Jazz historian Ted Gioia, author of Work Songs, joins Night Lights for a Labor Day look at the work song's relationship to jazz and popular music. In addition to those named above, featured artists include:
David Brent Johnson hosts the weekly WFIU historical jazz program Night Lights and Afterglow as well. Learn more »
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Nina tells the story of being imprisoned for robbing a grocery and condemned to work in a chain gang.
These lyrics were penned by singer and songwriter Oscar Brown, Jr., about a year since the original composition, a jazz instrumental by Nat Adderley, debuted on Adderley’s 1960 LP Work Song. A significant modification of Simone’s is extending the final refrain and replacing one instance of “working” by the very telling “slaving.”
Watch Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley perform "Work Song" on Oscar Brown Jr.'s Jazz Scene U.S.A.:
Breaking rocks out here on the chain gangBreaking rocks and serving my timeBreaking rocks out here on the chain gangBecause they done convicted me of crimeHold it steady right there while I hit itWell I reckon that ought to get itBeenWorking and workingBut I still got so terribly far to goI commited crime Lord, I neededCrime of being hungry and poorI left the grocery store man bleeding (breathing?)When they caught me robbing his storeHold it steady right there while I hit itWell I reckon that ought to get itBeenWorking and workingBut I still got so terribly far to goI heard the judge say five yearsOn chain-gang you gonna goI heard the judge say five years laborI heard my old man scream "Lordy, no!"Hold it right there while I hit itWell I reckon that ought to get itBeenWorking and workingBut I still got so terribly far to goGonna see my sweet honey beeGonna break this chain off to runGonna lay down somewhere shadyLord I sure am hot in the sunHold it right there while I hit itWell I reckon that ought to get itBeen working and workingBeen working and slavingAnd working and workingBut I still got so terribly far to go
Wow! If Nat Adderley could hear this chart on his iconic jazz standard, he would be pleased! The first statement stays very close to the original, which is a good thing. The solos are for written or improvised alto and trumpet, and the solo backgrounds are simply wonderful. This swinger plays well at about 176 bmp, has excellent full-ensemble passages, a bari sax and rhythm section break before the last chorus, an exciting shout chorus, and great development. This chart has it all! Our highest recommendation!
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Work songs go back at least as far as the beginning of recorded human history. Whether farming or hunting, cultivating, sailing, or hammering, we have often chanted and sung to help us carry out our tasks. Even today, many employees listen to music in their places of work. Work songs gave laborers a way of transforming their toil into something more meaningful, of enriching their everyday lives through music. How was the influence of the work song expressed in the recordings of jazz artists Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Nat Adderley, Dave Brubeck and others?
Night Lights is a weekly one-hour radio program of classic jazz hosted by David Brent Johnson, and produced by WFIU Public Radio. Learn More »
At the same time, she likens the heavy labor of breaking rocks to slavery, through which the song becomes a cry for emancipation as well. Her music was censored and sometimes prohibited in all Southern states by the Jim Crow laws.