A Collection Of Negro Traditional & Folk Songs with Sheet Music Lyrics & Commentaries - online book

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Perhaps the best-known song of this type is the familiar I've Been Working on the Railroad, which is sung in many parts of the South. I do not know anything of its origin, nor have I been able to find anyone who does. Hinds, Noble, and Eldridge published an arrange­ment of it in 1900, under the title Levee Song (why Levee?), but they say they know nothing of its history or traditions. It may be a genuine folk-song or it may, as they suggest, have originated in some tramp minstrel show and been taken up as a folk-song. At any rate, it is colorfully expressive of the life of the Negro railroad "hand" in the South. The words, as I give them here, were contributed by Dr. Blanche Colton Williams, formerly of Mississippi.
I've Been Working on the Railroad
I've been working on the railroad,
All the livelong day; I Ve been working on the railroad
To pass the time away. Don't you hear the whistles blowing,
Rise up so early in the morn? Don't you hear the cap'n calling,
"Driver, blow your horn!" ?
Sing me a song of the city,
(Roll them cotton bales!) Darky ain't half so happy
As when he's out of jail. Mobile for its oyster shells,
Boston for its beans, Charleston for its cotton »bales,
But for yaller gals — New Orleans!
Railroad traditions in the South have their heroes, who are cele­brated in the Negro folk-songs. John Henry, or John Hardy, the famous steel-driller of West Virginia, about whom many ballads and work-songs have been made, is a notable example. A volume might be written about his legendary adventure; and the number of songs he has inspired would be extensive, indeed, as John H. Cox has shown in his study of the subject in his recent volume, "Folk-Songs of the South."
But he is not alone in this glory, for other Valhallic figures com­panion him in the Negro's songs—Casey Jones, Railroad Bill, Joseph Mica, and others rival him in the balladry of the rails. There have been current in the South many variants of the first, differing as to

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III