We’ve been working on “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

Ben Wheeler
3 min readNov 19, 2019

Friends have been posting this call, by Katya Ermolaeva, for songs with a history in minstrel performance not to be sung in kids’ music classes.
I disagree.

The racism in our folk music heritage is real. But I’m not sure a song’s origin in racism — or, as it often seems to be, its having had a version, in its path from folk origins to the canon, written to be racist — renders the process that removed its racism irrelevant. Why should the racists who rewrote “Railroad” be respected, but the others who rewrote it to cut the racism out not be?

The creative work that people do to remove racism from our cultural and political heritage is also real. It’s as real as the racism that is in that heritage in the first place.

The US flag, for example, meant family separation, rape, and murder for people of color when it was first created. It still means imperialist violence for people today. But when activists wave it and call for our policies to live up to the flag’s promise, it can also be a very real symbol of freedom.

Same thing with the national anthem; when I sing it, I’m singing to Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Fred Hampton, Daniel Ellsburg, Chelsea Manning, Sally Hemmings, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m singing to the Jews who were turned away and sent back to Europe before the Holocaust, and to the Chinese-Americans who were brutally forced to work on the transcontinental tracks. Can’t I sing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in that spirit, too?

Isn’t my contribution valid, my vision of appreciating the unpaid labor of others, of mourning their pain, of celebrating their workplace humor and nicknames for machinery (both hated and loved), and of reclaiming this twisted remnant of their lives for them?

Aren’t I part of the creative labor that creates that performance? Aren’t the children who sing it, and encounter a bit of American cultural history through it, part of the creative labor that creates that performance?

Another question: is there really no place for pieces of history that were wrong about things in our classrooms? Isn’t it important to read the original draft of the Constitution, with its enshrining of the power of white male landowners, in order to understand its part in oppression? Shouldn’t we study expression that was wrong, as well as expression that was right?

Not that any creative work is entirely one or the other. I think sometimes when people rule works of art, folk art or otherwise, as no longer enjoyable, they fall prey to an illusion — promoted by capitalism’s discovery that art sells best under this illusion — of thinking art has a single creator and a single true inherent purpose.

But all art is the contribution of many intentions and efforts, and your part in it, as a viewer or singer, is part of its creation.

I do want to take the concerns that Dr. Ermolaeva is speaking to seriously, at the same time as I balk at her approach. Should the ability of children to understand the complex history of art be a requirement before they experience it creatively? Should I keep my kids away from Jewish songs until they can explain Jewish persecution and Palestinian dispossession?

I think, as with concerns about cultural appropriation, that much of the concern comes from the notion of people somewhat mindlessly using, for their casual entertainment, something which deserves respect. I do see how careless use of songs with partial origins in racist minstrel performance just repeats the racism of the past, in more sugary form. And, I think that concern mixes in complex ways with the reality that each teacher, and each singer, creates a work of art anew through performance.

But I’m wary of responding to children’s creative performance with the impulse to silence and cite history as being trampled by the children. Is that impulse really about a problem with the children and what they are creating when they sing a song that has unclear origins, was partially rewritten by racists, and then rewritten by anti-racists?

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” may have been used by racists. But it doesn’t belong to racists. Their racism doesn’t get to possess our art, and exclude us from it. History is made by the people! Here we are, with our Huckleberry Finns, our Othellos, our Eddie Murphy: Raws, our Manhattans, and our “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”s.

What are we going to make with them?