He Lies in the American Land

Andrew Kovaly, 1900

Whom did the steel mills employ in 1900? East European immigrants. What were working conditions like? How long was the work day? 12 hours. Work week? 6 days. How did these factors cause mill accidents?

Why would men immigrate first and leave families behind? What might their concerns be about their families in the "Old Country"?

How might different family members feel when the letter arrived to "put everything in order" and leave for America (wife, children of different ages)? What would be going through their minds as they set out on their journey? What would they be excited about?

How would they react to the news of the father's death? What was the wife's reaction in verse four? Anger. Why does grief usually include anger? What other feelings would each family member have?

What might become of this family now in the United States without their father? What were their options in 1900?

What were "benevolence unions"? Why would ethnic groups start their own organizations? Companies did nothing for workers injured or killed.

How is this song different from other songs we've studied? What are the clues that this song may have started out in a language other than English? Doesn't rhyme, chant rhythm, verse structure unlike British ballads.


"He Lies in the American Land" performed by Pete Seeger on American Industrial Ballads, Smithsonian Folkways [40058], © 1991. Available on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube.

Pete Seeger (1919–2014) performed this song with a haunting accompaniment on the banjo. Even though he is singing in English, he tries to bring out its mournful Slovakian roots. The awkward English sentences are the result of them being translated from the original Slovak.

For more information on Seeger, visit his website.

View the music and lyrics for "He Lies in the American Land."

A Slovakian steelworker in McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, Andrew Kovaly wrote this song after a friend was run over by an ingot buggy just prior to the arrival of his wife and children from Slovakia. When his family arrived in America, Kovaly had the terrible task of meeting them and breaking the sad news.

Men often went to America alone during this era. Many hoped to earn enough money to return to their homelands to buy farmland. Others needed to save enough money to pay for their families' passage to join them.

This song demonstrates how immigrants to America brought not only their work ethic but also their culture, especially their unique musical styles. One hears the echoes of eastern European harmonies and songs of lament in the music. McKeesport Mill 1892

National Tube Works, McKeesport, PA, 1892.

Write the letter the husband might have written home to tell his family to join him. Include details to prepare them for their new life.

Write a condolence letter to the widow as a benevolence union or shop foreman might have written it.

Compare this song to:

"How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?" (this unit)

"A Friendly Invitation to a New Plantation" (Unit 1)

"Thousands Are Sailing to Amerikay" (Unit 5)

"Crossing the Grand Sierras" (Unit 5).

Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell