Editor, McLerran Journal
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad that connected major cities from Sacramento, CA to Council Bluffs, IA. The approximately 1776* miles of track took only six years to be completed and were assembled primarily by three ethnic groups of people; African Americans, Irish Americans, and Chinese Americans. On May 10, 2019, crowds gathered in Promontory Summit, Utah, to reenact the moment when the Central Pacific (east) and Union Pacific Railways (west) railroads were connected with a golden spike (British Broadcasting Corporation). This moment marked a massive change in the abilities of Americans to transport themselves, goods, and cultural practices across the country in days instead of months (British Broadcasting Corporation). Supposedly this historic day in 1869 was celebrated with speeches, whiskey toasts, pictures, and a nation-wide telegram that stated simply, “Done” (British Broadcasting Corporation).
*The United States declared independence from Great Britain in the year 1776. There is no evidence that this number was decided on intentionally; just a happy coincidence.
1850’s: “Paddy on the Railway”
Ireland is a gorgeous green island-country in Northwestern Europe characterized by lush rolling farmlands, friendly people, and nearly one thousand miles of rugged coastline. In the late 1840’s, Ireland’s crops (particularly potatoes) were devastated by a fungal infection which led to widespread starvation and disease (Public Broadcasting Service). Between 1845-1850, more than two million Irish people emigrated from Europe in search of steady work and a safe place to live; nearly five-hundred-thousand of those immigrants decided on the United States (Public Broadcasting Service). Paddy on the Railway (c.1850) is an Irish-American folk song thought to originate from an pre-existing sea-chantey. The lyrics follow a simple AAAB rhyme scheme and sarcastically share the story of Irish immigrants leaving “the Old World for the New” in search of better days, only to be stuck working endlessly on the Central Pacific Railroad; “When we left Ireland to come here, and spend our latter days in cheer, Our bosses they did drink strong beer, and Pat worked on the railway” (American Heritage Music). The song was first recorded in 1941 by the American Ballad Singers, directed by Elie Siegmeister, on the album Two Centuries of American Folk-Songs and has since been re-recorded several times and even catalogued by the Library of Congress as an official American folk song (Cohen).
1870’s: “The Ballad of John Henry”
In the 1800’s, the African-American population in the U.S. had risen to approximately one million, or about 20% of the national population; this included more than half a million enslaved people who were not always counted as citizens in the earliest census (Infoplease). In addition to their massive contribution to the labor force in our country, African-American people are also responsible for several of the musical traditions, particularly in the south. Genres like jazz, blues, gospel, and rock were all deeply influenced by traditional African-American spirituals, folk-songs, and chants. One of the most popular folk-songs from this era was The Ballad of John Henry (c.1870), which tells the story of a legendary African-American man who worked his entire life on the railroad and eventually beat a machine in a contest of strength (Garon). While several versions of this song exist, the four main parts of the story are never lost; John Henry as a baby predicting his own eventual death by machine, the pretext for the contest, the contest itself, and John Henry’s death (Garon). In the time period where machinery had slowly started to replace the human worker, it is easy to see the appeal of a song that depicts the defeat of brand new technology by a regular working man; “Now the man that invented the steam drill, thought he was mighty fine, but John Henry made fifteen feet, the steam drill only made nine.” It was also possibly a commentary on the poor working conditions of railway workers or African-Americans in general. With phrases like “John Henry was a hard workin’ man, he died with his hammer in his hand,” the song alludes to a portion of the population who expected to work (in perilous conditions) for the entirety of their lives.
FUN FACT: This particular folk song is thought to be based on the real-life events of an actual person who worked on the Big Bend Tunnel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America).
Since there is almost zero public record of Chinese-American folk songs from the 1800’s, please consider the following resources for more information on working conditions and individual experiences:
1880’s: “Wabash Cannonball,” by J. A. Roff.
As an alumna of the Lumberjack Marching Band at SFASU in Texas, I felt ashamed that I had not realized our beloved “Wabash Cannonball” is about a raucous train ride. According to Kevin Baker of Harper’s Magazine, the song was first written out in 1882 and later recorded in 1929 by the Carter Family. The legendary song, which tells the story of a “death train” carrying ill-behaved souls to the afterlife, inspired the creation of an actual Wabash Railroad, located in the American Midwest (Baker). The railroad, now over one hundred years old, still runs regular routes through major cities including Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Omaha (American Rails).
American Heritage Music. (2012). Paddy Works on the Railway. Ballad of America. Matthew
Sabatella and the Rambling String Band. Web. 30 May 2019.
Baker, Kevin. (2014). The Twenty-Three Best Train Songs Ever Written- Maybe. The Harper’s
Blog. Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine Foundation. New York, NY.
Cohen, Norm. (2000) Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Second Edition.
University of Illinois Press. Chicago, IL. pp.550. Web. 30 May 2019. <Google Books Link>
Editors. (2019). Chinese American Song. Library of Congress. Washington, DC. Web. 30 May 2019.
Editors. (2005). European Emigration to the U.S. 1851 – 1860. Destination America. Public
Broadcasting Services (PBS). Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Web. 30 May 2019.
Editors. (2019). US Marks 150 Years of Transcontinental Railroad. BBC News: US and Canada.
British Broadcasting Corporation. Web. 30 May 2019.
Editors. (2019). Wabash Railroad, “Follow the Flag.” American Rails. Web. 30 May 2019.
Editors. (2016). Year in Review, 2016. Infoplease. Â© 2000-2017 Sandbox Networks, Inc.,
publishing as Infoplease. 6 Apr. 2017. Web. 30 May 2019.
Garon, Paul. (1998). John Henry: The Ballad and the Legend. Beasley Books. The NEW
Antiquarian: The Blog of the ABAA. The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America. Web. 30 May
Hiltzik, Michael. (2019). Chinese Immigrants Helped Build California, but They’ve Been Written
Out of its History. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. Web. 30 May 2019