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The dark history of "I've Been Working On The Railroad"

My kids have one of those children's music CDs that they like to listen to with lots of the classic songs they hear at school and storytime. And, lately, their favorite song has been "I've Been Working On The Railroad."

Which is just this quintessential piece of American folk music, right? You never thought twice about it. It's like "Happy Birthday." You know it, it's cute, harmless for kids....

But something has always bothered me about that song. It's really more like 3 songs, right? There's the railroad beginning, the "Dinah, won't you blow" middle, and it ends with that fee fi, "someone's in the kitchen" part that is completely unique from the other 2 sections. I have enough of a music background that I was sure there was something more there besides just being a song old timers used to sing in train yards.

Sure enough, turns out it was first published in 1894 under the title "Levee Song" and recorded for the first time in 1927. The original version was minstrel dialect and features what would now be offensive references to cotton bales, the N-word, getting out of jail, and someone, um, let's just say getting fresh with an enslaved black woman and disgracing her man.

Hardly kids stuff.

The "someone's in the kitchen with Dinah" section is actually from the 1830's, written in London, and was inserted into the song using yet another tune..."Goodnight Ladies" from 1847.

So there you have it. Your cute, cuddly "I've Been Working On The Railroad" is actually a racist, pirated, jammed together mess of Americana. In some ways, it kind of makes me love it more. Much like Grimm's fairytales, if you go back to the original there is always more than meets the eye.

In case you're super curious, there is also a missing verse popular in FL and GA where the "fee fi fiddley-i-o" section substitutes for this:

She's a one black two black,
Honest goodness shoe black,
Chocolate to the bone.
And if you see my gal
Walkin' down the street.
You'd better leave my gal alone!
She's got eyes like a jezebel.
And teeth like a pearl,
Goodness God's gracious,
She's a gift to this world!

If you'd like to read the full, not-for-kids version of the lyrics, feel free to Google.