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Night Lights Classic Jazz

Workin’: The Work Song In Jazz And Popular Music

Jazz historian Ted Gioia joins Night Lights for a look at the relationship between work songs and jazz, with music from Ellington, Mingus and more.

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  • Work Song

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    Photo: Album cover art.

    Nat Adderley: one of several jazz artists who composed a significant piece and called it "Work Song."

  • Work Songs Ted Gioia

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    Photo: Book cover art

    Jazz historian Ted Gioia's 2006 book explores the history and significance of work songs.

Work songs go back at least as far as the beginning of recorded human history. Whether farming or hunting, cultivating, sailing, or hammering, we have often chanted and sung to help us carry out our tasks. Even today, many employees listen to music in their places of work. Work songs gave laborers a way of transforming their toil into something more meaningful, of enriching their everyday lives through music. How was the influence of the work song expressed in the recordings of jazz artists Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Nat Adderley, Dave Brubeck and others?

Jazz historian Ted Gioia, author of Work Songs, joins Night Lights for a Labor Day look at the work song’s relationship to jazz and popular music. In addition to those named above, featured artists include:

  • Louis Armstrong (his ode to Pullman porters, “Red Cap”)
  • Cassandra Wilson (her cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”)
  • Sting (with saxophonist Branford Marsalis joining him for the tribute to English coal-miners, “We Work the Black Seam”

Watch Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley perform “Work Song” on Oscar Brown Jr.’s Jazz Scene U.S.A.:

Music Heard On This Episode

Hard Work
John Handy — The House That Trane Built: Best of Impulse Records (Impulse, 2006)
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Hard Work
John Handy — The House That Trane Built: Best of Impulse Records (Impulse, 2006)
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Work Song
Duke Ellington — I'm Beginning to See the Light: Complete RCA/Victor 1944-1946 (RCA Victor, 2000)
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Work Song
Charles Mingus — Mingus at the Bohemia (OJC, 1991)
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Work Song
Nat Adderley — Work Song (Riverside, 2008)
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Nice Work If You Can Get It
Thelonious Monk — Genius Of Modern Music V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Red Cap
Louis Armstrong — The Complete Decca Sessions 1935-1946 (Mosaic, 2009)
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Heigh Ho
Dave Brubeck — Dave Digs Disney (Columbia, 2008)
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Wichita Lineman
Cassandra Wilson — Belly of the Sun (Blue Note, 2002)
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Chain Gang
Sam Cooke — One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club (RCA, 2005)
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We Work the Black Seam
Sting/Branford Marsalis — Dream of the Blue Turtles (A & M, 1985)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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