The Scriptures teach that music is to convey the range of emotions from joy and sorrow, hope and fear, exhaustion and rest – every shade and variety of sentiment associated with work and play, success and failure, birth and death, wonder and despair. God’s people are intended to express themselves in music and so we have the Great Biblical Songbook.
In fact, it was the Israelites, and not Walt Disney, who began the practice of whistling while they worked. Here are a couple of Old Testament work songs:
Isaiah 16 (10) notes that, “Joy and gladness are taken away from the [Moabite] orchards; no one sings or shouts in the vineyards; no one treads out wine at the presses, for I have put an end to the shouting.”
Apparently, the Mesopotamians sang while they worked — literally it seems. Bible scholars think that as each foot stamped into the wine-press an accompanying musical shout was uttered by the grape-treader. An early example of musical rhythm.
Well, Isaiah 16 tells us the work songs are over for the Moabites.
The great 4th century preacher and Churchman, John Chrysostom gives a broad sampling of professions using music for the purpose of relieving the burden of toil, “Travelers also, driving at noon the yoked animals, sing as they do, lightening by their songs the hardships of the journey. And not only travelers, but also peasants often sing as they tread the grapes in the wine press, gather the vintage, tend the vine, and perform their other tasks. Sailors do likewise, pulling at the oars. Women, too, weaving and parting the tangled threads with the shuttle, often sing a certain single melody, sometimes individually and to themselves, sometimes altogether in concert. This they do, the women, travelers, peasants, and sailors, striving to lighten with a song the labor endured in working, for the mind suffers hardships and difficulties more easily when it hears songs and chants.” (Sermon on Psalm 41)
The despair of working without appreciation or results reminds me of the Rogers and Hart 1930 plaintive lament of a weary dance hall hostess who despairs over her nightly job of being a taxi dancer. The song is called “Ten Cents a Dance” and is from the musical The Perfect Fool. Hart, trained as a journalist at Columbia University, was called the “Shelly of America” by choreographer George Balanchine.
The song was introduced by that 1920s and l930s troubled songbird Ruth Etting, who was portrayed by Doris Day in the 1955 bio-flick Love Me or Leave Me. Here she is, the original — Ruth Etting singing “Ten Cents a Dance” backed by the equally famous Nat Shilkret Orchestra.
(“Ten Cents a Dance” performed by Ruth Etting with the Nat Shilkret)
Next time, old tunes adapted for new uses. But for the moment…
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”