Chain Gang By Sam Cooke

Swing Low

1961 | Soul

Spotify | Amazon

"All day long they work so hard, 'til the sun is goin' down. -- Working on the highways and byways and wearing, wearing a frown. -- You hear them moanin' their lives away, then you hear somebody say."


  • Hit #63 on Billboard Hot 100 chart & #22 on their Adult Contemporary chart.
  • Jackie Wilson and Count Basie recorded a version of the song in 1968.
  • Jim Croce hit #69 on the Billboard hot 100 with a medley that included this song in 1976.


Luke Tatum

Modern day slavery. Chained men, working to repair government infrastructure. While this was primarily a tactic used by wicked law enforcement in a bygone era, some states kept the practice into the mid 1990's. Then, in 1995, many states brought back the practice. (I wonder if their infrastructure was crumbling, like our politicians whine about today during every election.) What do you do when you don't want to raise taxes (beacuse people hate that) but you also want to fix the roads and clear the land and repair old buildings? Why, just find some free labor! Inhumane, savage, brutal, and indicative of larger systemic problems with the United States prison system. All empires are built on slavery, or so they say.

Sherry Voluntary

The sweet voice of Sam Cooke, is paired so beautifully with such a bitterly harsh subject. Chain gangs appeared after the Civil War as a way to get “free” labor to do public works projects that needed to be done, but there was no money for, so some states turned to a legal form of slavery, the forced labor of the chain gangs. Not only were their racial issues of the chain gangs, there were human rights issues. My mother, who grew up in Georgia in the 50’s and 60’s, has often told me of her experience seeing chain gangs when she was a little girl and how scary and sad they were to her. I just think of how the heart of a child could see the terribleness of what was happening to these men, in her case, but the adults around her only see disposable humans who are “getting what they deserve.” These programs have not been, nor are currently only composed of men, there have been and are gangs that consist of women, and even juveniles.

Many people are under the false impression that this practice has been long left in the past, but unfortunately these programs have just been rebranded to suit more modern sensibilities.

Chain gangs, gave way to work gangs, and work gangs gave way to “Voluntary” work programs for pay and time off of their sentences. As recently as 2018 during The Camp Fire, in Butte County, CA, that killed 85 people and destroyed over 14,000 homes and thousands of acres of forest, there were reports of the inmates that were assisting trained firefighters, six of whom were killed, battling this blaze. Inmates are lured into these programs less for the $2 a day, and $1 and hour during active fires that they can earn, but more for the time off sentences and the “valuable job skills” that they will learn. Unfortunately, those skills very rarely translates into real jobs with fire departments when inmates get out because most fire departments require applicants to be licensed EMTs, and the licensing boards most often deny people with criminal histories. The State of course argues for these programs saying not only are they “voluntary,” and inmates are payed and learn skills, but they save taxpayers between $90 to $100 million per year. I think any libertarian can see the massive opportunities for abuse and coercion as well as incentivized mass incarceration, especially when there is a financial incentive for the state. While I’m all for inmate programs that actually provide help, therapy, or job skills for inmates, I think incentivizing inmates to make the choice between safety and freedom is a very bad idea, especially with the current highly compromised, and corrupted “justice” system. Libertarianism stands against exploitation of the individual, even when that individual is a criminal under the law.

Nicky P

Anachronistic perhaps? I always thought this song was weird. It never sat right in my mind that a black man was talking about men being chained up in a contemporary setting. The song doesn't seem to import a racial angle and based on crime statistics I actually wonder if that might have even been a concern back then before the drug war... At any rate it doesn't change the fact that we still cage the largest prison population on earth per capita by a long shot. This song in such a visceral and potent way manages to call into your mind that connection the images of southern slave culture and tie it into the carceral state. We could yet again take it just a little bit further and talk about it's humanization of inmates. All too often we think of criminals as some sort of other which invariably leads to dehumanization, when theyre just people who have performed an act that a segment of society deemed wrong (a particularly small evil sect in most cases.) I've always loved Sam Cooke and & love him a little more now.

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Nicky P

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