Work in song

The modern workplace provides few opportunities for singing. (Although there is a growing tradition of choirs and bands within law firms — some competing with each other.) Older working environments often depended on song to regulate the pace of work. Many of these songs have found their way into the wider repertoire of folk and popular music. Alongside these, there is a strand of music celebrating (or bemoaning) work. On the whole, these say little about the most common jobs that people do today (apart from generic office work).

The older songs often suggest greater pride and joy in work than newer ones. This morning, I was listening to “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” — one of my favourite musical celebrations of work. Despite the privations described in the song, it definitely sits on the joyful side. This may be because it was written by an observer, rather than a participant. Ewan MacColl wrote the song for Singing the Fishing, one of the radio ballads that he created with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in the early 1960s.

John Axon and John Creamer commemorated at Chapel-en-le-Frith stationAlong with Singing the Fishing, two other radio ballads looked at work — specifically roadbuilding and mining. The most well-known, The Ballad of John Axon, commemorated an engine driver and who died at work while trying to prevent his runaway train crashing into another train at Chapel-en-le-Frith when its brakes failed. Their melding of first-person testimony with new and traditional music provide a fascinating perspective on work and life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Singing the Fishing is particularly pertinent today, in that it describes a pattern of work that is now common again in the ‘gig economy.’ “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” tells of young women travelling to various fishing ports around Scotland and Eastern England to work gutting fish as they are brought to shore.

Noo we’ve gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornaway and Shields.
Worked all on the Humber ‘mongst the barrels and the creels.
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up and doon,
But the place to see the herring is the quay at Yarmouth Toon.

The gig economy was no more secure in the early twentieth century than it is now, but the pride in work suggested by this song can be seen in many of the newer occupations that form part of the modern version. Agile working also allows some participants in the new economy to do so without travelling for days on end. Nonethless, I don’t expect to see a new version of the song celebrating the work of lawyers at Axiom, Lawyers on Demand, Halebury or Obelisk, despite the fact that those professionals have more than they might think in common with the herring gutters.

Listen to the song on the Spotify playlist below, followed by songs about work drawn from lists compiled by The Pessimist and readers of the Guardian.

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