The Big Money

I wrote this overview of occupational folklore a month or two ago in conversation with folklorist and big man Archie Green. It will appear soon in a truncated version in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.


“Occupational Folklife”

by Brendan Greaves, in conversation with Archie Green

Muscles ache for the knowledge of jobs, for the roadmender’s pick and shovel work, the fisherman’s knack with a hook when he hauls on the slithery net from the rail of the lurching trawler, the swing of the bridgeman’s arm as he slings down the whitehot rivet, the engineer’s slow grip wise on the throttle, the dirtfarmer’s use of his whole body when, whoaing the mules, he yanks the plow from the furrow… One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough.  – John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1938)

We all work. Whether by necessity, compulsion, or choice; whether predominantly physical, intellectual, emotional, or even virtual; whether payrolled, privileged by communal compensation, or outside the purview of dominant political economies, labor––broadly defined––is a precondition for survival, an essential category of both private and social behavior. Such is the human condition, whether we live in thrall to a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers, a communist bloc politburo, or the privatized markets of advanced finance capitalism. In work––an activity and a context that consumes vast tracts of our time and attention, ornately shaping our political consciousness––culture thrives. Such is the assumption that drives the study of occupational folklife (alternately known as “laborlore.”)
We can characterize “occupational folklife” as a contextual net for catching and analyzing ideas about work and culture, not in terms of political economy exclusively, but likewise at a more intimate scale, in terms of what actually happens on a daily basis between working people and their materials, utterances, and actions. The venues for these expressive forms and exchanges are innumerable, both historical and emergent: in the cotton field or in the fish camp; on the shop floor or ship deck; in factory, laboratory, or gallery; in the union hall and on the picket line; deep in cubicle, kitchen, or coalmine; riding high in truck cab, cockpit, or office armchair; in the studio and onstage; on the street corner or in the state penitentiary; in the boardroom, classroom, courtroom, or hospital operating room; facing the fickle glow of audience, computer monitor, welding torch, forest fire, or dwarf star. Any jobsite represents a site of cultural condensations articulated to work, a nexus of overlapping and telescoping milieus, charged fields of social, economic, artistic, and political action.  Occupational folklife encompasses all the expressive culture that radiates from the workplace in concentric circles––extending from onsite job processes, techniques, materials, verbal art, and common knowledge and experience through sartorial styles, housing conditions, unionism, reform movements, political tactics, and other behaviors, values, and objects that may range far afield of the primary work environment (see Green 1972.) Even in an age of breathless global market territorialization, local cultural and ecological variables still determine much about the species, sites, and styles of work; in the American South, for instance, farming families fight to survive alongside multinational corporations.
As we wander through the many worlds of workers, we discover a map of multivalent meanings made of labor and its lack. In work, we encounter a tangle of cultural forms and formations specific to each occupation, an enacted knot of shared belief, tradition, ritual, speech, song, literature, humor, material culture, performance, and politics. However, not all threads of this knot are constructive or affirmative. In work, in its dignity and degradation, its naked economic and political dimensions, we also encounter an often esoteric psychological and physical world of authority, betrayal, anxiety, pride, shame, surveillance, secrecy, solidarity, skill, and artistry. Cultural negotiations of tradition and innovation, affinity and rejection, acquiescence and resistance, collectivity and individuation, and affect and identity exist as immanent within the economic base itself, not just as some theoretical superstructural spire suspended above the grit of our daily grind (Green 2001.) Occupational folklife entails an abstract suite of elusive tensions and collaborative relations as well as the more tangible slang, songs, or artifacts.
Cultural and economic production interpenetrate in the repetitive rhythms of work, which ripple through our individual and collective identities and ideologies. Those identities may be overdetermined or imposed, like socioeconomic class, or volitional, like the dolly grip’s delight in her chosen profession. Deeply ingrained power relations compass the cartographer’s efforts to track the culture of work over time. After all, most of us are employed by others, whom we might respect or resent (sometimes in turn.) All the prismatic facets of workers’ worldviews and expressive practices are coded according to the vectors of power, whether managerial, gendered, ethnic, racial, classed, or pushed by political party or faith. Wedded to production is the inexorable potential for injustice, oppression, and violence. Work offers both freedom from and imprisonment within hegemonic strictures, access to both communal and contested spaces.

The disciplinary history of occupational folklife research reveals this layered potentiality of work culture. Since it is a nearly universally shared modality, we can consider work as a node––perhaps the preeminent node—of the vernacular, the everyday, the folk. Because of that very fixity in everydayness, labor can accrue a patina of banality, both for the worker and the observer. (But beneath that banality blooms a distinctive, often obscure culture.) As such, many researchers and historians have taken occupational folklife for granted, especially when linked to the labor of modernity, the non-exotic, largely mechanized and bureaucratic-managerial labor of the industrial and postindustrial West. Folklorists have historically defined “the folk” according to class, labor, or occupation––and in opposition to modernity––without always acknowledging the Marxian or post-Marxian implications of that slippery, spectral designation of imagined authenticity. Labor historians and cultural studies scholars, like E.P. Thompson in his influential The Making of the English Working Class (1963), have brilliantly documented sweeping labor-capital struggles at the macrocosmic level, but the often overlooked, ingrown details of daily lived reality also inform broader processes of change and class consciousness. A critical mass of expressive culture––protest songs, pickets, and bloggers’ petitions, for example—might act as a catalyst for securing workers’ rights, clearing fresh paths to equity.
Let us take a few moments here at the trailhead to examine the genealogy of the idiom “occupational folklife,” which suffers from derivations and cultural inflections that result from its awkward marriage of terms.  Although occupational folklife enjoys a certain currency in history, anthropology, sociology, communications studies, cultural studies, American studies, and other disciplines, the term is most closely identified with folkloristics and folklorists, who concern themselves most fully with “folklife,” the accumulation of everyday expressive culture, from breakfast food to funeral rites. But the central problematic of definitional scope has never been adequately answered––how should we define “occupational”? Generously, as in the entire range of human labor, from panhandling to presidency, or narrowly, as wage-earning and salaried jobs with a strong group dimension and an oral tradition? Although initially mired in outdated notions of authentically preindustrial, premodern labor, pioneering researchers have since prized open occupational folklife to allow an expansion of scope beyond the blue-collar, embracing the emergent, the industrial and deindustrialized, the high-tech, and the bourgeois and governmental. Central to this refocus was Dan Ben-Amos’s influential definition of folklore as “artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos 1971). After a few centuries of exploring the frontiers of American worklife, both under the rubric of folklore or otherwise, American thinkers finally unloosed occupational folklife from traditional, agrarian, and craft-based occupations and a preoccupation with music––“John Henry” is of course probably the most famous example of American occupational folksong––toward new horizons.
Although early European examples provide academic precedent––Friedrich Friese documented artisans’ customs in Germany as early as 1705, and William Morris celebrated art as work and work as art during the English Arts and Crafts Movement––the first surveys of coherent, collected occupational folklife in the United States occur in literature, especially fiction and memoirs. Rhapsodizing about work and workers is a trope of American letters in which Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and William James all indulged, and in fact the reader might be most familiar with famous fictionalized and vernacular, rather than academic and folkloristic, accounts of occupational folklife. Sometimes the two strains work in dialogue. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the most famous of many devastating slave narratives and autobiographies, details the cruelty and horror of the most pernicious form of American labor; folklorist Roger Abrahams later commented on the subversive function of slave corn-shucking songs. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) explores sperm whaling on technical, historical, and metaphysical levels; folklorist Horace Beck later tackled similar cetacean subjects (William Warner and David Cecelski have also written fascinating studies of Southern maritime folklife.) Other examples abound. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) recounts the author’s symbolic escape from market economies into a life of nominal subsistence living; The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1854) exposes some of the “Prince of the Humbug”’s deceptions and triumphs as calculated business ventures; Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) satirizes a young Twain’s peripatetic search for work and his comic failures as a silver miner and journalist, while his Life on the Mississippi (1883) celebrates steamboat captains and roustabouts; John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (1938) employs modernist textual methods to examine the prewar history of American unionism and the way disparate work experiences forge human consciousness.
The first American folklorists to delve into the culture of workers tended to concentrate on documenting the regional folkways of those professions they perceived as endangered by technology, urbanization, or other socioeconomic shifts. John Lomax’s collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) remains a bellwether, but it excludes even the modest analysis and contextual detail of later efforts like Fannie Eckstorm and Mary Smyth’s Minstrelsy of Maine (1927), which covers the songs of lumberjacks and shanty boys. Beginning with his Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miner (1927), George Korson made a crucial contribution to the field, championing the industrial worker as a skilled artisan and tradition bearer. Still, he abandoned his work with miners once he felt mechanization had entirely superseded the twilight era of human-scale mining. The Depression and the WPA nurtured several South-centered American folklorists with an occupational bent, some of whom embraced social activism and public folklore initiatives as a means of supporting their consultants. Benjamin Botkin, director of the Federal Writers’ Project, sought to topple some of the hierarchies of tradition, collectivity, and authenticity that bridled folklorists; by insisting in the name of cultural pluralism that the modern, the industrial, and the political join the folkloristic discussion, he edged occupational folklife (he coined the term “industrial folklore”) into popular consciousness and toward the Popular Front. In his Palmetto Country (1942), Stetson Kennedy limned the lives of Floridian laborers of all stripes and colors, from Cuban American cigarmakers to Greek spongers to Conch (Key West) fishermen to railroad gandy-dancers; along with Zora Neale Hurston, he also honored the ordeals of African American turpentiners. John Greenway published the exhaustive American Folksongs of Protest in 1953, painting the history of occupational folksong with an explicitly political tinge. Mody Boatright and Américo Paredes furnished two divergent perspectives on Texan work culture—the former through an ethnography of oil workers and cowboys in Texas, the latter explicating Gregorio Cortez, the hero of a tejano border corrido, as a working-class symbol of ethnic and socioeconomic resistance to the marauding Texas Rangers. Similarly, Manuel Peña has examined the tejano conjunto as a musical form specifically articulated to Mexican American working-class identity.
Important occupational folklife research projects and subjects are myriad, but certain influential statements bear some scrutiny. Wayland Hand’s 1969 essay and call-to-arms “American Occupational and Industrial Folklore: The Miner” prefigured Only a Miner (1972), Archie Green’s seminal study of recorded mining songs and their complex web of vernacular, popular, and commercial cultural contexts. An erstwhile shipwright and union activist, Green coined the term “laborlore” in the late 1950’s, and his work as a researcher, archivist, educator, writer, and Congressional lobbyist has helped identify what occupational folklife can be and why it matters. Green has celebrated the culture of work without hierarchical prejudice, whether tracing the arcane etymologies of “wobbly,” “fink,” and “dutchman,” analyzing the visual and sung representations of John Henry and union hero Joe Hill, or engaging the compelling music of Sarah Ogan Gunning, a Kentuckian singer who drew on personal tragedy to interpret traditional Appalachian ballads with grace and nuance and to compose topical anticapitalist protest lyrics of astonishing, gutwrenching power. In 1978, in response to the groundbreakingly varied occupational folklife presentations at the 1976 Festival of American Folklife, Robert Byington curated several theoretically-oriented, forward-looking articles for a special issue of Western Folklore entitled Working Americans: Contemporary Approaches to Occupational Folklife. Drawing from the currents of British cultural studies and his own research with firefighters, Robert McCarl, the author of one of those essays, has buttressed occupational folklife with a rigorous theoretical framework of identity, diversity, and Marxist dialectical materialism. In his serious treatment of visual artists (particularly ceramic and textile artists) as workers, Henry Glassie has reprised William Morris.
More recently, folklorists have contributed a wealth of titles that further the study of occupational folklife, including Doug deNatale’s “The Dissembling Line: Industrial Pranks in a North Carolina Textile Mill” (1990); Patricia Cooper’s Once a Cigarmaker: Men, Women, and Work Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919 (1992); and Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (2008). Since 1995 the Archie Green Occupational Folklife Fellowship has funded UNC-Chapel Hill scholars to investigate an exciting range of topics: African American lumber workers in the Jim Crow South (William Jones); the business of women’s foundations (Cristina Rosa Nelson); the New Left’s relationship to black liberation and the U.S. labor movement (Kieran Taylor); the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis and its position within the contexts of the Civil Rights struggle and local soul music (John Hubbell); and Lumbee sheetrockers and the associated hip-hop scene in southeastern North Carolina (Jefferson Currie). Even in the face of seismic changes, the field of occupational folklife seems inexhaustible, despite its somewhat marginal status within the academy.
Of course, evidence and analysis of occupational folklife need not be academic, or even written; in fact, the most prominent cultural records tend toward other media. We all work, and we all work on work in different ways. Rigid Western cultural dichotomies––vernacular vs. academic, folk vs. fine, low vs. high––might assume strict delineations between cultural insider and outsider, between consultant and critic, but with assiduous cultural work, those specious oppositional poles will continue gradually to melt, giving way to collaborative, holistic evaluations. Today we might view images by professional artists like museum enshrined modernists Thomas Hart Benton and Ben Shahn, which celebrate moments in 20th century American labor, alongside the roughly contemporaneous vernacular art of union organizer and painter Ralph Fasanella and mysterious Cuban American cigarmaker and collage artist Felipe Jesus Consalvos, who created from within and in response to their own work cultures. Today we consume workers’ culture represented in cinema, on television, and (as always) in song, but without always considering what is at stake behind those portrayals, whether nominally fictional or documentary. The songs of Dock Boggs, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie—three 20th-century giants of occupational folksong––will continue to inspire subsequent generations of  protest singers, “revivalists,” and workers. But contemporary audiences might feel more kinship to the working-class anthems of Bruce Springsteen or rappers Ghostface Killah and Lil’ Wayne’s surreal descriptions of drug dealing, economic decay, and despair in the urban ghetto.

Classic cinematic accounts of occupational folklife––from the fictional Citizen Kane (1941), On the Waterfront (1954) and Matewan (1987) to documentaries like Harvest of Shame (1960), The Inheritance (1964), African American Work Songs in a Texas Prison (1966), Salesman (1968), Harlan County, U.S.A. (1977), and the luminous films of William Greaves––must make room for equally relevant pop cultural accounts of contemporary labor-capital and labor-government power clashes like Office Space (1999), The Wire (2002-2008), and Michael Moore’s pop-doc movies. We are transfixed by all these depictions of worklife, but the trick is to reconcile sympathetic, artful representation and thoughtful analysis with real-world action in the ongoing battle against economic injustice and the rampant exploitation of workers. Finance capitalism, unprecedented migration, and dizzyingly accelerating scientific and political technologies have revolutionized the international flow of information, capital, products, and workers, transforming the nature of labor and class. The very study of occupational folklife implies a luxury, an overripe responsibility for advocacy and collaborative intervention, outside the academy and in the streets. How might our research and cultural production actually improve the lot of disadvantaged workers? How might workers access our fiery cultural critiques in order to kindle positive, populist change?


Roger Abrahams, Kenneth Goldstein, and Wayland Hand, eds., By Land and by Sea: Studies in the Folklore of Work and Leisure Honoring Horace P. Beck on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday (1985); P.T. Barnum, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1854); Mody Boatright, Folklore of the Oil Industry (1963); Robert Byington, ed., Working Americans: Contemporary Approaches to Occupational Folklife, a special issue of Western Folklore (July 1978); John Caligione, Doris Francis, and Daniel Nugent, eds., Workers’ Expressions: Beyond Accommodation and Resistance (1992); David Cecelski, The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (2001); Norman Cohen, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (1981); Earl Conrad, Gulf Stream North (1954); Patricia Cooper, Once a Cigarmaker: Men, Women, and Work Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919 (1992); Doug DeNatale, “The Dissembling Line: Industrial Pranks in a North Carolina Textile Mill” (1990); Michael Denning: The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the 20th Century (1997); John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1938); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); Fannie Eckstorm and Mary Smyth, Minstrelsy of Maine (1927); Henry Glassie, Material Culture (1999); Archie Green, Only a Miner (1972), Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations (1993), Calf’s Head and Union Tale: Labor Yarns at Work and Play (1996); and Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture (2001); Archie Green, Utah Phillips, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, and Salvatore Salerno, eds., The Big Red Songbook: 250-Plus IWW Songs (2007); Jon Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest (1953); Wayland Hand, “American Occupational and Industrial Folklore: The Miner” (1969); Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (2008); Zora Neale Hurston, “Turpentine” (1939); Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country (1942); George Korson, Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miner (1927); John Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910); Robert McCarl, The District of Columbia Fire Fighters’ Project: A Case Study in Occupational Folklife (1985); Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851); Américo Paredes, “With a Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958); Manuel Peña, “From Ranchero to Jaiton: Ethnicity and Class in Texas-American Music (Two Styles in the Form of a Pair)” (1985); Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854); Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872) and Life on the Mississippi (1883); Mark Warner, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (1976)


~ by Baldhead Growler on October 3, 2008.

One Response to “The Big Money”

  1. sweet jesus.
    tools of the trade.

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