Song of the Shirt

Words by Thomas Hood; music by The Hutchinson Family, 1843

Who are the two voices in this song? A woman garment worker, a man commentator. What story are they telling? Sweatshop laborer's life. What role does each play? The woman tells her story while the man comments on the tragedy of it.

What is a sweatshop?A factory or workshop where contracted workers are forced to work long hours for low wages in unsafe conditions.What phrases in this song suggest the monotony of this work?“Work,” “stitch,” etc.

What hazards does the song mention? Eye strain, exhaustion, dirt, hunger. Why the talk of death—was the work that hazardous? What conditions did early garment workers endure? 12-hour days, 6-day weeks, unhealthy environment, low wages. How might these conditions lead to death? Malnutrition, disease. Why does the woman welcome death? She feels trapped in this life.

This protest song was written in 1843. How long did it take to improve conditions for garment workers? What disaster happened before action was taken? Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. What reforms finally resulted from that fire?

Where are sweatshop conditions still found today? What recent controversies involving this kind of labor have you heard about?


"Song of the Shirt" performed by mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin on Kakabadse: The Phantom Listeners - Arabian Rhapsody Suite - The Mermaid, © 2011. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube

This is an classical operatic performance arranged by British composer Lydia Kakabadse. Although the lyrics are true to Thomas Hood's original poem, Kakabadse's arrangement differs greatly from the music written by The Hutchinson Family Singers.

View the lyrics for "The Song of the Shirt."

View the original publication in Punch Magazine.

View the published score.

Thomas Hood (1799–1845) was a poet and humorist who was born and lived in London and wrote narrative poems in the style of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Hood spent most of his life writing popular humor in a style that would be called "dark huymor" today. He published prolifically in the magazines of the time and was recognized by Dickens and other literary celebrities.

Hutchinson Family Singers
"The Old Granite State, a song, composed, arranged and sung, by The Hutchinson Family." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1843. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a440-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Many of his serious poems, like this one, movingly highlight the challenges that the industrial working class faced, such as unsafe working conditions, unemployment, and gender discrimination. "The Song of the Shirt," created a sensation when it appeared, published anonymously in Punch Magazine. The Hutchinson Family later added music, and published the song as sheet music.

Hood’s humanitarian verses inspired a whole school of social protest in Britain, the United States, and, in translation, Germany and Russia. "The Song of the Shirt" was made popular in America by the Hutchinsons, who also championed abolitionism and women's suffrage.

Have half the class investigate sweatshop practices today and write an investigative report for a newspaper or television news. Have the other half write an editorial response about what action should be taken, if any. Assign roles, like fashion designer, worker, garment manufacturer, labor organizer, teenager, etc.

 

gusset: A triangular piece of material sewn into a garment to strengthen or enlarge it.