A Music Project Aims to Revive the Work Song

The tradition of men and women singing while they labour has faded away, says composer George Higgs. But he is hoping to bring it back, if only for a short time.

Whether it is miners bellowing, or weavers humming in chorus, “applying that to a modern setting just seemed really appealing”, Higgs says.

For his revival, he plans to work with visual artist Fiona Dowling and staff from five workplaces across South Dublin over the coming months.

There is still one space free in the programme, which they’re calling Work Songs.

Singing Today

Higgs says that there is this perception of a lack of humanity in the workplace these days. Or the idea that “these work songs or collective practices somehow don’t fit into the modern world”.

The modern office job doesn’t quite lend itself to choruses, says Higgs. Work Songs, due to kick off this month and last until June, is an antidote to that, he says.

So far staff from Tallaght Hospital and FoodCloud, and members of Friarstown Allotments and Platform One Writers have signed up for the project. It’s part of the Per Cent for Art scheme sponsored by South Dublin County Council.

Participants in Work Songs will spend time with Dowling and Higgs creating their own work song, which they’ll then perform in June.

“Often you feel like you’re kind of forcing an artsy-fartsy practice or notions upon a group of people who seem a bit bewildered by the whole thing,” says Higgs. “And I’m sure that’ll come into play here.”

But the engagement is as much a part of Work Songs as the result, he says.

For Platform One Writers, a group in Tallaght, for instance, there is already material to work with from the authors for composing a work song, says Higgs.

For those in the Friarstown Allotments, working the soil could help ideas to blossom.

This Day and Age

As Dowling tells it, the project is simply about “looking at workplaces with new eyes … to take a step back”. She sees Work Songs taking place in four stages.

To start, Dowling will visit each workplace, observing and recording the daily rhythms, and talking with the people to develop ideas for lyrics.

It’s then up to her and Higgs to compose original songs based on that research, bringing them back to the workplaces for feedback.

Thirdly, pending final approval, it’s rehearsal time. Finally, there’s a public performance of the work song by each workplace.

Rhythm will be largely dictated by the sounds of the workplace in question, says Dowling. “In the garden, for instance, you’ve a strong rhythm of digging and pulling,” she says.

Some of the tunes, says Dowling, may take the form of the traditional work song – with pushing, pulling, panting – yet the clack of keyboards could feature too.

Who knows? It’s entirely dependent on the workplace.

They need one more group from South Dublin to sign up soon. Interested? You can email Dowling and Higgs at southdublinworksong@gmail.com.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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