Based upon a negro spiritual, this American folk song is known and sung by children all over the world, and has many versions, some of which are not suitable for consideration on a family site. Many versions are personalised to a given situation, or invented during a session. Bawdy versions tend to have a chorus based around
Singing I will if you will so will IFamily versions may have a chorus of
Singing Aye Aye Yippee Yippee Aye
The earliest recognised version of the song, using the same melody is called When The Chariot Comes and seems to have developed amongst negro slave workers in the American South. The song is categorised as being a call and response song, where one person sings the opening line and others in the group either repeat the line or offer the response. These songs or chants enabled workers to stay in time when working on organised tasks or moving when constrained by leg chains, and it was essential that everyone on the chain moved at the same time. The army also uses chants for this purpose to keep recruits in time, or to keep up the pace of the march. The most commonly used original lyric is easily recognised as the base of the children's song.
O! Who will drive the chariot when she comesThe song goes on to provide the answer:
O! Who will drive the chariot when she comes?
King Jesus, He'll be the driver when she comes.
The first written record of She'll be coming round the mountain appears in Carl Sandburg's seminal work The American Songbag in 1927. Sandburg was a poet and historian, but he was also a folk singer, and he collected these songs as he travelled around America. This collection of 280 songs and tunes represents the grounding of American musicology, if you think that when it was published Pete Seeger was a child, Burl Ives was still at school, and Woody Gutherie was only 15 years old, it is not surprising it's still in print. Sandberg excluded nothing, and you'll find German Immigrant songs with African American songs. The songs of labour, gold mining, sailing, lumbering, and railroading. It's in this last category you'll find She'll be coming round the mountain.
The American Railroad
The Baltimore and Ohio Railway was formed in 1830 and 14 miles of track opened that year, and before long they were joined by The Mohawk and Hudson, The Saratoga, The Columbia and others. In 1846 the Transcontinental Railroad was mooted but it wasn't until the Railroad Act of 1862 that the Government added their support and on May 10, 1869 the Union Pacific Railroad met with the Central Pacific at Promontory, Utah and it became reality.
Movies and contemporary pictures gave the impression that the railbed was built with Irish, German, and Black labour, though in reality the largest part of the workforce was Chinese. Still the images persist of the negro labourer driving the piles across the States and the songs that have been passed down echo this belief. The Ballad of John Henry, A Railroader for Me, Alabamy Bound, Asleep at The Switch and She'll be Coming Round the Mountain.
The most common verses of the song have the lines
She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes
She'll be driving 6 white horses when she comes,
Oh, we'll all come out to meet her when she comes,
We will kill the old red rooster when she comes,
We'll be having chicken and dumpling when she comes,
We'll be shouting Halleluja when she comes.There are many other versions though ranging from the specific to the bawdy, to comedic. It has been adapted for football chants and even twisted for political purposes. There are foreign language versions, in Germany they sing 'Tante aus Marokko' Our Auntie from Morrocco, but the tune is the same. There are children's versions which include noises and actions
She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes (Toot Toot - hand pulling whistle action)
She'll be riding 6 white horses when she comes (Whoa! Back! - wrestling with the reins)But all of them leave one burning question.
Who is SHE
Generally she is thought of as being the train that would be coming along the tracks behind the workers. The train that was bringing food and whiskey. The train that was bringing settlers and civilisation. The train that was bringing relief from hard labour.
However in The American Songbag Sandburg suggested another identity. He suggested Mary Harris Jones.
Mary Harris was born in County Cork, Ireland and went to America with her parents as a child. She trained to be a teacher and in 1861 she married George Jones, an iron moulder and union organiser from Tennessee. They had four children, but George and all of children died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867. She then moved to Chicago where she worked as a dressmaker until she lost her shop in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Over the next few years she became more and more involved in the union movement. She was involved in the rail strike of 1877 in Pittsburgh. In 1899 she was organising the coal fields in Pennsylvania. In 1911 she was in Mexico, she was arrested at Homestead in 1919, and was working with dressmakers in Chicago in 1924. Her reporting was in a language ordinary people could understand. This is from an article originally published in The International Socialist Review in March 1901.
I visited the factory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at 10 o'clock at night. The superintendent, not knowing my mission, gave me the entire freedom of the factory, and I made good use of it. Standing by a siding that contained 155 spindles were two little girls. I asked a man standing near if the children were his, and he replied that they were. 'How old are they?' I asked. 'This one is 9, the other 10,' he replied. 'How many hours do they work?' 'Twelve,' was the answer. 'How much do they get a night?' 'We all three together get 60 cents. They get 10 cents each and I 40.'She was described as 'The most dangerous woman in America' by Reese Blizzard, the West Virginia District Attorney. Sandberg suggested that this was the figure the workers sang about. The 'she' who was coming round the mountain.
I watched them as they left their slave-pen in the morning and saw them gather their rags around their frail forms to hide them from the wintry blast. Half-fed, half-clothed, half-housed, they toil on, while the poodle dogs of their masters are petted and coddled and sleep on pillows of down, and the capitalistic judges jail the agitators that would dare to help these helpless ones to better their condition.
The identity of 'she' however doesn't worry the countless adults and children who have happily sang along on journeys and round campfires.
She'll be wearing pink pyjamas when she comes,
She'll be wearing pink pyjamas when she comes,
She'll be wearing pink pyjamas,
Wearing pink pyjamas,
She'll be wearing pink pyjamas when she comes.