Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

Whistle while you work

 Dr Emma Robertson

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Nick Hoogenraad

I'm Nick Hoogenraad, a biochemist working at the La Trobe University. My interests have been in proteins and protein structure, proteins being the machinery of life, and you are listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

Matt Smith

Hello, I'm Matt Smith. This is a La Trobe University podcast. Today on the podcast, Whistle While You Work, and my guest is Emma Robertson.

Emma Robertson

I'm Emma Robertson and I'm a lecturer in history at La Trobe University and I'm based at the Bendigo campus.

Matt Smith

Now Emma was on the podcast a few months ago. We talked about the social history of chocolate. She’s now got a new book out. It’s called Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain and it’s co-authored with Marek Korczynski and Michael Pickering. It’s about the role that music has played in people’s working lives and charts singing cultures in pre-industrial occupations. Ivan, do you want to sing some Billy Joel with us? There used to be a lot more singing in workplaces, especially when they were more social activities. During post-industrial times, there’s been a big fall-off in this.

Emma Robertson

So this was a project that started at Loughborough University in the UK, so Marek Korczynski and Michael Pickering, two academics at Loughborough were really interested in this really neglected topic of music in the workplace. What had happened to music in the workplace over, you know, centuries really from the pre-industrial period of British history to the present? And so they were really interested in that and had put in a bid and had got some money to start this massive research project and so I was hired to work as a researcher on this. When I went for that job I was saying, I already heard about this in my own research at Rowntrees, that women remembered singing. Sometimes it was one of the first things they would say, you know, I really loved working at Rowntrees, we used to sing while we were working. This had come out of my project and yet it had been something that I hadn’t really ... almost I wasn’t listening for and I wasn’t really paying too much attention to, until this project came up and I think that was one of the things that was interesting about the project – how much we’ve sort of tuned out about music. We don’t necessarily always whistle or sing when we work these days, and certainly as an academic, music may be something in the background, but it’s not something I'm always very conscious of when I'm working.

That was sort of how I got into the project – my interest in labour history and women’s history particularly. It just became such a big project and it took me into a lot of new areas, where one on the pieces I was really involved in writing was about the textile industry and how looking at pre-industrial textile work, things like knitting, weaving, spinning on a wheel, the tweed industry in Scotland, where women would, what was called would waulk the tweed, where they soak it in urine and then basically like a big working party, where they would sit around a table and pass this big long piece of tweed around them, thumping it on the table as they go, and as they’re thumping it and making this rhythm on the table, they sing walking songs.

Again a group of women workers singing and working, improvising sometimes, songs. And that was part of the pacing of the work, was singing. And so, there was this sort of pre-industrial non-mechanised kind of working in textiles and I was really interested in that, really from a very early period, and then, how that changed when the textile industry was really one of the first to be mechanised and move into the factories.

Matt Smith

The logical thing I suppose is that it would come out over a repetitive task, when you’re keeping rhythm. So when you’re doing something that’s just got a constant beat to it, that’s giving you something to sing to.

Emma Robertson

Yeah, this is one of the things that I think really came out of the project. It’s not only about that. That’s part of the story and we found lots of evidence of people singing while doing something fairly rhythmical. There was a kind of beat that they were responding to in some ways and the music was also creating a rhythm for their work, but it was definitely not as simple as that, in that we found people singing at tasks that were not at all rhythmical – that were quite different. So people sometimes maybe in the fields – there were some bird-scaring songs that we found, things that were not about a rhythm, people being alone sometimes in field work, singing just to keep themselves partly awake and then I think to take themselves away from the boredom of the task or the isolation of the task, and escaping into song, in their minds, having these sorts of flights of fancy through song.

So it’s not seeing music, certainly in our project as something that’s purely functional, which I think is one way that you could look at music, but we felt that it was much more than that. It wasn’t simply about work songs, it wasn’t simply about the kind of chain gang or the sea shanties where it’s a very rhythmical process, it was also about singing at work and this process of taking yourself away from a task sometimes, or helping your mind to focus through singing but not necessarily in a rhythmic way.

Matt Smith

How much commonality was there for this kind of thing from one side of the world to the next? Is it something that you saw everywhere once you looked?

Emma Robertson

Well, we did focus our project really on the British Isles. We decided to do that quite deliberately because there had been, particularly in the United States, there’d been quite a lot of work done and particularly there, they’d looked at initially slave songs and prison gang songs, and particularly African-American singers. Sometimes, you know, we would come across articles of other cultures where singing at work was very important, and sometimes continues to be important. So we did find, you know, there is evidence that this is something that is partly about I guess you could say, it’s a bit too broad, but the human experience that singing and working has gone together. And I think what interested us, because we decided to focus on the British Isles, we found really that across the British Isles, before the Industrial Revolution, singing at work had just been pretty much everywhere. And then now I think, you know, we might listen to a Walkman while we’re on the computer or something, but we don’t see that so much any more, and what happened, how did music and work become separated into something that often is now seen as, well music’s something that’s about leisure, and relaxing and it’s not really about work. Before industrialisation, they had been so intertwined.

And we found it was a complicated story, because of course the Industrial Revolution doesn’t just happen to everywhere at the same time, in all occupations, so we did find that some areas you would have singing at work still continuing, especially in the waulking the tweed in the Scottish tweed industry. We have recordings from the 1950s, but then really after that, there was a sort of silence. So we were interested in Britain because then you could really look at social, economic, cultural change over quite a long period. I think if we tried to be a global vision we would have got completely lost, but I think as you say, there’s interesting connections I think in terms of singing and working, around the world, but I think looking at what happens with industrialisation, why in the factories do we seem to have this silencing effect? Is it about the noise of the machinery? Is it about factory discipline? Is it about the workers themselves kind of changing their attitude to work? I think it’s probably all three of those things that we found had an influence on silencing people while they were working.

Matt Smith

And possibly a lot of workplaces now, there’s no sense of mass community. You’re not in an environment with a lot of other people necessarily.

Emma Robertson

Yeah, and again sort of really late into industrialisation there’s so much change in just the numbers of people on a factory floor now. You’ve lost that sense of any connection. You might be very distant from the person on the next machine. So I think community was another thing that I haven’t really mentioned about, what is the effect of singing at work? Sometimes it’s about taking yourself out of a task. Soemtimes it’s about creating a sense of community, of people that you’re including in that community and perhaps people who feel excluded, who aren’t members of that singing community. So community was something important and we did look at where is that – is that being lost through silencing? That sense of community I think has perhaps shifted in a lot of workplaces, not all, but one of the places I went to, which was a biscuit factory, what was very striking was that they are allowed to have radios now, but a lot of workers will have a different station so you can walk across one floor and actually hear lots of different music. You can cut across a lot of different soundscapes if you like. And so there isn’t that sense of everyone listening to one program, which they had been, and in particular, that biscuit factory had actually had its own radio station, called the United Biscuits Network. The managers had actually invested in a proper radio studio, in London, and they’d broadcast to their biscuit factories. And they employed DJs, some of whom went on to become quite famous DJs, and they had their own station, with their own programs, and they played records and they had requests and they had little pantomimes at Christmas, and they had a genuine radio station, which a lot of them remembered very fondly. You know, more and more commercial radio was becoming available and it was such an expensive thing to run. That stopped and I think a lot of them remembered quite fondly having that shared sense of community radio in their workplace.

Matt Smith

What could you tell from song choice, because I imagine the songs would tell you a lot about what the workers were thinking and what they were feeling.

Emma Robertson

Yeah, I mean, this is quite difficult to capture sometimes, when you’re thinking about looking historically, to try and get people to talk about their song choices. Marek Korczynski is a professor of sociology of work, where he’s gone into factories and asked people as he’s going around, what does this song mean, or what’s your favourite song at the moment? And he’s found some really interesting stuff about how people might use music to express sometimes community, sometimes dissatisfaction. Some of the workers at United Biscuits did remember putting in requests for songs that had particular meaning, like, the Rawhide song,’ keep those doggies moving, rawhide’. And playing that and dedicating it to, I think, one of their supervisors. So using music to kind of tease, or just make their feelings known. And this has a long heritage back to the sea shanties of being able to voice grievances through songs.

Or sometimes to voice community. I think one of the songs htat Marek found in the factory he looked at was the We Are Family song, and they used to enjoy singing that and expressing a sense of community through that.

So where workers now aren’t necessarily making up their own songs as they had done in some fields before, they are using popular music to express both happiness and also grievances and boredom, sometimes.

Matt Smith

The songs are going to give you a connection, straight to the people more than would normally be in conventional history books, so say, the slave songs from Africa – you get a sense of their work and who they are through those kind of songs and what they went through as well. Did you find that these songs are really important to them, more so than just a distraction at work?

Emma Robertson

Particularly looking at some of the earlier songs, one of the examples that Betty Messenger has written about is the linen factories in Ireland and composing songs that were meaningful to them, using the names of supervisors at the time and comprising songs that had meaning for them, even in an industrial setting where they were able to sing. So I think they can give you a real insight into workers’ feelings.

But I think what was also interesting from the project, is that it wasn’t always songs about work. So sometimes people just enjoyed singing a song that had nothing to do with theri work environment, that was maybe just a popular song that was circulating at the time and the same really with more recent examples, where they listen to popular music.

So I think what we were really keen to look at is the relationship to the singing, and to the act of singing, even more so than the song. I think in this project, I mean, I think there is a really interesting work on songs about work and literally looking at the lyrics, but we were really interested in how people feel about the singing. That’s something that’s really quite hard to do historically, because people don’t always write about, or talk about how they feel about singing.

But we did find some really great examples of people remembering what it meant to them to sing at a certain time, and I certainly found that at Rowntrees, talking about how it really lifted them to sing, or it got them through the day to sing. So I think those memories, for me, were even more interesting than the song texts themselves.

Matt Smith

So do you think that we’re missing something from our workplace now, by not having a big singalong? Or not having that environment where you can do that kind of thing?

Emma Robertson

Yeah, definitely. We should have a La Trobe singalong. I mean what’s really interesting is where companies and corporations do try and use song and sometimes they’ll have a company song, and it’s very different to have a top-down imposed song from something that is springing up from people wanting to sing.

But I think yeah, the loss of music, I think is sad in some ways. We don’t feel able to sing. This is a side issue to the project, but one of the things that interested me was how people don’t feel that they’re able to sing, that they don’t feel musical enough and I think it’s interesting how that’s changed – this perception of what is good being musical – that not everyone can just sing and I think that’s something that we’ve just lost. Before, you had all this recorded music and professionalisation of music. People would just sing and maybe they weren’t the best singers in the world but they enjoyed the expression. I think we’ve lost that, that people don’t feel that they can just sing out and maybe they’re not the most tuneful but the act of singing can be so powerful. It would be nice to have more of that, but I'm not sure my students would appreciate it if I started singing in my lectures.

Matt Smith

That’s Dr Emma Robertson and next time you sit down in front of an overpriced abacus and try and belt out some paperwork, then maybe you should think about whistling while you do it.

The book that she co-authored with Marek Korczynski and Michael Pickering is called Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain and is available now from Cambridge University Press.

Emma Robertson also spoke about the social history of chocolate in another podcast interview and you can find that in La Trobe University’s history collection on iTunes U and also at our blog, podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au. that’s it for the La Trobe University podcast for today, and my thanks to Ivan Birch for helping me out with recording this. I'm Matt Smith, you have been fantastic, and thanks for listening.

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