Alan Lomax believed that no song should ever die. He probably got this from his dad, who was a professor and celebrated authority on Texas folklore and cowboy songs. Through his research, Alan’s father was alarmed to find that more and more of America’s oldest songs were not being picked up by younger generations. And since most of these field, folk, and sea songs were not recorded, many were at risk of disappearing forever.
This lit a fire inside Alan, and he spent the next 60 years as an ethnomusicologist on a mission to record the endangered songs of the world. A mission that brought him and his partner, Shirley Collins, to the Mississippi State Penitentiary on a warm day in mid-September 1959. They were there to record the work songs of the Southern prison farms. The guards led Lomax and Collins out to a field where a group of inmates were chopping wood.
Enter James Carter and the Prisoners.
After Lomax set up his Ampex 600 Series stereo recorder, James Carter and his fellow inmates started singing a song called, "Po’ Lazarus." It’s a bluesy, melancholy old work song about a man who is hunted and gunned down by a sheriff with a .45. There were no instruments, just the synchronized sounds of the axes hitting a log (you can hear it here). The song was eventually released on a record called Bad Man Ballads as part of Lomax's 1959 Southern Journey LP series on Atlantic Records.
And there it would stay until the year 2000. That’s when a music producer named T Bone Burnett remembered hearing the song and added it to the soundtrack for a new Cohen Brothers movie called, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The movie was successful, but the soundtrack was bigger. It would go on to win three Grammy Awards and sell more than four million copies.
But what about James Carter?
Alan Lomax’s daughter, Anna, did not feel right keeping the royalties for a song that she didn’t write or perform. So, she searched the archives of the Mississippi penal system, Social Security files, and property records to eventually discover that James Carter was alive and living in Chicago with his wife. Anna booked a flight to deliver three things to James: a $20,000 royalty check, a platinum record bearing his name, and plane tickets for him and the family to come to the 2002 Grammy Awards.
James didn’t even really remember recording the song, and when Anna told him that it was selling better than Michael Jackson, James had to leave the room to roll a cigarette. When he came back, he smiled and said, “You tell Michael that I'll slow down so that he can catch up with me." James went on to make over $100,000 in royalties. He bought his church a new van, got a new apartment, and donated to the local food bank.
One more work song saved.
For as long as we’ve had language, we’ve had songs for the work we do. Whether it’s sea shanties screamed defiantly against gale-force winds, field songs sung under blistering sun, or the industrial folk set to the rhythm of the machines that run, work songs helped our ancestors fight boredom, find meaning, build connections, and survive. And these songs didn't just play a critical role for the people who wrote and sang them, but they also shaped music as we know it today. Just ask Cooke, Dylan, Dre, Franklin, Guthrie, Springsteen, Seeger, or Bragg. Music used to be a critical part of our work.
But modern work has no song.
For the first time in our history, there is no music for the work we do. There are no hymns to sing in the offices, factories, fields, shops, and restaurants where we work today. We let the music die, and we did it when we needed it the most. So, as more and more of us feel increasingly empty and aimless at work, it might just be time. Time to write our song.
And that’s what this book is all about. Introducing Work Songs.
I’ve spent the last six months telling you that story is the most powerful human invention. That stories can give us meaning, inspire, teach, mobilize, and redefine what’s possible. I believe this to my core, and now it’s time to prove it.
This will not be a business book. There will be no how-to lists to do more, sell more, or be more. It’s just a collection of stories about work. Stories that can be our songs. Whether it’s the courage in Sarah Wakeman impersonating a man so that she could fight and die for her country, the emptiness of success that led to an early death for the boxer Sonny Liston, or the audacity of Annie Londonberry who rode her bike around the world, it is my hope that the stories in this book can help us fight boredom, find meaning, build connections, and survive.
So, let’s get to it.
The outline is done, and roughly 25 percent of the content is complete. But I learned when I did the last book that this type of writing can be a grind, so I am going to slow down on these newsletters for a bit. I’ll be sure to check in to let you know how things are going with the book and the company, but now it’s time to get to work. And I know just the song to play.
To James Carter, the prisoners, and all of the others who sang the songs that shaped who we are.
Now it's time to sing ours,