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Behind the music: representation of labor and society in American work songs


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Gašpar, Martina. (2016). Behind the music: representation of labor and society in American work songs. Diploma Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of English Language and Literature. [mentor Šesnić, Jelena].

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This thesis argues that American work songs can be used as valuable sources of information contributing to the study and interpretation of American labor history. Created from and based on the actual experiences of American working people rather than on political and ideological agendas, work songs can be regarded as media providing insight into the neglected parts of the United States’ history. They are both political and cultural artefacts, reflecting differences between various groups they were sung in and changes taking place in the overall American society through time. This quality brought them into the focus of generations of American ethnomusicologists, with John and Alan Lomax being the most prominent ones. Work songs with their various purposes – memorising and commemorating events, warning of dangers, coordinating work, protesting, giving hope in a better future and occasionally finding pride in what one does for living – reveal not only the attitude towards work, but also towards life in general. On the one hand they tell the complex story of the nation’s geographical and social incorporation through the perspective of sailors, lumberjacks, cowboys, slaves, miners, railroaders and industrial workers, and on the other they point to the things that went wrong. Social insensitivity, poor work conditions, low wages, the lack of worker’s rights and growing class differences are just some of them. In this thesis work songs are classified in categories based on the combination of historical, occupational, regional, racial and thematic determinants. While pre-industrial work songs show a strong connection to the process of work itself, coordinating it and depicting its immediate instances, work songs of industrial period focus more on the attitude towards work and work conditions, often acting as a tool for socio-political protest. A distinct position in American music history is taken by African American work songs, which provide a specific account of slavery – relations between slaves and their masters, yearnings for freedom and cultural identification with biblical figures. During the 20th century work songs gradually shift from the domain of folk to the popular music one. Typical workers’ concerns are voiced by professional musicians like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, who particularly focuses on the problem of post-employment. Although work songs in post-industrial age can be regarded as commercial products themselves, their message remains strong. After all, work songs have always among other things been a form of entertainment too – an entertainment whose content bears history in its authentic form.

Item Type: Diploma Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: work songs, American folklore, labor history, popular music
Subjects: English language and literature
Departments: Department of English Language and Literature
Supervisor: Šesnić, Jelena
Date Deposited: 21 Mar 2016 09:29
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2016 09:29

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