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Catalogue Text – ‘Solidarity & Song’, IN CONTEXT 4, South Dublin County Council (May 2019).

August 10, 2019

As demonstrated through extensive research by ethnomusicologists, music and song have historically been integral to the choreography of work. Providing an aural backdrop for the expression of labouring bodies, work songs broadly falling into two categories, pertaining to both manual and mechanised labour.

Preindustrial work songs evolved out of the rhythm of labour processes and were functional to the coordination of work. These songs employed a steady tempo, allowing workers to keep pace with one another, while also helping to maintain morale, thus partially alleviating the pain or monotony of work. Following the Industrial Revolution, work songs were no longer necessary to synchronise actions between workers, as the pace of labour was increasingly determined by steam or electric-powered machinery, which, in turn, generated noisy environments, not conducive to singing.

Generally, the tempo of early work songs echoed the rhythm of the manual labour being carried out – from fast-paced tree-cutting songs or the upbeat harmonies of weavers and spinners, to the slower and more melancholic rowing songs or the ‘pounding songs’ of corn-grinders. Music was also intrinsic to agricultural labour history, as demonstrated by the pastoral music of Armenian shepherds, the vernacular chants of middle eastern camel-drivers or the use of yodelling, bells and horns by European herders. The Republic of Georgia has a particularly rich history of work song that continues to this day, with widespread variations in regional style. Solo monophonic work songs – known as Orovela and Urmuli – are predominantly found in eastern Georgia, while the more complex three and four-part Naduri songs of western Georgia, are usually sung by farm labourers, such as winnowers, mowers and grape-pickers. Perhaps the most widely recognised agricultural work song is the improvised ‘call and response’ – usually led by one voice – as carried out in America’s southern plantations for centuries, until slavery was formally abolished in 1865.

Many of the slaves came from West Africa, where singing resonated deeply as a vehicle to mourn, celebrate, express criticism or even to placate a spirit. Slave songs included many African-derived characteristics – such as complex syncopation, pentatonic melody and a spiritual outlook. In African tribal cultures, music was more than just a rhythmic accompaniment to labour; it carried powers of ‘enchantment’, while serving as a force of social solidarity. It was also believed that enacting events in a ritualised manner would cause them to materialise; the lyrics of slave music therefore focused on purpose, beauty and freedom, with the aim of transforming frustration and servitude into hope and liberation. The rootlessness and emotional fever of ‘field holler’, which resonated across the Delta region during the colonial era, became a significant precursor to gospel music, jazz and rhythm and blues.

Following the Industrial Revolution, work songs began to take on a different function. Throughout the twentieth century, singing increasingly became a social outlet for workers outside the workplace. Industrial folk songs – especially prevalent within the textile, mining, steel and shipbuilding industries – tended to include elements of storytelling, while reflecting the increasingly politicised nature of labour itself. Coal mining in the UK had an especially strong aural tradition. Rather than being enacted during the course of work – as miners needed to listen attentively at the coalface – singing invariably occurred aboveground, between shifts and during leisure hours. As well as articulating grievances about working conditions, miner’s songs also recorded work-related tragedies, heroic trade unionist figures and prominent strikes. Ballads, poems and hymns – developed by songwriters like Tommy Armstrong (the ‘Bard of the Northern Coalfield’) – chronicled the plight of the miners and became part of their aural repertoire. In addition, the miners’ cause later became a central narrative of protest songs by musicians like Dick Gauguin and Ewan McCaul, during Britain’s 1970s folk revival.

Miners’ choirs and colliery brass bands were also widespread during the twentieth century, particularly among mining communities in Wales and the North of England. Providing rare opportunities for thousands of miners and their families to convene in public space, the Durham Miners’ Gala has been held annually since 1872, aside from periods of war or industrial action. Marching bands accompany processionary displays of ornate textile banners associated with each colliery, despite the closure of Durham coalfield’s last mine over 20 years ago. Maintained and re-enacted through the public spectacle of music and pageantry, the gala’s seemingly anachronistic tradition uses civic collectivity to proudly celebrate working-class histories, values and aspirations.

Interestingly, there has been a revival of singing in the contemporary workplace, as companies have begun to acknowledge that the health and happiness of employees is intimately connected with workplace culture. This aligns with findings of the Global Happiness and Wellbeing Policy Report 2019, which recommends that workplace interventions should focus on enhancing relationships, making jobs more interesting and improving work-life balance. As a relatively low-cost option that can unify large groups of people, singing workshops are increasingly being facilitated by companies, as part of the working day. The proliferation of workplace choirs across the UK and Ireland has sparked local choir leagues, national competitions – such as Ireland’s ‘Workplace Choir of the Year’ competition – and television shows, including The Choir: Sing While You Work, recently broadcast on BBC television. As an antidote to the increasingly segregated modern workplace, choral singing is a democratic forum in which all staff members can participate, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity or role within the company. This helps to build community, while fostering a sense of collective purpose that can be lacking in some jobs. If deriving a sense of meaning from work can help to counteract the harmful effects of stress and long hours, then these choirs are, quite literally, a modern articulation of workplace harmony.

Joanne Laws is an arts writer and Features Editor of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet. This text was written in response to Work Songs, a project developed for ‘In Context 4’ by visual artist Fiona Dowling and composer George Higgs, in collaboration with workers in South County Dublin.

Featured photographic documentation by Kasia Kaminska and Muriel Foxton



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