Chantey of the Ditch Diggers
by John K. Baxter

Struggle and strain, hussle and heave,
The strong must bear what the weak may leave.
All with one and one with all
Bend your backs at the foreman's call. A una!

The shovel it gnaws at the steep divide.
The drills bite deep in the mountain side
The blasts roar out, the rocks roll free
Wakening the echoes from sea to sea. A una!

Tussle and toil, clamor and curse,
War is Hell but this is worse;
Those that stay with the cursed ditch
May get a medal or the dhobie itch. A una!

When Pharoah finished his Pyramid,
"Look," he said, "what I've gone and did;
I'm jiggered if this don't beat the Dutch."
But we'll show Pharoah he wasn't so much. A una!

Greek, Gallego and coolie man,
Spiggoty, Nigger and American.
Parson and pimp, scholar and scamp,
Hayseed hickey and tropical tramp. A una!

It's a healthy resort so the doctors tell;
A salubrious spot, it is - like hell!
With "lungs" for you, and "liver" for me,
"Bugs" for some and for some "D.T." A una!

"Put an egg in your shoe you damned sore head
And beat it," John F. Stevens said.
A steamer sails most every day,
If you've any kick you don't have to stay. A una!

The Colonel don't use talk like that,
But the same idea roosts under his hat;
He puts it in circular X. Y. Z.
And it works out the same for you and me. A una!

Some of us like it and some of us don't

Most of us work but some of us won't.
Still the spoil comes out, by shovel and dredge,
And the dams rise up from the water's edge. A una!

Bill says we must finish before he gets out;
Big Bill knows what he is talking about.
We'll be ther on time if nobody shirks.
And lick the Japs to show how it works. A una!

Spirit of Good Old Days Preserved in Chanteys of West Indian Workers
from the Panama American ... Aug. 15, 1939.

Among the relics of the construction days which have never been satisfactorily preserved are the songs and chanteys of the West Indian laborers who made up the majority of the unskilled workers of the Canal forces.

The West Indians, most of whom came from Jamaica, Barbados and Martinique, were used for the back-breaking unskilled labor which accompanied the construction work. They dug ditches, cut trees and grass, acted as helpers to engineers and for a while until track shifting machines were brought to the Isthmus, shifted by hand thousands of feet of steel rail. When the steam shovels working in the cut were moved from day to day, track for the dump trains which carried away the spoil had to be shifted daily. This was an ardous, time consuming job, and monotonous to boot.

To while away their time and to get the best results from the labor, the crews began to use chanteys, much as do Negro labor gangs working on the levees and cotton presses in the south.

One of the crew leaders, or the gang's boss would sing the main part of the chantey with the laborers coming in on the refrain, timed to their movements. some of the chanteys were topical, based on the doings of the head white men or the leading families.

If Colonel Goethals had to go to the Pacific end of the line on business in his yellow motor car, the gangs along the line as he passed worked the rest of the day to a version of this sort, chanted to a monotonous tune.

"Colonel's gone - gone to Balboa
Gone - in his - yellow - motorcar."

The day by day chants on the events of the day served as a newspaper and kept the men up with what was going on in the Zone.

Some of the chanteys were standard. One of the favorites was, "Yello Jane" which ran like this:

The leader sang:
"Sally's gone to the mountain"
and the gang would chant: "High, Low Jane."

"She's gone for the yellow plantain - High, low Jane."

"High, low Jane - Hip_ Pipi for Mary - High low Jane."

Another favorite which has a more melodius tune than most of the others is "Monkey Jaw Bone," which in the dialect runs like this:

"go a Long Pon' fe watah,
Hear de bull frog a holler,
As de watchman a warrer
Monkey jaw bone so sweet."

The day after payday when the gangs had been out late the night before and all were feeling a little remorseful, the chantey for the day was this:

"I drink white rum and tumble down,
Don't want dutty (dirty) man come trouble me;
Iron Bar, Iron Bar
Don' want dutty man come trouble me."

The women had an equivalent song. On the day the pay train was due in the settelements along the line, all the West Indian wives would sing "today's my man's payday."

The drill gangs working with the sledge hammers had a particular chantey of their own. This one went as follows (Up and down with the drills):

"Ten poun' hammer
Kill my partner
Ten poun' hammer
Kill my partner
Ten poun' hammer
Kill my partner
Somebody's dying
Every day."

Toward the end of construction days two West Indians, Joseph Haynes and Jonah Dean wrote and set to music the following song:

"You've heard about the locks and dams,
Done by the men of fate
They even had to emigrate
Contractors from the States,
England, France and German
They all will have to pass,
The Atlantic and Pacific route
Is almost shorter now.


Goethals, Goethals, Your name shall e'er be called!
The principal constuctors who came from the States
Was McClintock and Marshall who hung the gates.
They're seventy and five feet high - the truth you can't deny
When the water display itself through spillway
Through your locks and dams.

"Oh poh me one" was another song which did not fall into the chantey class. this was sung, rather derisively by the Jamaican contingent of laborers. Its words follow:

What the Barbajan call a spree
Is a pint of soda divide in three
Oh poh me one, all a dem pon, poh me one.
Fifty-three Bajan live in a room,
Not one of them can buy a broom,
Oh poh meone, all a dem pon poh me one,

Uh had a little woman and we live mighty swell,
Till she took another fellow and drive me to hell,
Oh poh me one, all a dem pon poh me one
Yuh may go fishing with hook and line
But a good woman is hard to find
Oh poh me one, all a dem pon poh me one.

To gamble in the street won't do us any harm
When the police come he'll grab us by the arm,
Oh poh me one, all a dem pon poh me one.
Roll yuh dice and have yuh fun
Yuh gotta run like hell when the police come,
Oh poh me one, all a dem pon poh me one.

The best of all the chanteys was John Crow. the head of the gang sang the first and third lines while the laborers swung in with the refrain in tune to their work. The entire song is too long to print but some of the verses go like this:

"come on boys, hear the corchee blowing,
John Crow today, today.
Loook down the track see the straw boss coming,
John Crow today, today.

Pick up your picks and shovels in your hand
John Crow today, today.
We're going to work for Uncle Sam,
John Crow today, today.

When we get pay we gwine drink gin
John Crow today, today,
If it don't make us fat, it won't make us thin,
John Crow today, today.

John Crow no sport, no gal,
John Crow today, today.
John Crow no dig Canal.
John Crow today, today.

West Indian Workers Song . . . sung at the West Indian workers construction camps in the evening when the day's work was finished.


I love, yes I do, you know its true.
I'm going to Panama to work and send for you.
And when you come to Panama how happy you will be
'Cause money's down in Panama like apples on a tree.

They puts us off at Balboa, Corozal and Peter Miguel.
There is where the biggest job is done by those men of fate
McClintock Marshall and those men who hung the gates.
Yuh gets more money for that job than workin gin the cut

But it all depends muh honey on yuh don't get hut.
For if you ever get a drop yuh'll shurely have to die
For dem gates Lawd Gahd gal is seventy-five feet high.
I work down in Mindi where the construction was laid,

By old General Goethals that mighty man of fate
I give all of my youthful days in work for Uncle Sam
Now my old age they disnell, since we've dug the big ditch
They're sending us to Hell.

Presented by CZBrats
December 16 1998

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