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 Play 

"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]


The melody of the opening line of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" may have been inspired by the very similar melody at the beginning of the cello solo about one minute into Franz von Suppé's 1846 Poet and Peasant overture.[3]


The verses that generally constitute the modern version of the song are:[4]

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 one verse very much like the modern song, though in minstrel dialect, and with an intro that is no longer sung and a very different second verse:[5][6]

(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.[7] "Dinah" was a generic name for a slave woman and, by extension, any woman of African-American descent.[8] 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.[9]

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".[10]

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![11]

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?
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?
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.

"The Eyes of Texas"[edit]

"The Eyes of Texas" is the 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. [13]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album 101 Gang Songs (1961).
  • The song has been used in many Looney Tunes shorts:
    • At the start of the Pepé Le Pew short Touché and Go, a street painter sings "I've Been Working on the Railroad" in French with English words mixed in, and Pepé is later heard singing it in English with altered lyrics.
    • Elmer Fudd sings it in The Unruly Hare and The Wacky Wabbit.
    • In Falling Hare, the gremlin repeatedly strikes the nose of a bomb to the song's tune.
    • In Bugs Bunny's 24 Carrot Holiday Special, Elmer Fudd sings "I've been shoveling the walkway... all the cold, cold day."
  • It is the main theme in Disney's animated short film Out of Scale, featuring Donald Duck and Chip 'n Dale.
  • In Thomas and the Magic Railroad, Diesel 10 sings the song while passing through the Smelter's Yard, though he uses the British term "railway". He only sings the beginning of the chorus and then chuckles and says, "Who wants to work a live long day anyway?".
  • The movie Kelly's Heroes featured tanks playing the song over a loudspeaker after they've finished attacking a railroad depot.
  • The song is one of the four songs sung by a barbershop quartet every few minutes at the Daybreak Parkway TRAX Station in South Jordan, Utah which opened in 2011 as part of UTA's art in transit program
  • In the episode "Elementary School Musical" from season 12 of South Park, Stan Marsh sings the song.
  • While exploring Mementos in Persona 5, Ryuji and Morgana randomly sing the first four lines of the song in the English dub as well as the Japanese translation of the song in the Japanese dub.[14][15]
  • The Chipmunks sing this in Sing Again with the Chipmunks. When televised in The Alvin Show, the song takes place in a TV studio.[16]
  • In Once I Was a Beehive, the girls sang the song on their way to the camp while on the van.
  • Riders in the Sky performed this song on their 2002 album, Ridin the Tweetsie Railroad.
  • Shining Time Station recorded this song on their episode, a place unlike any other.
  • The Main theme for the 2017 Arcade version of Densha de Go!! uses the songs notes but uses lyrics about the game.
  • The instrumental bridge of the They Might Be Giants song "Where Your Eyes Don't Go" (1988) quotes the melody of the "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah" passage.


  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", The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World, California State University, Fresno, retrieved 2013-02-20
  3. ^ Studwell, William Emmett; Cooper, B. Lee; Hoffmann, Frank (1997). The Americana Song Reader. Psychology Press. p. 73. ISBN 9780789001504.
  4. ^ "Folksongs for Everyone", Remick Music Corp. 1962
  5. ^ Carmina Princetonian: The Princeton Song Book, 21st ed. (G Shirmer, 1927), pp. 70–71; cited at Mudcat Cafe.
  6. ^ Carmina Princetonia: The University Song Book, like Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in The Underworld overture. Eighth Edition (Martin R. Dennis & Co., 1894), pp. 24–25.
  7. ^ Fuld, p. 513–514; cited at Mudcat Cafe.
  8. ^ ""Woman's Rights Convention", New York Herald, October 26, 1850 – NOTE 3". U.S. Women's History Workshop. Assumption College. Archived from the original on 2012-08-06. Retrieved 2019-09-17.
  9. ^ Fuld, pp. 255–256; cited at Mudcat Cafe.
  10. ^ Liner notes, Pete Seeger's Children's Concert at Town Hall, Columbia Records, 1963; reissued 1990.
  11. ^ Silber, Irwin; Silber, Fred (1973). Folksinger's wordbook. Oak Publications. p. 103. ISBN 9780825601408. OCLC 248127864.
  12. ^ Mossman, Tam. 1983. The Family Car Song Book. Philadelphia: Running Press
  13. ^ "The Eyes of Texas History Committee Report". The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 9 March 2021.
  14. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Morgana's been workin' on the railroad". YouTube.
  15. ^ "Persona 5: Memento's Japanese Dialogue#1of ???[Hello Japanese Dub]". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-12-05.
  16. ^ "Amazon release info". Amazon. Retrieved 8 November 2020.

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