Organic Farmers Bring Back Song to the Fields | Connecticut Public Radio

Organic Farmers Bring Back Song to the Fields

Dec 5, 2014

Mechanized agriculture stripped the singing tradition from American farms, but there's a movement to bring it back.

Work songs can be found around the world, sung by a variety of laborers from field workers to fishermen. 

This country has a rich history of African-American work songs rooted in the days of slavery and ties to West African music. Years later, mechanized agriculture stripped the singing tradition from American farms, but there's a movement to bring it back.

Rodger Phillips and his wife, Isabelle, run Sub Edge Farm in Farmington. Phillips described the property. "It's about 300 acres," he said. "A lot of that is forest, but we have a lot of really nice vegetable soils, right along the Farmington River."

These days, the couples is busy preparing for a second season of organic farming. They also tend each day to their chickens, cattle, and pigs. Their youngest son, Oliver, described the pigs when they first arrived at the farm. "We got them when they were little," he said. "They were like, pretty little. They were like this big."

Phillips tends to his pigs, Berkshire-Large Blacks
Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil

Rodger Phillips said they are sustainable farmers, and they try to learn and share with other small farmers. "In organic ag, you need to have a lot of people out in the field doing things like weeding and hoeing," he said. "It can be long and laborious. Work songs can just help pass the time, and it can also help make the work lighter."

That's why the Phillipses invited musician-farmers Edith Gawler and Bennett Konesni to Sub Edge Farm. They live in Maine and New York state, but they travel often to farms to lead workshops about work songs. 

Edith Gawler and Bennett Konesni
Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil

During a recent visit, Konesni gathered the Phillips family together inside one of the barns to learn a work song. Konesni said, "We'll make a circle. I was thinking what we could do is a really fun rowing song and it works if you're on the farm too, helps while you're harvesting." He and Gawler led the family singing "Blackbird Get Up." 

Kosnesni said work songs used to be much more common in the U.S. "For thousands of years," he said, "people had hard physical work to do, and they would just sing. Then, the more factories and offices that people got into, the less work songs we found. People thought, 'Well, I don't sound like that person on the radio,' when before that, this didn't happen, so people just made music, and weren't shy about it."

Konessi said while most people work in cubicles these days, they still do physical work like raking leaves and washing dishes. Gawler suggested a simple way people can learn to sing together again. She said, "Every time you sit at the table, every time you put food into your mouth, it's an agricultural act. So you can extend work songs to your dinner table."

The next song Konesni and Gawler taught the group was "Jody," an old song sung by inmates from the Texas prison system. 

Konesni and Gawler said you don't have to be a great singer to learn a work song. They hope to keep the tradition going to show people that physical work can be fun. Konesni said one way to experience that is by volunteering at a local farm.

You can learn more about work songs at a workshop Saturday at Sub Edge Farm. More details here.