Sunday, April 25, 2010

I've Been Working on the Railroad - Song #30

IBWOTR is one of those songs that everyone, even if they have never gone to summer camp or been a member of a youth group, etc. seems to know at least in part. Maybe they learned it in elementary school or heard it in old cartoons. But it's a song everyone seems to sing exactly the same, unlike many songs I've blogged about.

Train songs have a rich tradition and we sang a number of them at Camp Ajawah - at least the boys did.

I've been working on the railroad
All the livelong 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
Strumming on the old banjo, and singing

Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Strumming on the old banjo

I have two questions: who is Dinah? And is this song indeed from the 1800s? Did rail workers sing it? Is it of African American origins? Or was it a commercial composition?

Yes, that's more than two questions, but the last three are variations on the second questions. I just want to find the origins.

Dinah - there is speculation that it's "diner" with a southern accent. Dinah blowing her horn = dining car calling workers to lunch. Or maybe Dinah was the cook. Or "dinner." Maybe blowing her horn was a variation of Gabriel blowing his horn (from The Eyes of Texas are Upon You, which has the same melody as the first part of IBWOTR).

Gargoyle at mudcat.org writes:

"Dinah - short for dynamite.

Kitchen - the engineer's cab of a steam locomotive

Banjo - short handled shovel"

Origins - First appeared in print in 1894 at Princeton, but otherwise the roots are somewhat murky, which is not unusual for folk music. It is likely two or three songs combined - a variation of "I've Been Working on the Levee" and "Dinah."

Strumming on the old banjo may mean stirring food in the frying pan.

3 comments:

MrRailroad said...

This song is the most weirdest folk song yet on it's origins.

I always thought this song had to do with the railroad expansion to the West Cost and competing for the golden spike.

Joe said...

Thanks for the comment, MrRailroad. I did a little more checking and found some additional info. At one time, "Dinah" was a generic term for an enslaved African woman.

Also, the lyrics about Dinah in the kitchen come from @ 1840 by a Londoner named J. H. Cave.

David Gerhards said...

Search "Levee song 1894"