Work Songs

Inspiration Through Work Songs

Songs that describe work are fun for children to sing-along to, especially if the lyrics match the child's dream career. Not only do these type of songs create energy and excitement in a classroom or at home, they can also help put images in children's minds about how to accomplish things. The following work songs are both fun and useful for kids to learn.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad"

One of the most popular work songs that kids learn in grade school is the folk song"I've Been Working on the Railroad." The song was originally called "Levee Song" and first appeared in a book called Carmina Princetonia, published by Princeton University in 1894. The first known recording of the song was in 1927 by Sandhills Sixteen. The part about "Dinah" came from an earlier song called "Old Joe, or Somebody in the House with Dinah." The lyrics are about the feelings of African Americans and other slaves who helped build America's railroads in the late 19th century.

Carpenter, Carpenter Make Me a Tree

"Carpenter, Carpenter Make Me a Tree" was written by Marion Payton in the late 1970s. The song alludes to a greater power than the storyteller and points to appreciationof the earth's creator. It compares an electrician with someone far greater who can light a star. It also points to the limitation of a farmer who does not have the power to design corn. These comparisons are made to show that no matter how hard one works, there is still a greater power that can do far more.

Oh Suzanna

"Oh Suzanna," also known as "Banjo on My Knee," was a polka-inspired minstrel song written in 1848 by Stephen Collins Foster. The song was based on an earlier song with similar lyrics and melody called "Rose of Alabama," which was written in 1846. Due to so many different minstrel groups using the song, it was copyrighted over 20 times. But after striking a deal with a publishing firm that paid Foster a royalty, he became the first professional songwriter in America. There have been many adaptations of the song to fit different regions of the country beyond Alabama, including a California version about the gold rush. The song has been recorded by many artists including the Singing Dogs, James Taylor and Neil Young.

Banana Boat Song (Day-O)

"Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" was written by an unknown author, most likely from Jamaica where workers sung as they loaded ships with bananas on a dock at night, wanting to go home. At the time Jamaica was controlled by the UK. The song first appeared as a recording in 1952 by Edric Conner, then it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte in 1957. It was included on his album called Calypso, which became the first million selling album in America. The style of music was calypso from Jamaica. The song was later covered by The Fontane Sisters, Steve Lawrence, Sarah Vaughan and Stan Freberg.

9 to 5

One of Dolly Parton's biggest hits in America was "9 to 5" from the movie of the same name. The song, written by Parton, and the plot of the movie focused on work from the perspective of female employees who were over-worked by a male boss. Parton was one of the stars in the movie along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The song became so popular that it forced Sheena Easton to change the name of her work song "9 to 5" to "Morning Train" around the same time period. Both songs hit number one in the U.S. in 1981.