Monday, June 11, 2018

Racist Lyrics In Song Sources And Early Versions Of The Song "I've Been Working On The Railroad"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents information about and lyrics for song sources and early versions of the well known American song "I've Been Working On The Railroad".

Many of these lyrics would be considered racist today and were considered racist by some people in the 19th century when they were composed and performed.

The Addendum to this post quotes an excerpt from a Wikipedia article about the use of the name "Dinah" in 19th century United States. I also quoted this excerpt in the 2017 pancocojams post entitled "Information About & Several Early Lyric Examples Of "Shake That Little Foot, Sally" (also known as "Shake That Little Foot Dinah O")"

The content of this post is presented for historical and socio-cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

These excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

Amended spelling (indicated by an asterisk) is used in this post for the oejorative referent "ni&&er" or "ni&&ah". The full spellings for those referents are found in those lyrics.

Excerpt #1:
"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 verses that generally constitute the modern version of the song are:[3]

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 a verse very much like the modern song, though in negro* minstrel dialect, but with an intro that is no longer sung:[4][5]

(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;
Ni&&ah 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 ni&&ahs 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.[6] "Dinah" was a generic name for an enslaved African woman.[7] 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.[8]

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".[9]"....
*The referent "negro" spelled with a small "n" is considered to be very offensive. Furthermore, "Negro" [spelled with a upper case "N") has been dropped as a referent for Black Americans since the late 1960s.

"Captain" in 19th century minstrel songs often referred to the White man who was in charge of the workers.

Excerpt #2
Subject: RE: Origins: Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah

1. From: GUEST,.gargoyle
Date: 16 Sep 04 - 02:35 AM

"Long Steel Rail, Cohen, 1981 p540.
"I've Been Working on the Railroad" is often followed directly by some other ditty - generally, "Some's in the Kitchen with Dinah," doubless suggested by the last line of the chorus. "Dinah, won't you blow your horn. "Fuld has discussed the sources of this song noting that the words with a different melody from the usual one were published under the title "Old Jo[e] , or Somebody in the House with Dinah." about 1834-1845. The usual melody is probably a variation on "Goodnight Ladies." (8) The latter piece itself derives from an 1847 publication. "Farewell Ladies, " but the more usual form was first printed in 1867. (9)

8. Fuld, World-Famous Music, pp. 513-14.

9. Ibid p. 255."

2. From: GUEST,Kay
Date: 12 Nov 04 - 06:30 PM

"The song "Somebody's in de House wid Dinah" was evidently a minstrel show tune/skit. It appears in a banjo instructional book called "Phil Rice's Banjo Instructor", which was published in 1858. Phil Rice was a minstrel banjoist who worked the riverboat circuit and died in 1857, before the book was published.

The book has the song tune, the banjo accompaniment to go along with it, and dialogue to be spoken between verses of the song. The tune is not the same as the one I know, but it does have the same rhythm and a similar tune. The singer/speaker is suspicious that another man is in the house "making lub wid my Dinah." Since this is is an 1850's minstrel show skit, it has exaggerated dialect. Here are the three verses in the book (with some word substitution):

Oh, somebody's in de house wid Dinah,
Somebody in de house, I know,
Somebody's in de house wid Dinah,
A playin on de old Banjo.

I know dere's a fella in de house wid Dinah,
Dere's a fella in de house, I know,
If I cotch a fella in de house wid Dinah,
I'll knock him on de head wid dis Banjo.

Dere's a big ol' fella in de house wid Dinah,
Show me dat fella in de house, by Jo,
Bring me dat fella in de house wid Dinah,
I'll show him the size of my big toe."

3. From: masato sakurai
Date: 12 Nov 04 - 07:32 PM

"Old Joe" (with verse 2: "There's/Dere's some one in the/de house with Dinah") is at Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads.

4. From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 12 Nov 04 - 08:24 PM

"A lot of speculation but little factual in the remarks about Dinah.
She appears in early minstrel songs, and had crossed to England probably about 1840. She appears there in several broadsides in the song "Old Joe," sung with some differences in the lyrics. I think that this is the one to whicn Masato referred. Note lines suggestive of "Old Dan Tucker," which seems to be older.

Lyr. Add: OLD JOE (1)

Old Joe sat at de garden gate,
He couldn't get in kase he'd com'd too late;
He up wid a stone and knock at de door:
"I wants to come in," says dis black Joe.
"Who's dere?" "Old Joe." "What de Joe?"
"Yes, de Joe"--
Old Joe kicking up behind and before,
De yaller gal kicking up behind old Joe.

"Dere's some one in de house wid Dinah,
Dere's some one in de house, I know;
Dere's some one in de house wid Dinah,
Playing on de old banjo."

Out come Dinah,--"What for you dere?"
"I want a gun to shoot dat *hare;"
"Come, old ni&&er, dat game won't do,
You'd better go home and mend your shoe"--
Old Joe, &c.

He came to town in shocking fright,
For he heard a noise, and he saw a fight;
Some boys were running up and down,
Shouting, "Old Joe is just come to town!"--
Old Joe, &c.

In come a nI&&er with a blue tail'd coat;
"Can you give me a change of a five pound note?"
"About your notes I do not know,
But I'll give you a note on the old banjo."--
Old Joe, &c.

* hare becomes bear or bare in other printings.
Bodleian Collection, Harding B11(4341). Printed between 1797 and 1834 by Walker, Durham. [My guess is about 1835-1840]. Printed on the same sheet with "Buffalo Gals" and "Ye Mariners of England." Obviously revised from American original to suit an English audience. Broadsides crossed the water as fast as sailing vessels could carry them."
"yaller girl"= a light skinned female with some Black African ancestry

5. From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 13 Nov 04 - 12:36 AM

"The song "I've Been Working on the Railroad" is best followed through threads 511, 32615 and 50253. It is much more recent than "Dinah," as previously noted.

50253: Posted here is the original song that was the basis for "I've Been Working on the Railroad," called the "Levee Song," from "Carmina Princetonia," 1894, (The Princeton Songbook), copyright Martin R. Dennis & Co. There is no evidence of the song before 1894 (Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p. 538-539) although Theodore Raph claimed that it occurred before that date. Levee, in about 1900, was often applied to almost any construction requiring laborers.
The full text is quoted by Masato. Dinah Levee Song Lyr Req: Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah

The 'horn' is the wake-up or go to work call for the workers. Why it is called Dinah is not known, although an unwelcome shrill blast might well be given a female name."

Excerpt 3:
From Origins: I've Been Working on the Railroad
1. From: Joe Offer
Date: 16 Sep 08 - 12:57 PM

"If you look above you'll see that the best guess as to the origin of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" is that it was published as "Levee Song" in the 1894 edition of Carmina Princetonia - although portions of the song came earlier. Masato posted the 1894 lyrics in this thread. Take a look at the crosslinked threads listed at the top of this page.
I guess you could say this is three songs linked together: "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Someone's In the Kitchen With Dinah," and "Dinah Won't You Blow Your Horn." Another interesting aspect of the song is that it's a relatively complex song, and yet everybody seems to know it with exactly the same lyrics and melody. I wonder when and how it achieved such universality.


2. From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 16 Sep 08 - 02:55 PM

..."Nothing found earlier than "The Levee Song," 1894, as noted by Joe.
In addition to the printing in Carmina princetonia, sheet music to "The Levee Song" was published by Hinds, Noble and Eldridge, 1900 (note in Scarborough).

Most of the verses sung with it are add-ons, from "Down on the Ohio," "Down Went Maginty," "In the Evening by the Moonlight," "Hear dem Bells," etc. (Noted in no. 234, Work Songs, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, vol. 3).
Neither Newman I. White, American Negro Folk Songs, nor Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs, considered it to be of Negro origin.
Scarborough recorded an add-on verse, from minstrel shows-

Sing me a song of the city,
(Roll dem cotton bales)
Darky ain't half so happy
As when he's out of jail.
Mobile for its oyster shells,
Boston for its beans,
Charleston for its cotton bales,
But for yaller gals- New Orleans!"

3.Subject: RE: Origins: I've Been Working on the Railroad
From: GUEST,Songbob
Date: 09 May 12 - 10:41 AM

"Someone's In De Kitchen Wid Dinah" was a Minstrel Show song of nearly no appeal -- it's almost a cantefable, in that it has spoken parts, and is essentially an argument between two suitors of Dinah, whoever she is. It's full of the N word and the worst stereotypes of African-Americans you can imagine. It's almost as bad as the "coon" songs of the 1880s-90s, when the happy-go-lucky image of contented darkies who lub dem dar massa gave way to chicken-stealin', razor-cutting, dangerous Negro images, which I think are more accurately "these-are-poor-folk-like-us-and-compete-for-our-jobs" images.

In Minstrel show days, African Americans were child-like and nearly innocent. And more or less safe, since they were confined to Massa's keeping. After 1865, and particularly after Reconstruction ended, freedmen were competitors, and much less safe. So the imagery changed to match.

In any case, the original "Someone's In De Kitchen Wid Dinah" does not actually appear in "I've Been Working" as such. There's certainly no repeated chorus lines like in the latter song; it's possible someone found the lyrics to "Kitchen" and, not knowing the tune, incorporated it into "Railroad" -- but just one line. It's even possible that the old Minstrel song was known by some in the college community, and the reference in "Railroad" is just a reference to a shared knowledge; sort of like the references to "the tables down at Morey's" in the "Whiffenpoof Song" -- but this is just speculation on my part.

That's all I know.

Bob Clayton"
"Cantefable"= "Any text or work, especially a folk tale, consisting partly of prose and partly of (sung or recited) verse."

Excerpt #4
From Lyr Req: Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah
1. From: GUEST,ADalton
Date: 14 Jul 10 - 02:08 PM

"Here are the lyrics to "I've been working on the Railroad" as they appear in "Fireside Book of Folk Songs" selected and edited by Margaret Bradford Boni, copyright 1947 by Simon & Schuster.

"Oh I was bo'n in Mobile town, I'm wukkin' on de levee
All day I roll de cotton down, A wukkin' on de levee
chorus: I been wukkin' on de railroad all de live-long day
I been wukkin' on de rail-road to pass de time a-way
Doan' yo' hyar de whistle blowin? Rise up so early in de mawn
Doan' yo' hyar de Cap'n shoutin' 'Dinah blow yo' hawn'
I use' to have a dog name' Bill, A wukkin' on de levee
He run away, but I'm here still, A wukkin' on de levee
Dat li'l ole dog up an' beg, A-wukkin' on de levee
Till I done give him chicken leg, A wukkin' on de levee
I once did know I girl named Grace,while wukkin' on de levee,
She done bring me to dis sad disgrace, A-wukkin' on de levee."

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah
From: Dave Hunt
Date: 26 Jul 13 - 10:01 AM

Collected in Broseley Shropshire - used by the local morris dancers in the 19th century
We (Ironmen of Ironbridge, about mile from Broseley) still use the tune for one of our dances.
Shropshire Bedlams also use it. It's a version of Not for Joe

Somebody's in the house with Dinah, somebody's in the house I know
Somebody's in the house with Dinah, playing on the old banjo

Too ra loo ra li doe, too ra loo ra li doe, too ra loo ra li doe
playing on the old banjo

Oh there was a little n***er and he grew no bigger, so they put him in the wild west show
He tumbled from the wind'er and he broke his little finger
And couldn't play the old banjo"
Click for information about morris dancers. Here's an excerpt from
"Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.


The name is first recorded in the mid-15th century as Morisk dance, moreys daunce, morisse daunce, i.e. "Moorish dance". The term entered English via Flemish mooriske danse. Comparable terms in other languages are German Moriskentanz (also from the 15th century), French morisques, Croatian moreŇ°ka, and moresco, moresca or morisca in Italy and Spain. The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century.[7]

It is unclear why the dance was named, "unless in reference to fantastic dancing or costumes", i.e. the deliberately "exotic" flavour of the performance.[8] The English dance thus apparently arose as part of a wider 15th-century European fashion for supposedly "Moorish" spectacle, which also left traces in Spanish and Italian folk dance."...
The custom of "blackening" their faces is still practiced by some "sides" [groups] of morris dancers.
Click for a pancocojams post entitled "Such A Getting Upstairs" (Lyrics & Morris Dance Videos). "Such A Getting Upstairs" is another example of morris dancers in the United Kingdom dancing to American minstrel music. That post includes videos of morris sides dancing to that song.

ADDENDUM: Excerpt About the use of the name "Dinah" in 19th century United States
"[Dinah"] Symbol of black womanhood
In 19th-century America, "Dinah" became a generic name for an enslaved African woman.[12] At the 1850 Woman's Rights Convention in New York, a speech by Sojourner Truth was reported on in the New York Herald, which used the name "Dinah" to symbolize black womanhood as represented by Truth:
"In a convention where sex and color are mingled together in the common rights of humanity, Dinah, and Burleigh, and Lucretia, and Frederick Douglas [sic], are all spiritually of one color and one sex, and all on a perfect footing of reciprocity. Most assuredly, Dinah was well posted up on the rights of woman, and with something of the ardor and the odor of her native Africa, she contended for her right to vote, to hold office, to practice medicine and the law, and to wear the breeches with the best white man that walks upon God's earth.[12]

Lizzie McCloud, a slave on a Tennessee plantation during the American Civil War, recalled that Union soldiers called all enslaved women "Dinah". Describing her fear when the Union army arrived, she said: "We was so scared we run under the house and the Yankees called 'Come out Dinah' (didn't call none of us anything but Dinah). They said 'Dinah, we're fightin' to free you and get you out from under bondage'."[13] After the end of the war in 1865 The New York Times exhorted the newly liberated slaves to demonstrate that they had the moral values to use their freedom effectively, using the names "Sambo" and "Dinah" to represent male and female former slaves: "You are free Sambo, but you must work. Be virtuous too, oh Dinah!"[14]

The name Dinah was subsequently used for dolls and other images of black women.[15]

12. Footnote 3 to "Women's Rights Convention", The New York Herald, October 26, 1850; U.S. Women's History Workshop.
13. Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, The Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. Library of Congress, 1941.
14. Gutmann, Herbert. "Persistent Myths about the Afro-American Family" in The Slavery Reader, Psychology Press, 2003, p.263.
15. Husfloen, Kyle. Black Americana, Krause Publications, 2005, p.64.
It should also be noted that "Dinah" is often given as "old Aunt Dinah" ("ole Aunt Dinah") in 20th century songs (including African American social dance/game songs and Anglo-American minstrel songs). One example of this usage is
"Ole Aunt Dinah
Sick in bed
Called the doctor
And the doctor said
"Get up, Dinah
You ain't sick.
All you need is a hickory stick."*

Those references were for older Black women, "aunt" being a substitute for "Mrs" which conveyed more status and respect and was (therefore) reserved for White women. "Uncle" -instead of "Mr." - was the equivalent title for older Black men.
*In these lyrics "hickory stick" means a beating with a hickory stick.

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  1. American folk music (as does American history) has some devastating narratives that need to be brought to light. Thank you for this post.

    1. You're welcome Tysa. It's my hope that we can rise above these devastating narratives and be much better than we have been.

      In the mean time, we'll keep on keeping on.