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"I've Been Working on the Railroad" - Traditional

History of an American Folk Song




photo: Getty Images

It's hard to imagine folk music, trains, and railroads existing in this country without one another. Not only have countless folksingers (famous and completely unknown) made their way around the country by train - Woody Guthrie, Utah Phillips, and Bob Dylan among them - but some of the greatest American folk songs of all time can be traced back to the building of the railroads, the advent of train travel, and, of course, the riding of the rails during the Depression. It was at that time when working class men and immigrants (and, as mentioned, folksingers) traveled on trains in search of work.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad", however, may just be one of the best known folk songs about the U.S. railway system. The song is so pervasive, it's included in recordings aimed at children, though children rarely learn all the lyrics originally intended in the song, as some of those were incredibly racist and deeply offensive.

You may know our nation's railroads were built primarily by African-Americans and immigrants (particularly Irish immigrants). It was grueling work and, like much grueling work, was no doubt made more tolerable by the presence of music (similarly to the way field calls and African-American folk songs developed out of the slave tradition).

In the case of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," the telling line is "...all the livelong day." These men really did back-breaking work that lasted well beyond the hours of labor now acceptable in our society.

You may also know the refrain that talks about someone being "in the kitchen with Dinah." This is from another folk song published in London in the 1830s. According to Wikipedia, "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." (This note was credited to the Mudcat Cafe, which is an excellent source for lyrics and the history of songs, by the way.)

Some believe "Dinah" to be a reference to the cook in the kitchen on the train. Others believe it to be a generic reference to an African-American woman. At any rate, in addition to the popular verse:

Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone's in the kitchen, I know
Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Strumming on the old banjo

There is also a verse about someone making love to Dinah in the kitchen. Other versions of the song, as performed in the blackface tradition, include verses that are incredibly racist (as was customary of blackface minstrel tunes. See also "Oh Susanna!"). 

(Also known as "The Levee Song," earliest version, c. 1894)

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