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The Quietus Essay

Whistle While You Work: On Music & Toil From Communism To Coldplay
David Bell , August 20th, 2013 05:22

Next time your bellend of a boss tells you to take out your headphones, throw this at him. David Bell interviews Marek Korczynski of the University Of Nottingham about the history and functionality of music in the workplace

Music is often thought of as an object – a 'thing' that can be critically scrutinised in order to determine its meaning and/or worth. Yet adopting such an approach can only tell half the story, because music's function – the way it operates in our daily lives – goes well beyond what can be determined from simply listening to a piece of music in isolation. Meaning isn't simply intrinsic to a musical work; nor is it determined in the relationship between a work and the individual listener – but is generated through the social relationships that inform it and are generated by it. Anyone who's experienced a collective epiphany at a rave or chanted on a demonstration can attest to that.

If it's rare for music critics (and even many musicologists) to approach music in such a way, it's even rarer for them to consider how music might function in our places of work. Music, after all, is often considered to belong to the realm of leisure, and it's rare to still encounter songs that guide us through our work. Popular music, meanwhile, rarely addresses work. Yet the authors of Rhythms of Labour, recently published by Cambridge University Press – clearly show the importance of music to our understanding of work (and vice versa). Drawing on historical sources and ethnographic study, they note that 'at various historical points the workplace has been the single most common arena for creating, and for listening to, music'. Accompanied by a CD of the same name released on the Harbourtown label, their book seeks to address this fact – tracing the history of music in British manual workplaces from preindustrial times to the present day. With musical examples as varied as Dundee Communist Mary Brooksbank and Coldplay, it's a fascinating account – tracing the subtle relations of discipline, control and resistance that flow through music in the workplace.

In what is probably The Quietus' first interview with a Professor of Sociology of Work, we caught up with one its authors – Marek Korczynski from the University of Nottingham's Business School – to discuss how music can facilitate voice, hope and much more for workers; but also how it can serve the interests of authority in the workplace.

What inspired you to look at music to gain an insight into work?

Marek Korczynski: The motivation comes from observing contemporary culture. We spend 40-45 hours at work a week, but if you look at our key medium of popular culture – pop songs – they hardly reference work at all. You could come up with a list of twenty quite easily I'm sure, but they're quite unusual: it's a rarity for pop songs to reference work at all. I'm lucky enough to own all the singles released by Motown and there's about two of them that reference it! So music and work are dislocated in our contemporary society. What's the meaning of this for people who like music? For people who work? What does it do to us? In various ways I think it can be seen as wounding us – it's a wounded culture I think. So that's the starting point for investigating this dislocation.

What roles do you see music taking in the workplace? What are its main functions?

MK: We trace three key dimensions through the period from pre-industrialization through industrialization and then onto the introduction of broadcast music in the workplace. The first of these dimensions we call 'fancy and function', whereby music has a functionality. So even if a song isn't a work song (a song designed to co-ordinate labour), it's still functional for you in that it gives you energy or a cadence for your work. But music has an element of what we call 'fancy' too, which we take from a lovely quotation by a singer of traditional songs called Harry Cox who said that “singing at work used to bring me all manner of fancies”. So the functionality embeds you in time, place and your body – but you've also got the space for fancy – for going places, for re-imainging what you're doing, for going somewhere else. You're still embedded in what you're doing, though – I'm quite strongly against the idea of music at work being 'escapism' – we find very little evidence of it simply being about 'escape'.

Then second function we look at is community, which was very strongly expressed in these preindustrial singing at work cultures. Lyrically, 'we' was often used, but even if the lyrics aren't about 'we' the process of singing becomes the we. There's a great quotation in Ronald Blythe's book Akenfield where a farm labourer says 'there's twenty of us in the field, scything and singing as we went'. And a researcher – guided by this idea that the meaning is in the text – says 'so what were you singing?', and the guy replies 'it wasn't the song, it was the singing that counted'.

The final dimension we look at is voice. Not just in the sense of the literal singing voice, but in the sense of raising grievances: 'I raise my voice'. And singing aloud often gave more voice to workers than other forms of expression. The classic example here is shanties: sailors were bound by very strong rules about expressing any grievances in written or spoken form, but they could sing them out.

So whilst the outside picture of these workers singing is one of happiness, by singing they could express voice, interest, grievance, happiness and generate community – and these could all be intermingled simultaneously. So this clichéd and romanticised elite view of the 'happy singing labourer', is a terrible trope and I think it's a great reason why people haven't taken these cultures seriously. They accept it and don't want to investigate any other vision of workers.

Things changed with industrialization. There was a large period where employers and the roar of the machines served to silence singing at work. But there were a few cultures where workers were able to continue singing at work, so we traced these cultures. The fancy and function had changed here: rather than being playful, it became about survival. So workers clung to music as a way of surviving alienation. Community is still very strong, but voice is curtailed as there is greater hierarchy around factory labour. Silencing was probably largely done to increase productivity, but in doing so they took away an important political voice for workers.

If we move on to look at workers' responses to broadcast music, the picture of fancy and function becomes much more about survival. Music's introduction to factories was carefully controlled, with two half hour doses designed by industrial psychologists in incredibly instrumental ways. But workers would use this music as a mask for the soundscape of alienation. So rather than being a positive, playful form in preindustrial times, music becomes a means to survive: the fancy is seriously curtailed. Community, however, remains really really strong. Music allows workers in alienating jobs to have social moments of participation: they've got each others' humanity to rely on in the fight against alienation. So workers use music to turn to each other – they show that they're there for each other just through simple musical exchanges. It could be a dance, a talk about music, a singalong, even talking about music.

Voice, however, is hugely diminished. Because we're at work, we're working and we're listening to pop songs – but these pop songs don't talk about work! So what workers do is appropriate declamatory choruses and separate them from the rest of the song. They hear meanings in these declamatory choruses that resonate with their working lives. And occasionally they can use that towards a supervisor or figure of authority, but that's very rare.

And are there racialised and gendered elements to the way music is used at work?

MK: Absolutely. Probably the saddest episode in the book is racialised, and it relates to that elite idea of the happy singing labourer. During the Indian and Colonial Exhibition of 1866, which was held in London, four 'Happy Singing Indian Weavers' were presented. So they weaved and sang for exhibition in an attempt to present the British Empire as benignly supporting traditional handicrafts. But obviously the Empire was all about markets and it significantly undermined the existing social markets for handicraft labour: the Empire was taking away the possibility of this kind of singing work. But three of the four singing weavers had learned their weaving in a colonial prison in which certain castes had been singled out as particularly culturally problematic, and they were 're-educated' through handicrafts.

With regards to gender – it seems that women have been more likely to sing than men in factories. Men are more likely to hear the sound of their machinery as affirming their masculinity and so not sing over it. And when you come into broadcast music, the people who are more likely to complain about music are men who want to hear the sound of their machines.

Religion plays a role as well. So there were resistant singing cultures in Northern Irish weaving mills, where workers loved the practice of singing so much that Catholic workers would join in on Orange songs! And that shows how powerful the communal aspect of singing can be: a great example of it not being the song but the singing that counts.

Do you listen to music when you work?

MK: I don't usually listen to music at work, no. The book focusses on manual labour, and I do very little manual labour. There is some research on how people use music when doing intellectual labour: and it seems that people use it as a symbol to say 'keep away from me'.

Obviously one of your main arguments is that music's function isn't tied to textual meaning. But are there any examples of particular pieces of music, or particular instances of music being used that illustrate the arguments you've been making?

MK: I worked at a blinds factory for a while as part of the study, and I asked people if there were any pieces of music that were meaningful for their life at work. I wasn't sure if this was going to be useful, but I thought 'let's give it a try' – and I'll give two contrasting answers for how listening to music had meaning for workers in this factory. Then I'll offer some older songs that I love.

In the blinds factory, the number one nomination by a mile was 'We've Gotta Get Out of This Place' by The Animals.

This song expressed community – it's 'we' who's 'gotta get out of this place', and workers sang along together and would sometimes raise their fists and sing along to it. And it was expressive of a defiant NO. It wasn't clear what they were saying 'no' to, but just 'we say no'. And this was partly to the supervisors and managers who would walk through the room, but it was also symbolic – they might not know what they're ready to say 'no' to, but they know that they're ready to say it, and if they keep pushing something will probably happen. And what was beautiful about this was that it was a collective nomination. The workers spoke about this amongst each other and came up with a collective answer . At first I was a bit annoyed – thinking 'they're spoiling my research method!' – but I realised this was beautiful. They're creating a collective knowledge! It's a dream that you have a question meaningful enough that people talk amongst themselves about it before generating an answer.

I got other answers though. Most of them related to songs that were heard on the factory floor, and the answers related to community and defiance. When people nominated songs that they'd heard in individualised settings outside the factory then one song sticks out as exemplary, and that's 'The Scientist' by Coldplay. And there are three lines in the song that this woman heard as exactly speaking to her working life where, y'know, you've just reached the end and somebody brings a new load and you have to start again. And the lines, which she heard as painting a picture of individual melancholia, are :

'Running in circles, chasing our tails
Nobody said it was easy
No-one ever said it would be so hard'

So you've got this picture of individual melancholia – resigned sadness – and collective defiance. And this is what this musical culture did. It created social listening to promote defiance, and if this wasn't there you get this individualised sadness.

One older song that I really like is one called 'We're all Jolly Fellows Who Follow the Plough', which I originally came to via Kate Rusby [The version below is by Bob Hart and features on the compilation CD].

Rusby's sleevenotes to that song speak to the dislocation of music and work I mentioned earlier. So the song's about the life of ploughmen, but when she first heard the song – admittedly as a child – she heard it as being about people who hid behind bushes following ploughs, rather than being about ploughmen. So she's got this understanding of music being separated from work, even applied to her from a folk background. And I like this song very much, aesthetically and melodically – it's got a singalong quality to it – but it's got simultaneous happiness, defiance and pride. It's a story of defying a master who's checking up on workers.

There's also some songs I like by Mary Brooksbank, who was a Dundee communist and mill worker. She took small refrains that were sung in the factory and put her own verses around them: mixing up a political we and a bottom-up we, which also contained the 'I' of the mill worker's individual experiences. There are a couple of these on the CD we're releasing – one called 'Oh Dear Me' (made popular by Ewan MacColl in the folk revival) – and one which I think is a little better, 'The Spinner's Wedding', which was celebrating a custom whereby whenever a spinner from a factory got married, the workers would take over half the day and create rituals around it. The song celebrates that and part of the refrain was sung in the ritual.

MK: One thing we don't do enough on is parental labour, which is something I want to think about in the future. But there's one song on our CD called 'The Washing Song', which is about a mother cleaning her child. And it's just the most beautiful statement of parental love I've ever heard. The song expresses love, but it would presumably have a functionality in that it would make the child more cleanable!

Moving away from the book – you've previously written an article called 'Why the 'Chattaoonga Choo-Choo Rather' than 'The Internationale' Became the Song to Unite the Human Race'. Why did the 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' become the song to unite the human race and not 'The Internationale'?

MK: Well let me tell you why it wasn't The Internationale! If you think about it, it's a marching song [taps out a rigid marching beat on the table] – a song with certain kinds of social relations suggested within its structure, and these are social relations emphasising uniformity. A march is a uniform beat: you become one. There's no space for individuality. And the lyrics are all about the 'we': there's not a single 'I' in the song, and I'm quite glad it didn't unite the human race because I think that's kind of dangerous as a way of being. Who gets to define that 'we'? And a nice point of contrast roughly at the same time as the Internationale was being promoted as the song to unite the human race is the musical form of swing. There's a rather brilliant book by Joel Dinerstein on swing music [Swinging The Machine], and he suggests that swing is a way of accommodating the pace and rhythms of railways and the assembly line, but giving space for the human voice to interact with it. So when dancing to swing there are periods when you dance collectively, but there's a breakaway moment where there's space for individuality – and then you come back to it. So this speaks to me as a beautiful culture that acknowledges the importance of collectivity and gives space for individuality, and as a political vision I think that's a beautiful vision.