There is no dearth of artworks depicting stevedores (or dockers, as they are called in the UK). In contrast, poems by famous authors about these waterfront workers are few and far between. In fact, I have found only three, two of which I am pleased to share with Marine Café Blog readers. The third one, ‘The Stevedore’ by the Soviet poet Vadim Strelchenko, can be read here. As for songs about stevedores, I know of only one: ‘Dusky Stevedore’.
By John Gould Fletcher (American, 1886 – 1950)
Frieze of warm bronze that glides with cat-like movements
Over the gang-plank poised and yet awaiting,
The sinewy thudding rhythms of forty shuffling feet
Falling like muffle drum-beats on the stillness:
Oh, roll the cotton down–
Roll, roll, the cotton down!
From the further side of Jordan,
On, roll the cotton down!
And the river waits,
The river listens,
Chuckling with little banjo-notes that break with a plop on the stillness.
And by the low dark shed that holds the heavy freights,
Two lonely cypress trees stand up and point with stiffened fingers
Far southward where a single chimney stands aloof in the sky.
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (American, 1850-1919)
(Wilcox recited this poem before some 9,000 US Army stevedores stationed in France during World War I.)
We are the army stevedores, lusty and virile and strong,
We are given the hardest work of the war, and the hours are long.
We handle the heavy boxes, and shovel the dirty coal;
While soldiers and sailors work in the light, we burrow below like a mole.
But somebody has to do this work, or the soldiers could not fight!
And whatever work is given a man, is good if he does it right.
We are the army stevedores, and we are volunteers.
We did not wait for the draft to come, to put aside our fears;
We flung them away on the winds of fate, at the very first call of our land,
And each of us offered a willing heart and the strength of a brawny hand.
We are the army stevedores, and work as we must and may,
The cross of honour will never be ours to proudly wear away.
But the men at the Front could never be there,
And the battles could not be won,
If the stevedores stopped in their dull routine
And left their work undone.
Somebody has to do this work, be glad that it isn’t you!
We are the army stevedores–give us our due!
A song about a happy stevedore
‘Dusky Stevedore’ is a song from 1928 composed by American pianist and songwriter J.C. Johnson (1896 – 1981). The lyrics were written by Andy Razaf (1895 – 1973), a poet, composer and lyricist. The bouncy melody perfectly suits the words:
He’s just a stevedore,
Down on that Swanee shore,
Working and singing a song;
His dusky brow is wet,
He doesn’t mind the sweat,
A-shuffling all the day long;
See his ragtime shuffling gait.
Happy ’cause he’s handling freight,
The leevee’s heaven for
The dusky stevedore
Working and singing a song.
The following video features ‘Dusky Stevedore’ by Thelma Terry and her Playboys. Click here to play and download the audio recording.