Worksong Advice: "Singing it In" by Max Godfrey

Several months ago I asked Max Godfrey, Georgia worksonger, literature scholar, storyteller and farmer, to write a guest post on this site.  As one of the most clear-thinking, sweet hollering, kindest-hearted friends I have, with an instantly recognizable, all-powerful worksonging voice and technique- I thought he might have some good experience to share with all of you.   It's better than I could've imagined, and here it is.  Enjoy, and good luck singing it in!  - Bennett (9/21/2013)

Singing It In by Max Godfrey 


Before you can use a work song in a work situation, you have to get to know it for yourself.  As with any traditional song, you have to "sing it in," as Heather Wood would say, before you can teach it to others.  Your brain may have memorized the words and the melody, but the brain is nowhere for a work song to live.  Because when you've been harvesting all morning and find yourself out in the field at 3 pm, dog-tired and starving for lunch but still trying to transplant a round of seedlings before the afternoon rainstorm blows in, your brain isn't much good for anything.  Since the moments when work songs are the most important are the moments when the your head and your muscles have started to shut down, a work song must reside in some place deeper within your self if it is going to be of any use.  You have to make a home for the work song in your gut.

In Pine Mountain, Georgia I would often walk out into a neighboring cornfield and sing before work began. And most nights I made a point of singing a couple songs outside my trailer to put myself to sleep.  I would sing very slowly during these moments, sometimes holding out particular notes for a long time, allowing those notes to resonate throughout my body, especially in my belly and my jawbone.  I've found that even highly rhythmic songs, such as Berta Berta, take on a rich, and even captivatingly lonesome character when they are sung with a slower, more spontaneous rhythm.  I leave enough time between lines to hear my voice echoing off the forest at the edge of the field. By slowing the songs down, I've found myself spending ten to twenty minutes running through a work song by myself, settling into a meditative state as I go along.  By singing in solitude, free to make mistakes and improvise, we can take traditional songs we've learned from recordings and make them our own.

Most of the songs I sing I have learned while I've been sitting indoors, with my ears pressed up against a computer speaker.  The same, I believe, is true for many of today's traditional singers.  Most of us haven't grown up with these songs.  We have no faces, no scenes, no smells or memories to connect them to.  But it is the singer's own experiences with a particular song, rather than the melody and lyrics alone, which really bring a song to life and make others want to join in.  For this reason it is all the more important that we spend time with our songs: take walks and measure our steps with them, stop and sing them at sunrise, or while you're coming back home from the field, or while you're doing the dishes, or staring into the wood stove in the evening.  Get to where they mean something to you.  Share them with one or two people at a time and see how they respond, how the rhythm wants to change as they join in.

Eventually the song will start letting you know that it wants to be sung.  Listen to that impulse and follow it, if it means getting out of bed in the middle of the night and stepping out into the cold to sing, or even if it means bursting into song on a sidewalk as strangers walk by. If you obey these impulses, you'll find that you are changing your self to fit the song more than you are changing the song to fit your self.  The song is actually pushing you outside of your comfort zone.  But eventually you'll start to feel at home with it.  Grounded, focused.  And when the week has been too long, the days too wet, too cold, when you're feeling lonely or discouraged, the song will come welling up from your gut and bring peace to your mind.  After singing through it you might even be able to laugh at your troubles.

The sense of peace you feel with the song will come through in your singing, and your fellow workers will draw from it as they join in.  Just remember that before you can use a song as a tool for creating balance within the work crew, you must be singing it from a place of balance.  And more importantly, for a song to bring joy to your fellow workers, you must be singing it from a place of joy.  So find a song that demands something from you.  One that tells you to stop right where you're at and to give some of your self to it, to make some time for it in your day and to make some room for it in your gut.

And then offer it more.  Keep singing and see what it gives back to you.


Max Godfrey on Max Godfrey: As a student of African American Studies and English at University of Georgia, I study literature in hopes of better understanding race in America.  One my my biggest interests is the intersection between storytelling and music.  

YWW 008 - Diamond Joe

Hi Worksongers!Your Weekly Worksong is... Diamond Joe   Background There are actually several songs that people refer to as Diamond Joe.  One is a cowboy song, another is a Woody Guthrie classic, and then there is this one, which has been referred to as a river shanty.  It was recorded first in 1937 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, a prison that is notorious for prisoner abuse and also for the extraordinary music of the inmates who were incarcerated there.  In this case, Diamond Joe was sung by an inmate named Charlie Butler for a Library of Congress collector named Duncan Emerich.   Diamond Jo was the name of a steamer on the upper Mississippi River, the Chicago, Fulton and River Line, commonly called the Diamond Jo line.  The owner of the company was Joseph “Diamond Jo” Reynolds, and the logo of the company was a diamond with the letters JO inside, and it was painted on the boat.  The flagship steamer was named “Diamond Jo” and along with 19 other steamboats they transported cargo and passengers.   We don’t know if Charlie Butler ever saw these steamships (the company sold in 1911), if he wrote the song or just passed it along, but his recording is epic, mysterious, subtle and haunting.  He probably would’ve sung it in the fields at Parchman, which was the home of a prison labor system that David Oshinsky calls “worse than slavery.”  Worksongs were a tradition that helped crews weed fields and chop wood as long as the sun was up.     Where I learned it I learned it from Max Godfrey, who was on the crew at Sylvester Manor in 2010 and 2011.  He has the most incredible rendition, which draws heavily on Charlie Butler but carries his unique style and emphasis.  Definitely check out the film that Andrew Plotsky made of him on   Why it’s a great song: - Great harmonies in the the chorus  - Simple lyrics  - Rhythm doesn’t have to be rigidly locked in - works for big fields    If you try it: - Holler like you mean it!     Check it out: Here is a link to the song on   -  This includes:  - a link to Charlie Butler Version  - lyrics from  - a video of Max leading the song at the Plant & Sing festival on Shelter Island.  - a recording of Max leading it at NOFA-NY Conference 2012 - the original Diamond Jo logo Here is a great discussion on Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David Oshinsky Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues by Bruce Jackson 

Holler back with any questions or ideas!   And let me know if you decide to sing it... -Bennett 

PS.  If you missed past weeks of Your Weekly Worksong, I’ve posted them here...   

Why Worksongs?

Clara Coleman asked me to write up a memorable farming moment... she might use it during her keynote speech at NOFA-VT in February 2013. Here was my response: I remember the first time I led a worksong workshop. It was at the Middlebury College Organic Farm in 2004, and we were spreading mulch hay in the garlic bed. I had just returned from a trip to South Africa researching the Zulu tradition of neighborhood musical crop mobs, and the final part of my project was to get people to do it themselves in America. Well it was tough teaching Zulu songs on top of mulching technique, but we soon had a dozen people belting it out into the cool air of spring at dusk in Vermont.

There was something about that moment that captured farming at its best, for me. It was community coming together to share time with each other. It was innovation, trying on a new approach to our work, on the chance it might make things quicker. And it was just plain fun joking around with each other, making light of what could be seen as mundane or backbreaking. We got something done with our hands and had a good time doing it, out in the open air.

This story, and all of the worksonging we've been doing ever since, speaks to what real farming is, or should be, to me. People in the fields. Neighbors working together. A link to the beauty of the land as the seasons change around us. And a reminder to us as farmers to sharpen one of the most powerful tools in the drawer: our remarkable human ability to put a touch of art into our work to make it more fun, more effective, more real.