His book The History of Jazz was selected as one of the best books of the year by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times, and honored with the Bay Area Book Reviewers’ award for best nonfiction work of the year. His book The Imperfect Art won the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award and was named a Jazz Book of the Century by the Jazz Educators Journal. He has recorded several compact discs as a leader, including The End of the Open Road and Tango Cool.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Introduction: Why Work Songs? 1

1. The Hunter 13

2. The Cultivator 35

3. The Herder 63

4. Thread and Cloth 79

5. The New Rhythms of Work 99

6. Sea and Shore 115

7. The Lumberjack 137

8. Take This Hammer! 150

9. The Cowboy 169

10. The Miner 182

11. The Prisoner 200

12. The Labor Movement and Songs of Work 225

13. Music and the Modern Worker 242

Epologue: The Calling 256

Notes 261

Recommended Listening 305

Bibliography 313

Index 337
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2007 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3726-3