Labour History Review

Review Essay

Music for Labour(ed) Movements: Why the Chattanooga Choo-Choo rather than The International Became the Song to Unite the Human Race

Labour History Review (2003), 68, (1), 129–138.


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In the 1940s, The Chattanooga Choo-Choo became the first ever million selling record (Alan Lewens, Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century, London, Watson-Guptill, 2001). Google Scholar

Judith McCulloh, ‘A Tribute to Dick Reuss’, in Archie Green (ed), Songs about Work, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, p. 3. Songs about Work 3 Google Scholar

Although see the argument that in fact the leftist popular front cultural movement of the 1930s and 1940s in the USA led to a ‘labouring’ of such important, apparently bourgeois, institutions of cultural production (Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, London, Verso, 1996). Google Scholar

Cited in Reuss and Reuss, American Folk Music, p. 90. Google Scholar

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Ian Watson, Song and Democratic Culture, London, Croom Helm, 1983, p. 81. Song and Democratic Culture 81 Google Scholar

For an elaboration of the arguments in this section see Marek Korczynski, ‘Music at Work: Towards a Historical Overview’, Folk Music Journal, 2003, forthcoming. Google Scholar

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In Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger (eds), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1967/1999, p. 104. Google Scholar

Craig Littler, The Development of the Labour Process in Capitalist Societies, A Comparative Analysis of Work Organisation in Britain, the USA and Japan, London, Heinemann, 1982. The Development of the Labour Process in Capitalist Societies, A Comparative Analysis of Work Organisation in Britain, the USA and Japan Google Scholar

C. Wright Mills, White Collar, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1957; Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, London, Heinemann, 1976. White Collar Google Scholar

Ed Andrew, Closing the Iron Cage, London, Black Rose Books, 1999, p. 13. Closing the Iron Cage 13 Google Scholar

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Similarly, in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, Ewan MacColl would ultimately become increasingly frustrated and isolated in his vision of political folk song ‘as an idiom that would be immediately acceptable to a lot of young people’ (Robin Denselow, When the Music's Over: The Story of Political Pop, London, Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 22). Google Scholar

Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, New York, The Free Press, 1933. This is not to suggest that the analysis draws uncritically on Durkheim's overall analysis of pre-industrial and industrial society — rather elements in his analysis are used to highlight the issue at hand. The Division of Labour in Society Google Scholar

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See how Stowe implicitly draws on Durkheim in his discussion of the popularity of swing music in the 1930s and 1940s which draws out how swing music and its accompanying dancing involved ‘a balancing of the individual and the collective’ (David Stowe, Swing Changes, London, Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 13). Also note Dinerstein's argument that big-band swing and its accompanying dance steps involved an interplay of mechanical aesthetics and an individualized, humanizing, response to these aesthetics (Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002). Google Scholar

Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come, Edinburgh, Payback Press, 2000, p. 52. A Change is Gonna Come 52 Google Scholar

The arrangement of labour anthems into four part harmonies represents a partial move towards an attunement with organic solidarity. Mutual inter-dependence is inscribed through the way in which each of the melodic parts is necessary to the whole and cannot function on its own. This is surely the ‘intangible something’ in the following passage taken from Hall's book: ‘"There is something particularly fitting of the Socialist movement about choir concerts…" (from Bradford Pioneer, 16 March, 1923). What this something was, however, appears somewhat intangible’ (Hall, A Pleasant Change, p. 91). However, four-part harmony singing was rare outside of activists engaged in the labour choral movements. The singing of labour anthems by the wider working class in strikes and demonstrations would be by single melody. Google Scholar

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Cited in American Folk Music, p. 203. Google Scholar

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Albert Lloyd, Folk Song in England, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1967. Folk Song in England Google Scholar

Implicitly, the model for which both political folk song and labour anthem were striving appears to be the instrumental use of music to cement mechanical solidarity in religions, and in armies. In both religious and military institutions uniformity of beliefs and identity is fundamental. Hall's discussion of the Labour Church movement in Britain is fascinating in this regard. Chow's concept of ‘monumental music’ might be usefully used as a label for musical forms attuned to mechanical solidarity and used instrumentally and hierarchically (R. Chow, ‘Listening Otherwise, music miniaturized’ in S. During (ed) The Cultural Studies Reader, 1993, pp. 170-85). Google Scholar

Michael Rosen and David Widgery (ed), The Vintage Book of Dissent, London, Vintage, 1996. The Vintage Book of Dissent Google Scholar

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Doug DeNatale and Glenn Hanson, ‘The Southern Textile Song Tradition Reconsidered’, in Archie Green (ed.), Songs about Work, p. 95. Google Scholar

In exceptional circumstances, these songs attuned to mechanical solidarity could resonate more profoundly. For instance, Korson (1997, p. 10) reports that the Avondale Mine Disaster describing a mining explosion which left 110 people dead resounded as ‘the most popular ballad of the region for more than a quarter of a century’ (George Korson, Liner notes to Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners, The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, Rounder CD 1502, 1997, p. 10). Google Scholar

A similar argument can be made regarding other cultural forms. For instance, see Enstad's discussion of how American working women in the early twentieth century frustrated leading activists and organizers by adopting ‘consumerist’ pursuits in fashion, and the reading of dime novels. Enstad skilfully argues that these pursuits did not work simply against the development of a political consciousness amongst these women — as their labour(ed) movement leaders feared (Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, Columbia, Columbia University Press, 1999). In other words, the collective was not necessarily lost in cultural forms that allowed space for an interplay between the individual and the collective. Google Scholar

John Nott, Music for the People, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002. Music for the People Google Scholar

Stowe, Swing Changes. Google Scholar

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Cited in A Pleasant Change, p. 163. Google Scholar

Werner, A Change, p. 133. Google Scholar

Stowe, Swing Changes, p. 9. Google Scholar

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Author details

Korczynski, Marek