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Why I Love Folk Music

July 31, 2009

I love how folk music often has political undertones. Something pissed someone off and they wrote a song about it. It’s a real, living response to life.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger sing his sister Peggy’s tune “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer”:

In looking at the lyrics more closely, it’s surprising how much of it still rings true over 40 years later:

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys
Everybody said I only did it to annoy
But I was gonna be an engineer

Tomboy. A stereotype, but definitely true for some people.

Momma told me, Can’t you be a lady
Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
Wait until you’re older, dear, and maybe
You’ll be glad that you’re a girl


When I went to school I learned to write and how to read
Some history, geography and home economy
And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need
To while away the extra time until the time to breed
And then they had the nerve to say, What would you like to be
I says, I’m gonna be an engineer

I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the dilemma of women “working to while away the time”. If women don’t insist on fair wages, they won’t get them. Even if a particular woman doesn’t care what she gets paid because she’s living off her partner’s income, what about the next woman? Also, I hate the notion that educating women is important because “we need to educate mothers”. Old-fashioned nonsense, I say.

No, you only need to learn to be a lady
The duty isn’t yours, for to try and run the world
An engineer could never have a baby
Remember, dear, that you’re a girl

Right. Because the most important thing for a woman to do is have children. I also hate that. I went through a phase when I was younger where I thought it was a really important female experience to give birth to a child. Luckily I recognized that as brainwashing, got a tattoo on my stomach, and figure I’ll just adopt if I feel like having kids someday. In fact, every time I show a woman my tattoo – the first thing she mentions is “wow, I could never get a tattoo on my stomach, I’d be worried about it stretching”. I haven’t done any research, but I have a feeling that artificial insemination is more expensive than adopting – am I right? Someone should do economic analysis on that … or I should find it.

So I become a typist and I study on the sly
Working out the day and night so I can qualify
And every time the boss come in he pinched me on the thigh
Says, I’ve never had an engineer

Oy. Sexual harassment. I can thankfully say I’ve never been on the receiving end of that one.

You owe it to the job to be a lady
It’s the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl
The wages that you get are crummy, maybe
But it’s all you get cos’ you’re a girl


**She’s smart (for a woman)
I wonder how she got that way
You get no choice, you get no voice
Just stay mum, pretend you’re dumb
That’s how you come to be a lady today

This verse isn’t in Pete’s version. I know women my age who do this all the time – play dumb. It’s a terrible habit.

Then Jimmy come along and we set up a conjugation
We were busy every night with loving recreation
I spent my day at work so he could get his education
And now he’s an engineer

A woman making sacrifices for her man. Too often, women are afraid to be mean/bossy because it will make them seem bitchy. Bullshit. Why does he deserve his dreams more than she does?

He says, I know you’ll always be a lady
It’s the duty of my darling to love me all her life
How could an engineer look after or obey me
Remember, dear, that you’re my wife

But being an engineer doesn’t make him a worse husband, obviously. Good thing this nice man is here to explain to me how the world works. I’d feel bad that Jimmy has to live up to such high expectations to provide for his family if he wasn’t such an asshole about it.

As soon as Jimmy got a job I began again
Then, happy at my turret-lathe a year or so, and then
The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them
Kids, your mother was an engineer

Woo lathes – the beginning of mass-manufacturing technology according to wikipedia.

You owe it to the kids to be a lady
Dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow
Stay at home, you’ve got to mind the baby
Remember you’re a mother now

“dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow” – what a good line. It totally captures the unattractiveness of those supposed desired qualities.

Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
It’s cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
I listen in to Jimmy Young, it makes me want to spew
I was gonna be an engineer

I’d be angry too, sister. Revolt! Revolt!

Now I really wish that I could be a lady
I could do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do
I wouldn’t nearly mind if only they would pay me
And I could be a person too

Home-making – no recognition as an integral part of society. Nowadays, companies have work-life balance seminars instead of providing free childcare. Isn’t that clever?

**What price – for a woman
You can buy her for a ring of gold
To love and obey (without any pay)
You get a cook and a nurse, for better or worse
No you don’t need a purse when a lady is sold

Also missing from Pete’s version. He seems to have left out all the purely political verses in favor of the story-telling ones.

But now that times are harder, and my Jimmy’s got the sack
I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back
But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
And I’m a first-class engineer

At least she’s still confident. That’s not an easy task.

The boss he says, We pay you as a lady
You only got the job cos’ I can’t afford a man
With you I keep the profits high as may be
You’re just a cheaper pair of hands

I’m pretty sure that’s also sexual harassment. Anyway, it’s definitely bullshit.

**You’ve got one fault, you’re a woman
You’re not worth the equal pay
A bitch or a tart, you’re nothing but heart
Shallow and vain, you got no brain
You even go down the drain like a lady today

As if emotions were not also an important part of engineering, have you ever heard of something called “design”? Good design requires this thing called empathy. I learned about it in User-Oriented Design.

I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer

I’ve been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer

This is my favorite part of the song. It’s really hard to think of something not-cheesy to say right now.

Lyrics via

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