“They’ve invented a new machine” – a folk song’s mixed emotions on automation

Bruce Molsky sings “a little sad song about a shoemaker”:

They’ve invented a new machine / I peg one shoe, it pegs fifteen / I’m gonna lay me down my awl, my peg & awl.

It’s a beautiful performance, an all-time favorite of mine, and of Linda Ronstadt’s, too. She said, “I cried when I heard that song the first time — and I’m not a crybaby.”

Ronstadt puts Molsky’s singing on Peg & Awl alongside Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald. “Bruce has that ability to track deep emotion in his voice, without any unnecessary adornment. It’s pared back to only the essential architecture of emotion.”

But what is the emotion of Peg & Awl? Molsky explains the song “has really gone through the changes over the years, all the people who’ve sung it and recorded it. In the original lyrics to the song, the guy was actually pretty happy about being replaced. But I just rewrote the lyrics to make it sad.”

Indeed, in an older version from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the shoemaker was tired of tedious labor with primitive tools, but is now overjoyed by new time-saving technology:

They’ve invented a new machine / prettiest little thing you’ve ever seen / Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

(You can find more discussion & variations at “The Old Weird America” blog.)

There’s nothing wrong with rewriting lyrics or changing the mood – it’s the folk process at work. The late great Pete Seeger advised artists, “Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.”

Molsky took this old song and made it his own, with melancholy, nostalgia, and bittersweet beauty.

“Progress can leave some people behind, even as it benefits society as a whole,” write Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee, authors of Race Against the Machine. That’s the tension in the folk history of Peg & Awl, and the tension in the contemporary debate about how technology impacts the future of work.

Anxiety or optimism – which side is the song on? It depends who sings it.

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