YWW 015: Haul Away Joe

Hi Worksongers! Your Weekly Worksong is "Haul Away, Joe" These days I'm teaching a class at Unity College called "Work/Song: Musical Labor in Literature and in Life." It's a blast and so your (occassional) weekly worksongs this fall will be tailored to match the class material as we go along. Hope those of you who aren't in the class enjoy it!

I present this song in honor of Maine's Windjammer Weekend, in Camden Harbor this weekend. It is one of the first worksongs I learned, and it is the very first that I ever tried singing in a farm field, back in 2001 at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, NY.

Haul Away Joe is a classic shanty, most often sung in the way Malcom Ward does in this video.

But then there is this extraordinary version done by Lead Belly, which is mysterious strange and worth listening to if not just for the contrast. Scroll down a bit and you'll see it.

The difference between the versions is the folk process on display, overlaid with the genius of the songsters themselves.

Where I learned it Somewhere on Penobscot Bay, sometime between 1995 and 2000, possibly from Susan Hickey aboard the J&E Riggin.

Why it's a great song: Killer refrain. Mischievous lyrics.

If you try it: It works equally well in the fields as on deck- and for that matter it's also good in the pub. Get a bunch of rowdies together and sing it, loud.

Check it out: Haul Away Joe on worksongs.org with two versions to hear Malcolm Ward's home page Lead Belly's recording and many other great tracks from Smithsonian Folkways An interesting discussion of the Lead Belly Lyrics over at mudcat.org

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...

Upcoming Worksong Sessions- Come holler with us! September 21 - Common Ground Fair, Unity, Maine September 29 - 10:30am - "Worksongs: A Singing Service" at the Unitarian Church, Sag Harbor, NY

"Join Edith and Bennett and the Sylvester Manor Worksongers as we spend a joyous morning singing the songs that they use out in the fields. Much singing will be interspersed with discussion of using music to transform the mundane in the fields, and life in general. "

YWW 14: Reuben Ranzo

Hi Worksongers! Your weekly worksong is... Rueben Ranzo Here's one I learned aboard the schooners in Penobscot Bay, Maine, sometime between 1995 and 2000. Over those years I worked as a deckhand aboard several vessels and picked up lots of songs from my shipmates. There is a long tradition of sea songs and shanties to help bring up the anchor and raise the sails, and the repertoire of simple, fun songs is quite large.

I encountered it again during my Watson Fellowship being sung by a 50-member German sea shanty choir. It had been out of my repertoire until recently, when I came across it in a list of sea shanties by someone named John Ward.


Here is the song on worksong.org, including a rendition with curious anime accompaniment and a group from the 80s called Hedgehog Pie. The J&E Riggin, where I learned most of my sea songs The International Shanty and Sea Song Association has sailing sea shanty festivals in Europe! Good luck, have fun and let me know if you try it out! Bennett

YWW 13: Resources

Hi Worksongers! Instead of a song, this week I want to point out some info I've added to the site.

I Updated the list of traditions by country (Georgia the State to Georgia the Republic) Added a list of uses for songs (From pearl diving to river driving) Added a list of reasons to worksong (like drive off lonliness and critique the boss) Added a bunch of books and recordings to the source library Added a section called "spatial awareness and worksongs"

Here's the first part of that section... enjoy, and check it out the whole thing!

One of the biggest factors in making songs work in the field is the architecture of the space you're worksonging in. Here are some things to think about:

What are the noises around you? Are there trucks, airplanes, birds, tractors, irrigation? How do those sounds help/hinder your work and you music? Is it windy and will that carry the sound away from you? Is there a building / space you could do this work in that would make it sound better? Large open spaces take the sound and it floats away so you have to be louder. What time of day is it? (Sounds carry better in the morning when it is calm and more humid)

Hope this helps you think things through. I wrote this for the Sylvester Manor Worksongers Home Team as part of their weekly class in worksonging. Glad we could share it with you.

Question of the week: How could I make this email better? What would the perfect email have in it? I don't want it to be clutter... so if you have an idea, please let me know! -Bennett

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

Upcoming Worksong Sessions- Come holler with us!

Wednesday July 31, 5pm : Farming with Horses and Work Song Hootenanny North Branch Farm , Monroe, Maine August 8-11, Lunenburg Harbor Folk Festival, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia September 21 - Common Ground Fair, Unity, Maine

YOWW 19: Kulning: Calling Livestock in North America

Hi Worksongers! Up here in Maine the snow is almost melted from the woods but the pastures haven't quite greened up yet.  That still gives us a few weeks to practice up on the ancient Scandinavian art of kulning, or calling livestock with song.  In various parts of Scandinavia the tradition is called Kulning, kaukingkaukning, kulokkerkyrlokker or lockrop.  It's probably most familiar to the world with the swedish term "kulning" so we'll use that.

Traditionally farmers would call their cows, goats and other livestock using these high-pitched hollers, which would echo across the pastures and through the bordering woods and valleys.  The echoing noise was a signal for the livestock to follow the herder out to pasture or to return home in the evening.  The practice is typically associated with women, but there are some archival recordings of men kulning as well.  Here is a remarkable archival film recording the practice in the mid-20th century:

Archival Kulning

And as is the case with herding music throughout the world, the practical use of the song and the space and time available on pasture allowed the shepherds to develop this music into a fine art, which is performed on stage today by both women and men.


I had heard kulning was not really used in pastures today, but doing some web-sleuthing I found a video that included a swedish farmer demonstrating kulning with his flock:

Modern Day Kulning

Kulning uses an interesting approach to scales which includes half-tones and quarter tones, which exist between notes that are found in the western musical scale.  They're kind of like blues notes, and they carry a mournful, wistful quality.  I have heard that these notes were derived from the scales that are naturally made by the overtone reed flute sälgflöjt and that of the similar horns (made from actual animal horns) and the horn and reed flute tunes in the archival film seem to reinforce that idea.

In any case, it's a wild and wonderful art that you have to hear to understand.  A fascinating blend of practicality and beauty, form and function.  Productive fun?  Yes!

On worksongs.org today I made a kulning page that I have uploaded some examples on.  Check them out!

In addition to the videos I mention above, there are some other treats that I will probably add to over time.  So go check it out and pass this on to any friends you think would be interested.

Good luck with your own livestock this spring- and whatever you're singing don't be afraid to get out and holler.  If you give kulning a try let me know how your animals respond- and send me a clip of it in action!

All the best,


PS. This is the first "occasional weekly worksong" with images.  Did it work?  Did you like it?

YOWW 018 : Black Betty

Hi Worksongers, Black Betty: Now here's a song that has so many layers of use and revival it's hard to call it one thing or another. It has been listed as a military marching cadence, prison holler, rock anthem.

And the phrase Black Betty itself has had several different meanings over the years... it was the nickname for the long rifle used in the revolutionary war (mother of the Brown Bess), and in the Texas prison system it was the name the prisoners used for the whip of the guards and the vehicle used to bring prisoners back and forth from the prison. It's also been the slang name for a bottle of whiskey in England, Scotland and America.

There is one of the more thorough wikipedia articles I've ever seen all about Black Betty that you should give a read over as you learn the song. Check it out:

Black Betty on Wikipedia Black Betty Lyrics on worksongs.org The Iron Head Version The Leadbelly Version

One thing I can say is that it works great for stacking wood with a group of people. Anyone can sing the refrain, bambalam, and it's pretty easy to start making up lyrics using the existing form of the song. When we were stacking wood the other day I had a lot of luck by using opposites, ie. Black Betty was up, Black Betty was down, Black Betty in the city, Black Betty in the town...

This trick of using opposites is helpful in any song that requires quick lyrical invention: once you've chosen a noun, the second half of the lyric is already decided for you. Works pretty well in this song.

I know a lot of you have started seeding onions and the like in your greenhouses. This is also a great chance to try on Black Betty because seeding can get kinda mindless and its easy to hear other people inside the greenhouse, unless the fan's on. And if the fan's on you can always harmonize with it.

Anyway, give it a try and let me know how it goes. And shoot me a note if you have any question!

- Bennett

PS. I'm sorry I'm not sending these things out weekly... it's tougher to keep a schedule than I thought it would be, especially since we're still building our house, it's tough to get settled into a routine. But I hope you're enjoying them when I do send them out. And thanks to all of you who have sent encouragement. Feels great to get the feedback. All the best - BK

YWW 017 : Grey Goose

Hi Worksongers, To start your weekend, Haiku:

Culture's beginnings: From the heart of the country Rice planting songs

(Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694)


A couple of geese flew over the other evening. Must be time for the Grey Goose! Let 'er rip!


Chances to Holler: 9/27 Southampton, NY Historical Society, Harvest Day Fair [ http://www.southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org/special-events ], 3-5p 10/13 Planting Garlic at Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island [ http://sylvestermanor.org/event/celebrate-the-farm-and-our-new-barn/ ], NY, 9am-1pm. 12/5, 12/6 Young Farmer's Conference at Stone Barns [ http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/articles/2012-young-farmers-conference-1.html ], Pocantico Hills, NY 12/15 Worksong Workshop, Coventry Farmer's Market, Coventry, CT

See you there! Bennett

PS. What do *you* want from these worksong emails? Reply with a few words to help me help you get to worksongin'. Thanks!

YWW 16 : Singing it In With Max Godfrey

Hi Worksongers! Several months ago I asked Max Godfrey, Georgia worksonger, literature scholar, storyteller and farmer, to write a guest post on worksongs.org. 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.

So he wrote something up and I'm sending it out to you today for some weekend inspiration.

Here is a teaser...

...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.

Truthfully, I'm not sure anyone has ever written five better paragraphs than these about how to learn a worksong. So take a minute and check out this piece. I know you'll enjoy it.

Check it out:

Here is a link to "Singing it In" by Max Godfrey

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


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

Upcoming Worksong Sessions- Come holler with us!

Today at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine: 11am: I'll join the Gawler Family and we'll sing a worksong or two along with other trad music 3p: Songs of Lumbering and Riverdriving: a rousing roundtable for worksongs of the woods.

YWW 015 - Chased Old Satan Through The Door - June 15, 2013

Hi Worksongers! Your Weekly Worksong is "Chased Old Satan Through the Door" aka. "Starry Crown" aka "Over There."

It's a song that is usually attributed to the Woodie Brothers from the northwest corner of North Carolina in the Ashe County area. They recorded it on Friday, May 29, 1931 in Charlotte, NC, but beyond the Zonophone record (which only sold 864 copies!) I couldn't find much about this band itself. Any case, their recording is great - it was uploaded to the web by a fellow named Michael Robertson- and I saw it on the Field Recorder's collective Facebook page. Check it and another great version out by following this link over to worksongs.org!

Where I learned it

From Mia Friedman, the great fiddler/songster out of Newton, Massachussets. She's got a new album out with her sister Ari and it's on there. Pretty sure I learned it from her at Maine Fiddle Camp several years ago, though. There is a video of Mia, Ari, Eden MacAdam-Somer and Sarah Jarosz playing it here on the song's page at worksongs.org

Why it's a great song:

Peppy rhythm and a memorable hook Great harmony opportunities Easy to invent lyrics because of the simple verse structure I taught it to the crew down at Sylvester Manor this week and everyone had smiles on their face learning it. I'm convinced that even if it wasn't traditionally a worksong it makes a great one in today's context.

If you try it:

Find someone to sing it with that is great at harmonies. Bumps the song up several notches!

Check it out:

Here is a link to the song at worksongs.org Here is an interesting mudcat discussion about the song The Field Recorder's Collective Ari & Mia sing it on their new album "Land on Shore" Maine Fiddle Camp

Holler back with any questions or ideas!

And let me know if you decide to sing it...


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

Upcoming Worksong Sessions- Come holler with us!

Tuesdays and Thursdays in June at 3pm at Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, NY (Let me know in advance (bennett@worksongs.org ) if you want to join us.)

Wednesday July 31, 5pm : Farming with Horses and Work Song Hootenanny at North Branch Farm, Monroe, Maine

August 8-11, Lunenburg Harbor Folk Festival, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

September 21 - Common Ground Fair, Unity, Maine

Songs of the Lalaworlor: Musical Labor on Ghana’s Fishing Canoes

Songs of the Lalaworlor:  Musical Labor on Ghana’s Fishing CanoesA Paper Presented at Mystic Seaport’s Music of the Sea Symposium Germanville Church,  Mystic, CT   -  Saturday June 14, 2008

By Bennett Konesni           



It's 3 a.m. in Nungua Township and I'm stretched out on a cot in a small, sticky room in front of a whirring fan. Suddenly there is a knock and a gruff voice, and I groggily throw on a t-shirt and swing my legs down to the floor.  It’s time to fish.

Six days a week in harbor towns all along Ghana’s palm-fringed coast, teams of fishermen make their way down to wooden canoes perched and waiting on the beach. They begin their work at a time of day most people sleep, those hours after the partygoer sleeps and the shopkeeper wakes.   In the dark, the men skid their boats off the sand and into the water, pointing the canoes directly into the roaring surf.

During the fall of 2005 I spent two months in Ghana recording and learning the way the local fishermen sing while they work.  I spent my time with members of the Ga tribe, a group of 300,000 people who live on a narrow 200-mile stretch of coast around Ghana's capitol city, Accra.   This tribe is legendary for their abilities as fishermen.    People here say that they eat mainly fish, look like fish, and even sing like fish.

Nungua, a sprawling township formed around an old fishing village, is home to over a dozen musical fishing teams.  A few mornings each week I woke up early to go along as a member of one of the teams, to help ply the depths using threadbare nets and powerful songs.

Each morning's early wake-up call leads to a white-knuckle ride through the breaking waves off the beach, and then ample big-net fishing in the few hours on either side of dawn.  In time I grow to enjoy the routine and eagerly anticipate the rush of pushing off the beach into the foam.  The boatswain of our craft, Bortey Radi, idles the engine and we all pause, waiting for a lull in the surf like a jaywalker seeking an opening in a sea of speeding taxis. Then he guns the engine and we plow through the spray, ending up on the long, rolling swells of the Gulf of Guinea.

It's 45 minutes before we reach the favored fishing grounds.  We seek anchovies, what the Ga call Armoni, a favorite local treat that can be seen smoking atmospherically in traditional red-clay ovens on shore.  To catch these fish the men post a lookout in the bow, peering down at the dark water running alongside the boat.  If he sees silvery sides glinting in the moonlight he shouts, and the others immediately begin to cast 600 meters of net out over the side of our speeding, leftward-turning canoe.

The net is 600 meters long and 180 meters wide and each edge is lined by a long rope, one sporting colorful styrofoam floats, the other heavy steel rings.  Trapping the fish involves cinching the bottom edge of the net together and leaving the other  edge floating on the surface.  This creates an enormous dish of netting about the size of two football fields, which, on good days, is chock full of splashing, writhing sea life including fish, snakes and occasionally sea turtles.

It is during the cinching that the songs begin.  The song leader- who is called the lalaworlor- starts a lone call.   Then in powerful harmony everyone responds, reaching forward and hauling straight back on the cinch rope as they sing. The men sit one or two per bench, with their feet dangling down into the hold or propped up against the bench in front of them. The rope runs down the length of the canoe and each man grabs onto the length closest to him and hauls.  As each man pumps forward and back he sings, responding to call of the lalaworlor.


One of the lalaworlor's jobs is to create a good tempo for the rest of the workers.  They in turn sing improvised patterns that follow and elaborate on the lalaworlor's basic beat. The songs are arranged simply, with a lone voice urging the group to respond, but the simplicity of the call/response format contrasts markedly with the complex rhythms created by the crew.

For example, if a song has a simple two-beat feeling (one, two, one, two) some of the fishermen will respond by dividing each single beat into three (one-and-a, two-and-a, one-and-a, two-and-a).  Meanwhile the leader continues with the original two-beat feel. This overlay of duple and triple meters forms the basis of polyrhythm in the canoes, and provides a palpable sense of momentum as the workers sweat and strain on the ropes and nets full of fish.

While some men love employing triplets and the sense of three in their singing, others will syncopate their singing so that the emphasis is just opposite that of the leader. Still others give swooping, anticipatory pick-ups to the constant repetitions of phrase—another device that keeps the song, and the workers, in locomotion.

As much as the songs are influenced by rhythmic vocal creativity, they are shaped by each individual’s movements. When a man is feeling exuberant he stands up on the bench in front of him, grabs the rope and then springs backward, ending up flat on his back on his own bench. Most of the others in the boat get pulled along with this charade, and so does the song, accelerating briefly, then settling back into its regular rhythm. The crew grins, and some laugh, and everyone keeps hauling and singing.

Though the songs set the rhythm of the work, they do not rigidly determine it as one might expect. Instead all of the elements that are connected at sea—voices, ropes, and the ocean—combine in a rough and constantly shifting equilibrium of environment and sound.

One reason for this is necessity: the net is immersed in the rolling sea. As it is dragged over and around obstacles it gets alternately harder and easier to pull. As waves approach the boat, the net is sucked away from the canoe, making it almost impossible to haul in.  Then, as the swell passes under the boat, the rope can be pulled rapidly, hand over hand.

The musicians must respond to these changes by altering their bodily rhythm, which in turn affects the musical rhythm.  The sonic experience of working on a Ga fishing canoe is thus sculpted by the interaction between sea floor, netting, workers, and the pulsing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. 


The fishermen sing about a wide range of topics, from the mundane to the divine.  Songs about everyday life feature prominently, on topics ranging from goats to grandmothers.   One song describes a courtship between two young goats and their grandfather’s approval.  Another boasts about the strength and longevity of the old women in Nungua as compared to the grandmothers in other villages along the coast.  A third laments a wayward lover who sleeps with another man and returns home at dawn.

Many songs include an improvisational element that engages the workers.  During  song about the grandmothers, “Yomo Begga,” the lalaworlor inserts at random the names of nearby towns.  By choosing different towns at different times the lalaworlor keeps the crew listening and laughing when he comes up with a new, unexpected town.

Other songs are about the fish that swim below the boats, and the practice of fishing them.  One song says, in Ga, “Kanye Nonyemono Beleo” or “No one owns the sea.”  As it explores the wild and unpredictable nature of the ocean, the song expresses the belief that its resources are not for any one person to exploit.   This song is frequently sung back to back with a simple verse that warns the group about disobeying God’s wishes.

These songs are not long ballads with verse upon verse of storytelling.  Instead, they are generally comprised of just one or two lines, a call and a response, with perhaps a chorus to cap it off.  With their cryptic meanings and rhythmic repetitions, these snippets of lyricism are something like an incantation, or a chant.   But the simplicity of the lyrics does not reflect the complexity and power of the messages.  Social, environmental, and religious norms are reinforced through these songs, giving the fishermen ideas to chew over as they haul and sing, haul and sing. 


Melodically, the songs are simple but catchy: they use some or all of the notes from the major scale, rarely straying into complex chromatic or modal sounds characteristic of Islamic northern Ghana and parts of neighboring West Africa.

Melodic phrases take many shapes, but a dominant shape in these songs can be characterized by a slight rise from the 3rd or 5th of the scale, followed by a long downward movement toward the tonic, or root feeling of the song.

Another important feature of the melodies seems to be that they can change.  Improvisation around a theme is used by lalaworlors to keep their crew listening, to vary the routine after hours of intense and demanding physical work.  This improvisation, which involves quick, nimble departures from an established melodic line, mirrors the improvisational approach to the lyrics mentioned above.

Some of the songs have a very minimal melodic component, focusing instead on the rhythm of the words as they come out of the singer’s mouths.  To me, these songs begin to resemble the industrial electronica found at late night dance clubs in cities: dense, trance-inducing sounds that force everything but the beat out of your skull. Furthering the effect, certain lalaworlors will even change their voices over the course of the song, from sweet and soulful to gravelly and rough, almost machine-like sounds. In doing so they create a musical texture that is constantly shifting, even as they sing the same melody for 30 minutes or more.           


Harmonies used by the fishermen can be simple or complex.  Sometimes thirds and fifths are as far as the fishermen will go.   But at other times the group builds complex layers of tones on top of the simple melodies, branching into lush chords employing tones beyond 3 and 5.   Strong resonant 7th chords can be heard, along with what almost sounds like tonal clusters.  The ragged voices of the singers, who are focusing on the work at times more than the song, sometimes slip into a tonally fuzzy area that is a step outside traditional hymnody of the spirited Ghanaian church choirs on shore.  This involves adjacent tones and even quarter tones, which, though they are accidental, are an important part of the general feel of the music.

Typicallly, the leader starts with the high arcing melody that is responded to by the group in anything from near-unison to four or six part harmonies. A few low voices hold down the bottom end, while the workers quite easily sing high, tight harmonies around the melody set by the lalaworlor.   These harmonies are not arranged.  Each person sings different parts or lines as they wish, and some people switch between low and high parts during the same song at their own whim.

Harmonically, each song is different: some are rich and dense but only last five or 10 minutes- similar to those sung by the church choirs-  where others last longer but have less emphasis on harmony, focusing instead on the rhythmic textures of the words.

This flexible and improvisatory approach to harmony matches similar attitudes toward melody and lyrics by the fishermen, which reflects the shifting nature of workplace demands.  Some tasks, like the initial looping of the net, take low-energy sustained effort.  It is at these points, when less energy and breath is being put into the work, that the most harmonies are employed.  Other times, such as during the strenuous period closing the bottom of the net, the fishermen sing songs that require less breath and less energy for harmonies.  These are the songs that are more trance-like, driving rhythmic numbers that may emphasize unison to the point where all of the men are singing one rhythmically driving but harmonically and melodically simple chant.            

Music and the Sea

One morning I noticed the boatswain, a calm and focused middle-aged man, putting his ear down to the rail of the canoe. At first I thought he was just tired: it was four in the morning and most of the crew was wearily stretched out on the canoe's benches and piles of net.  But he wasn’t tired.  He was checking for fish.

"Some of the fish shout as they swim past the boat," Bortey explained. "We put our ear on the canoe and can hear them as they go by." It was the fisherman's equivalent of a hobo putting his ear to a railroad track to listen for a coming freight train. "Does it work with steel boats?" I asked. "No, only wood. You can also use the wooden boat hook or a wooden paddle. And if you crouch in the bottom of the canoe you can hear them, too."

Of the 20 or more types of fish the fishermen catch, only six of them shout. Listening through the handle of a wooden paddle I heard the high whistle of one type, moi. Two other varieties also whistle, another two make low grunting noises, and one makes a soft "kwa kwa, kwa kwa." That fish is named after its shout—kwa kwa.

It occurred to me that perhaps the fish use a type of sonar to navigate. Or maybe the fish, like their fishermen, are singing. Any way you imagine it, listening for fish through the hull of the canoe is an extraordinary concept: the canoe becomes not just a staging ground for musical fishing, but also an enormous 90-foot amplifier that, when used properly, helps the fishermen locate their quarry- singing fish

The boat serves as an amplifier in another way. The men stand or sit on the benches and sing, and as they sing the sound moves down into the hull of the boat, which—empty of net—becomes a long echo chamber in which the sound resonates. A cross-section of the hull reveals a big U, about four feet deep and six feet wide. The sound goes in, bounces around and fires back out at the workers seemingly louder than when first sung. You can duplicate this effect at home by facing the corner of the room about two feet away from either wall. Then sing or shout directly at the corner in front of you. The sound will bounce back loud and clear in both ears, almost as if you're wearing headphones. That's what it's like working on the benches of a musical canoe.

Furthermore, if you crouch down in the hold as the work goes on you can literally feel the vibrations from the noise of the fishermen’s songs.  The wood of the canoe, some 4 inches thick and held together with iron nails made from old automobile shock absorbers, vibrates with the energy from rousing bursts of noise from the crew

At the same time the boat vibrates from the ropes coming in over the rail. The rope is about the thickness of a man's thumb, and its corrugated strands rub a groove in the wood where they come in from the sea.  In these places the rope is stretched very tight against the wood and the resulting fiction causes the whole boat to shudder.  When the men pull in time with the music, certain beats get an added bass "thrum" from the taught lines.  In general these thrums come on the first and third beat in a song with a feeling of four, i.e. beats one and three in a four-beat measure. 

Ocean as Stage

This link between action, sound and song opened my ears to other sonic phenomena out on the water, like the voices of other fishing teams floating over to our boat as we do our work. On an average morning there are between 50 and 150 canoes out on the stretch of coast around Nungua.  When the giant schools of fish move right in next to the coast, every seaworthy canoe that can be manned heads out to bring in the catch. Other days, when the fish have moved elsewhere, fewer canoes can be seen on the gulf.

Since the fish move in schools, it is common to see a handful of canoes in a clump around a school of fish. Sometimes one canoe will set its net and begin hauling it in, and if it is full of fish, another fishing team will come along and set their net in a giant circle around the first. They catch any fish that made it out of the first net. So it's common to be near other canoes, and as a result you can often hear them singing. At times you can hear two or three teams singing in addition to your own. Some are far off and faint, others only half a football field away. The songs cross and collide with each other like ripples in a puddle.

Other sounds inform the musical experience on these fishing canoes: the metal rings attached to the net rattle and clang as they go over the side during the casting, and then rattle and clang again as they are brought aboard during the hauling. The water sloshes around in the open bilge and occasionally someone will hop down in to bail. These actions contain a rhythm of their own.

And when the net has mostly been hauled on board, the terns circle and dive into swirling pools of fish at the side of the canoe. They add their own shouts to those of the fish and the men.  The fishermen are tuned into all of these noises, and they use them as clues to finding fish. They also use their eyes to watch for birds and for the fish as they dart through the water. They use the sky, checking weather patterns throughout the day and the seasons, as well as the flight patterns of the terns and seagulls. They also look for clues in the water, like the color and the currents. When the breeze is off the land it causes the water from the deep to churn up to the surface and this causes the fish to scatter.

The nuances of sight and sound on the water are well understood by the fishermen, who use them to find their fish.  That knowledge, combined with the uplifting pulse of their songs, it is enough to keep them successfully working for six hours or more. As morning moves toward mid-day, they haul in the net hand over hand while standing on the slippery, rocking planks that doubles as a deck. They feed the net into the hold as barking, black-capped terns gather in a cloud and dive-bomb the panicked anchovies.

After a time most of the net is piled in the bottom of the canoe and the sea churns white as the fish are corralled alongside the canoe.  The singing stops and the men grab the edges of the net and with one last heave bring the wild catch on board. Bushels of writhing, slippery creatures slide over the gunwales, fish that will in a few short hours be sold directly from the boat on the beach, to be cooked by townspeople for lunch.                 


The words work and performance  are often linked in discussions of labor and productivity.  Factory managers constantly monitor the workplace performance of their employees, looking at efficiency, output, profit and other metrics that describe just how well everyone is performing.

It is not much different in Ga canoes, but in this case the fishermen are concerned not only with their workplace performance- how many fish they catch and how quickly they catch them- but also the performance of their music.  The energy and quality of the singing, the choice of repertoire, the movements of the workers- all are important because they affect the efficiency of the group.

Work as performance is key concept in understanding the nature of Ga musical fishing communities.  With its joyful shouts and flashy movements, catching fish becomes a performance on multiple levels, whose benchmarks include both the quality of the singing and the quantity of the fish.

Thus work and play are intertwined in the canoe.  The act of singing transforms mornings on the Gulf of Guinea into an activity that is something between work and play.   Because of this transformation, the fishermen are able to overcome the extreme physical hardship of pulling ropes and nets for hours at a time as cold wet night turns to hot equatorial day.

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.  

Reuben Ranzo

Oh, poor old Reuben Ra-an-zo.
Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo!
Oh, poor old Reuben Ra-an-zo.
Ranzo, boy-ees, R-r-ran-zo!

His father was a New York ta-i-lor.
Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo!
An' shipped 'im aboard a wha-ler.
Ranzo, me boys, R-r-ran-zo!

But Ranzo was no beau-u-ty.
Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo!
He could not do his du-u-ty!
Ranzo, me boys, R-r-ran-zo!

For Ranzo was no sai-i-lor.
Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo!
No use aboard a wha-i-ler.
Ranzo, me boys, R-r-ran-zo!

But 'e worked on nav-i-ga-ashun, Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo! T' fit 'im for 'is stay-ay-shun. Ranzo, me boys, R-r-ran-zo!

Now 'e's Captain ov a Black-ball li-i-ner.
Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo!
An' nothin' could be fi-i-ner.
Ranzo, me boys, R-r-ran-zo!

But Ranzo was no sai-i-lor.
Ranzo, me boys, Ranzo!
No use aboard a wha-i-ler.
Ranzo, me boys, R-r-ran-zo!

Here is another, longer, R-rated set of lyrics from mudcat.org:

Ranzo was no sailor.
He was a New York tailor

He was a New York tailor.
Shanghai'd aboard a whaler

Ranzo was no beauty.
He could not do his duty'

He done his hair with oil.
But he could not furl a Royal

They put him holystonin'.
And cared not for his groanin'

He washed once in a fortnight.
He said it was his birthright

The captain ordered thirty.
Because he was so dirty

The captains daughter, Lucy.
She loudly begged for mercy

They gave him lashes twenty.
That's twenty more than plenty

She took him to her cabin.
And tried to ease his moanin'

Ranzo nearly fainted.
When his back with oil was painted

She gave him wine and whisky.
Which made him feel damn frisky

She gave him rum and water.
And a bit more than she oughter

She gave him education.
And taught him navigation

She made him the best sailor.
On board that Yankee whaler

He married the captain's daughter.
And still sails on salt water

But now he is the skipper.
Of a smart New Bedford clipper

He's known wherever them whalefish blow.
As the toughest old bastard on the go.

Walkin' Down the Line


Dylan Lyrics:

Well, I’m walkin’ down the line,
I’m walkin’ down the line
An’ I’m walkin’ down the line.
My feet’ll be a-flyin’
To tell about my troubled mind.

I got a heavy-headed gal
I got a heavy-headed gal
I got a heavy-headed gal
She ain’t feelin’ well
When she’s better only time will tell


My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
And rolls and flows and rolls and flows
Through the holes in the pockets in my clothes


I see the morning light
I see the morning light
Well it’s not because
I’m an early riser
I didn’t go to sleep last night


I got my walkin’ shoes
I got my walkin’ shoes
I got my walkin’ shoes
An’ I ain’t a-gonna lose
I believe I got the walkin’ blues



Gawler Version, Folk Processed

I’m a walkin’ down the line
I’m a walkin’ down the line
I’m a walkin’ down the line, My feet’ll be a flyin’
Just ta tell ya ’bout my troubled mind

I got my walkin’ shoes
I got my old walkin’ shoes
I got my walkin’ shoes, I ain’t a gonna loose
I do believe I got them walkin’ blues

I saw the mornin’ light
I saw the mornin’ light
You know It ain’t because I’m an early riser
I just didn’t get to sleep last night

‘Cause I was walkin’ down the line…
I was walkin’ down the line
Walkin’ down the line, my feet’ll be a flyin’
Just ta tell you bout my troubled mind

My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
It rolls and it flows through the holes
In the pockets of my clothes

Molasses Rum

Oh, the African man cuts the sugar cane
Oh, molasses
He works in the sun and he works in the rain
Oh, molasses rum
Then he loads it up on a wooden ship and he sends it off on a northern trip

Singing, oh molasses, oh molasses rum
Oh, molasses Old New England tea
It killed my grandpa, killed my pa
And it sure as Hell is killing me
Singing, oh molasses, oh molasses rum

When they fought the war for the colonies…
They fought it over New England tea…
When Old King George put a tax on it the colonies nearly took a fit…

In the time of the 1917 war
Molasses sitting on the Boston shore
When they pumped it in it was twelve degrees, a long cold night in a Boston freeze

In the morning it was 42
Molasses vat split clean in two
Two million gallons covered the bay, 26 people drowned in the flood that day

My grandpa he died cutting cane
My pa went down in the great brown rain
But I won’t go in a pool of blood, no I won’t drown in a black-strap flood
Still, I’ll go down to molasses, oh molasses rum

This song was taught to me by Jonathan Cannon, who learned it at Brown University where he helped maintain this site:  arrr.net


Gotta See it To Believe It


I got a goat  
I got a goat
That can carry a boat
That can carry a boat
You got to see it to believe it, well
You got to see it to believe it.

I got a lamb
That’s big as a ham

I got a flea
That’s big as a tree

I know a dude
That’s a never-nude

I got a jane
That can drive me insane

I got a boat
That can carry a goat

This song was written by the Sylvester Manor farm crew (aka Worksonger Home Team) June 18, 2013 as an exercise in their weekly worksonging class.


Chased Old Satan Through The Door

Well, I got no skillet and I got no lid
But the ash cake tastes like shortening bread
And I'm gonna wear that starry crown over there

Over there, over there
I'm gonna wear that starry crown over there
For I got no skillet and I got no lid
And the ash cake tastes like shortening bread
And I'm gonna wear that starry crown over there

Now I met old Satan down the lane
And I hit him in the head with a walking cane
And I'm gonna wear that starry crown over there


Now I chased old Satan around the stump
And I gave him a kick with every jump
And I'm gonna wear that starry crown over there


Now I run old Satan through the door
And I hit him in the head with a two-by-four
And I'm gonna wear that starry crown over there


Mudcat discussion

YWW 010 : Woah Back Buck

Your Weekly Worksong is... Woah Back Buck On Tuesday an old song that I only half-knew popped into my head in the field, and it grabbed everyone right off. It's called "Woah Back Buck" and I found some lyrics and recordings, learned it right, and yesterday we used it planting hot peppers. Now here it is for you.


Whoah Back Buck is a classic song performed by iconic worksonger Huddie William "Lead Belly" Leadbetter. (People often write "Leadbelly" but he wrote "Lead Belly" so that's what I use.) If you haven't run into him he is an American music icon, taking his experience on prison chain gangs and communicating it through his incredible music to the rest of the world. He is the guy who brought "Good Night Irene" to the world and his music has been covered by almost everybody... including Elvis, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra, the White Stripes and Nirvana.

Where I learned it

I went through a serious delta blues phase back in 7th and 8th grade and ran into Lead Belly's recordings back then. It wasn't until I met Jeff Davis of Woodstock, Connecticut, in 2006, that I learned that Lead Belly would singing "Woah God Damn" in some versions and "Cunningham" in others. Legend has it "God Damn" was oxen-driver language and and "Cunningham" was better for polite company.

Why it's a great song:

Simple, rhythmic drive in the chorus, but not overdone... really distinct and interesting. Some of the best old songs have a keen edge to them, and this is no exception. Sometimes it can be cathartic to do all that cussin' and grinnin'.

If you try it:

I've found a copy of both the God Damn and the Cunningham and put it up on worksongs.org - you might learn both in case you're worksonging out with your grandmother. And if you're teaching it, I found it helped to just loop the chorus a bunch of times. When you're out in the field there's plenty of time to just loop it so everyone gets into the rhythm and feels the groove before you start getting into the verses.

Check it out:

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

YWW 009 - Tiny Bubbles

BackgroundThis one is written by a pop singer called Don Ho and it is one of the cheesiest songs on the planet. But it is a great beginner’s worksong because it is easy to follow, easy to lead, and it is so ridiculous that it makes people smile.

Where I learned it In the stands of the Middlebury College Hockey Rink. It was a fight song. Strangest fight song you’ll ever hear, but there it was. I only learned that it was sung by Don Ho the other day when I taught it during a worksong session at Sylvester Manor. There are some terrible videos online, please spend your time on something more worthwhile- Don Ho actually sang this on stage with a bubble machine. It’s dreadful, really.

ALL THAT SAID, I do love being out in the field and ripping into this song- the cheese factor’s not going to stop me. It forces you to erupt into some kind of joyful noise, and it makes people chuckle when things are getting too serious, and sometimes that’s the most important thing.

Why it’s a great song: - It’s so easy, even a caveman can do it. - Each line is short. - The notes of the melody move stepwise up and down the scale. - To respond you just sing exactly what the leader sang, and that’s never more than two or three words. And the theme is easy- think of things that have (or don’t have) bubbles in them.

There are so few lyrics in the original song that it enforces inventiveness! It’s a great song for practicing the art of making up lyrics on the fly. When people hear this song they catch on quickly, and they end up thinking: hey, maybe I can be a worksonger... So it builds people’s confidence, it’s fun, and it adds a touch of the ridiculous to your day.

If you try it: - hold out the Tiiiiiiiny. It’s just more fun, and you can practice taking a huge breath and singing out. - there are actually more non-alcoholic bubbly drinks out there than you think - the Hawaiian shirt is optional.

Check it out: Here is a link to the song on worksongs.org - This includes: - A recording from the workshop I taught last weekend - Starter lyrics - No links to the regrettable Don Ho version. If you want to see that you have hunt for it yourself.

That’s about it. As far as I know there are no discussions about the provenance of this song on ethnomusicological websites, no recordings in the Library of Congress, and no earnest books unpacking the cultural significance of the song and its iterations. So relax, have fun, and cut loose.

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

I wish I wish My Baby Was Born


I wish, I wish my baby was born,
And sitting on its papa’s knee.
And me, poor boy, were dead and gone,
And the green grass growing over my feet

I ain’t a hater, nor never will be
‘Til the sweet apple grows on the sour apple tree,
But still I hope the time will come
When you and I shall be as one

I wish I wish my love had died
And sent his soul to one wander free
Then we might be where ravens fly
Let our poor bodies rest in peace

The owl the owl is a lonley bird
It chills my heart with dread and terror
That someone’s blood there on it’s wing
That someone’s blood there on it’s feather

Martin Said To His Man

Martin said to his man, fie, man, fie
Martin said to his man, who’s the fool, now
Martin said to his man, Fill thou the cup and I the can
Thou hast well drunken man, who’s the fool now

I saw the man in the moon, fie, man, fie
I saw the man in the moon, who’s the fool, now
I saw the man in the moon, I heard a banjo play in tune
Thou hast well drunken, man, who’s the fool, now

I saw the goose ring the hog, fie, man, fie
I saw the goose ring the hog, who’s the fool, now
I saw the goose ring the hog, saw the tail chase the dog
Thou hast well drunken, man, who’s the fool, now

I saw the mouse chase the cat, fie, man, fie
I saw the mouse chase the cat, who’s the fool now
I saw the mouse chase the cat, Saw the cheese eat the rat
Thou hast well drunken, man, who’s the fool now

I saw the hare chase the hound, fie, man, fie
I saw the hare chase the hound, who’s the fool, now
I saw the hare chase the hound, Twenty miles above the ground
Thou hast well drunken, mn, who’s the fool, now

I saw a flea heave a tree, fie, man, fie
I saw a flea heave a tree, who’s the fool now
I saw a flea heave a tree, twenty miles out to sea
Thou hast well drunken, man, who’s the fool now

Martin said to his man, fie, man, fie
Martin said to his man, who’s the fool, now
Martin said to his man, Fill thou the cup and I the can
Thou hast well drunken man, who’s the fool now