I've Been Working on the Railroad

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"I've Been Working on the Railroad"
Levee Song from Carmina Princetonia (1898).jpg
I've Been Working on the Railroad, published as Levee Song in the Princeton University compilation Carmina Princetonia, 1898
Written by unknown
Published 1894
Written unknown
Language English
Recorded by The Sandhills Sixteen

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" is an American folk song. The first published version appeared as "Levee Song" in Carmina Princetonia, a book of Princeton University songs published in 1894.[1] The earliest known recording is by the Sandhills Sixteen, released by Victor Records in 1927.[2]

Lyrics[edit]

The verses that generally constitute the modern version of the song are:[3]

I've been working on the railroad
All the live-long day.
I've been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away.
Can't you hear the whistle blowing,
Rise up so early in the morn;
Can't you hear the captain shouting,
"Dinah, blow your horn!"
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow your horn?
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow your horn?
Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone's in the kitchen I know
Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Strummin' on the old banjo!
Singin' fee, fie, fiddly-i-o
Fee, fie, fiddly-i-o-o-o-o
Fee, fie, fiddly-i-o
Strummin' on the old banjo.

The 1894 version includes a verse very much like the modern song, though in minstrel dialect, but with an intro that is no longer sung:[4][5]

(SOLO) I once did know a girl named Grace--
(QUARTET) I'm wukkin' on de levee;
(SOLO) She done brung me to dis sad disgrace
(QUARTET) O' wukkin' on de levee.
I been wukkin' on de railroad
All de livelong day,
I been wukkin' on de railroad
Ter pass de time away.
Doan' yuh hyah de whistle blowin'?
Ris up, so uhly in de mawn;
Doan' yuh hyah de cap'n shouin',
"Dinah, blow yo' hawn?"
Sing a song o' the city;
Roll dat cotton bale;
Niggah aint half so happy
As when he's out o' jail
Norfolk foh its oystahshells,
Boston foh its beans,
Chahleston foh its rice an' cawn,
But foh niggahs New Awleens.

The "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah" section, with its noticeably different melody, is actually an older song that has been absorbed by "I've Been Working on the Railroad". It was published as "Old Joe, or Somebody in the House with Dinah" in London in the 1830s or '40s, with music credited to J.H. Cave.[6] "Dinah" was a generic name for an enslaved African woman.[7] The melody for this section of the song may have been adapted from "Goodnight, Ladies", written (as "Farewell Ladies") in 1847 by E. P. Christy.[8]

According to the liner notes to Pete Seeger's Children's Concert at Town Hall (1963), the "Dinah won't you blow" section is a more modern addition, contributed to the song by "some college students".[9]

A high school glee club songbook circa 1947 used this introduction:

(Lead): I used to have a dog named "Bill"
(Chorus): A wukkin' on de lebee
(Lead): He run away but I'm here still
(Chorus): A wukkin' on de lebee
(Remainder was modern version)

Other extant verses and stanzas[edit]

One extant verse that has been recorded in prominent sources follows the "Singin' fee, fie, fiddly-i-o" verse:

Someone's makin' love to Dinah
Someone's making love I know.
Someone's making love to Dinah
'Cause I can't hear the old banjo![10]

In another version of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" that is printed in "The Family Car Songbook", researched and edited by Tam Mossman, the song continues as follows:

I've been working on the trestle,
Driving spikes that grip.
I've been working on the trestle,
To be sure the ties won't slip.
Can't you hear the engine coming?
Run to the stanchion of the bridge!
Can't you see the big black smokestack
Coming down the ridge?
Chorus
I've been living in the boxcars.
I'm a hobo now.
I've been living in the boxcars,
Which the yard bulls won't allow.
Brother, can you spare a quarter?
Buy me something good to eat?
Brother, can you spare a nickel,
Till I'm on my feet?
Chorus
I'll be owner of this railroad
One of these here days.
I'll be owner of this railroad,
And I swear, your pay I'll raise.
I'll invite you to my mansion,
Feed you on goose and terrapin.
I'll invite you to the racetrack
When my ship comes in.
Chorus[11]

Popularity in Japan[edit]

An adaptation of this song is a very familiar nursery rhyme in Japan, with the same melody and roughly the same subject matter, but with a different title and different lyrics. It is known as "Senro wa tsuzuku yo doko made mo (線路は続くよどこまでも?)", meaning "The railroad continues forever".

NHK introduced this version of the song in 1967 in a TV program called Minna no Uta ("Everyone's Songs").

This tune is used at the stations on the Hanshin Electric Railway Lines (except Umeda Station and Osaka Namba Station) to announce arriving trains and is similarly used at Okayama Station on the Sanyo Line (for Kamigori and Himeji) and the Ako Line (for Banshu-Ako) of West Japan Railway Company.

"The Eyes of Texas"[edit]

"The Eyes of Texas" is the school spirit song of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso. It is set to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" with alternate lyrics written in 1904. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni of the University sing the song at Longhorn sports games and other events.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ James J. Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music, 4th ed. (Dover, 1996), p. 309; cited at Mudcat Café's site Mudcat Cafe.
  2. ^ Waltz, Robert B.; Engle, David G. (2012). "I've Been Working on the Railroad". Folklore The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World. California State University, Fresno. Retrieved 2013-02-30. 
  3. ^ "Folksongs for Everyone", Remick Music Corp. 1962
  4. ^ Carmina Princetonia: The Princeton Song Book, 21st ed. (G Shirmer, 1927), pp. 70-71; cited at Mudcat Cafe.
  5. ^ Carmina Princetonia: The University Song Book, Eighth Edition (Martin R. Dennis & Co., 1894), pp. 24-5.
  6. ^ Fuld, p. 513-514; cited at Mudcat Cafe.
  7. ^ Footnote 3 to "Women's Rights Convention", The New York Herald, October 26, 1850; U.S. Women's History Workshop.
  8. ^ Fuld, pp. 255-256; cited at Mudcat Cafe.
  9. ^ Liner notes, Pete Seeger's Children's Concert at Town Hall, Columbia Records, 1963; reissued 1990.
  10. ^ Irwin Silber, Folksinger's Wordbook, (1973 Oak Publications)
  11. ^ Mossman, Tam. 1983. The Family Car Song Book. Philadelphia: Running Press

External links[edit]

  • Levee Song in Carmina Princetonia: The Princeton Song Book (1898)
  • Discussion of "Someone in the Kitchen with Diana" [sic] at Mudcat Cafe