Peg and Awl



Carolina Tar Heels
“Peg and Awl” (Victor V-40007, 1928)

“Peg and Awl” is a song about making shoes, and while that may seem like a mundane subject, it is executed in a way that is marvelously entertaining. The song is sung from the perspective of a shoemaker who toils away year after year making shoes by hand with the tools of the day: peg and awl. When a new machine is invented that makes it possible to make shoes much faster and easier, the shoemaker rejoices, because “Peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun.”

Historically, the song gets the timing wrong: shoemaking machines weren’t in use until the late 19th century, not the beginning. But that’s really not the point; the real strength of the song is its presentation, which is catchy and subtly comical. The song is played on guitar and banjo, with harmonica added at the beginning and end. A rustic, nasal voice sings the verses, while another voice periodically interjects, “Peg and awl!” The word “awl” is always stretched out into an almost hound-dog like howl. At the end of the song, it is a howl of triumph when that second voice finally says, “Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!”


The song itself is what I would consider an example of Deep Craft. Though presumably written by an anonymous cobbler almost two hundred years ago, its message remains relevant, like an early 19th century version of Moore’s Law, and the song’s survival both transcends and acknowledges the passing from a craft-based to an industrial production paradigm. Yet it manages to romanticize neither.

The origin of the word ‘toil’ has two Latin derivations. As a verb, it derives from ‘tudes’, to hammer; as a noun it derives from ‘tela’, a web.

As illustrated by the song ‘Peg and Awl’, making things offers an opportunity to elevate the ‘toil’ of handwork into something more timeless, like a memorable song, which might outlive any of the practical products of artisanry (shoes?). The cadence of the song and collaborative exchange of its interlocking parts hints at a kind of pre-machine logic. The low-energy instrumentation and light-hearted delivery captures a comic ambivalence and reluctant enthusiasm for the dawning Industrial Revolution. More so than shoes, ‘Peg and Awl’ is the exalted product of tireless handwork, and sounds like its authors knew exactly what they were doing.

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