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“For thirty-seven years,” reads the opening passage in the book, “the gatherings and conventions of our IBM workers have expressed in happy songs the fine spirit of loyal cooperation and good fellowship which has promoted the signal success of our great IBM Corporation in its truly International Service for the betterment of business and benefit to mankind.”
That’s a hell of a mouthful, but it’s only the opening volley in the war on self-respect and decency that is the 1937 edition of Songs of the IBM, a booklet of corporate ditties first published in 1927 on the order of IBM company founder Thomas Watson, Sr.
The 1937 edition of the songbook is a 54-page monument to glassey-eyed corporate inhumanity, with every page overflowing with trite praise to The Company and Its Men. The booklet reads like a terribly parody of a hymnal—one that praises not the traditional Christian trinity but the new corporate triumvirate of IBM the father, Watson the son, and American entrepreneurship as the holy spirit:
Thomas Watson is our inspiration,
Head and soul of our splendid I.B.M.
We are pledged to him in every nation,
Our President and most beloved man.
His wisdom has guided each division
In service to all humanity
We have grown and broadened with his vision,
None can match him or our great company.
T. J. Watson, we all honor you,
You’re so big and so square and so true,
We will follow and serve with you forever,
All the world must know what I. B. M. can do.
—from “To Thos. J. Watson, President, I.B.M. Our Inspiration”
The wording transcends sense and sanity—these aren’t songs that normal human beings would choose to line up and sing, are they? Have people changed so much in the last 70-80 years that these songs—which seem expressly designed to debase their singers and deify their subjects—would be joyfully sung in harmony without complaint at company meetings? Were workers in the 1920s and 1930s so dehumanized by the rampaging robber barons of high industry that the only way to keep a desirable corporate job at a place like IBM was to toe the line and sing for your paycheck?
We don’t pretend we’re gay.
We always feel that way,
Because we’re filling the world with sunshine.
With I.B.M. machines,
We’ve got the finest means,
For brightly painting the clouds with sunshine.
—from “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine”
Surely no one would stand for this kind of thing in the modern world—to us, company songs seem like relics of a less-enlightened age. If anything, the mindless overflowing trite words sound like the kind of praises one would find directed at a cult of personality dictator in a decaying wreck of a country like North Korea.
Indeed, some of the songs in the book wouldn’t be out of place venerating the Juche ideal instead of IBM:
Marching Along Together;
Pushing on through thick and thin.
Marching Along Together;
Determination’s bound to win.
We will exert more effort;
We will apply more thought.
Throughout the year we’ll prove to all what really can be done;
We’ll work together all of us—we’ve got the battle won
—from “I.B.M. Hundred Percent Club Rally Song”
There are songs discussing the virtues of various IBM corporate officers and division and songs praising the sales organization and its mad unending drive to sell sell SELL (“If they use machines in Mars / We will sell them some of ours!”) There’s even a song dedicated to IBM’s “office girls,” who, the lyrics assure us, are “always in style,” in no small part because of how “sweetly they smile.”
Tie an onion to your belt
All right, time to come clean: it’s incredibly easy to cherry pick terrible examples out of a 77-year old corporate songbook (though this songbook makes it easy because of how crazy it is to modern eyes). Moreover, to answer one of the rhetorical questions above, no—people have not changed so much over the past 80-ish years that they could sing mawkishly pro-IBM songs with an irony-free straight face. At least, not without some additional context.
There’s a decade-old writeup on NetworkWorld about the IBM corporate song phenomena that provides a lot of the glue necessary to build a complete mental picture of what was going on in both employees’ and leaderships’ heads. The key takeaway to deflate a lot of the looniness is that the majority of the songs came out of the Great Depression era, and employees lucky enough to be steadfastly employed by a company like IBM often were really that grateful.
The formal integration of singing as an aspect of IBM’s culture at the time was heavily encouraged by Thomas J. Watson Sr. Watson and his employees co-opted the era’s showtunes and popular melodies for their proto-filking, ensuring that everyone would know the way the song went, if not the exact wording. Employees belting out “To the International Ticketograph Division” to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” (“In I.B.M. There’s a division. / That’s known as the Ticketograph; / It’s peopled by men who have vision, / Progressive and hard-working staff”) really isn’t all that different from any other team-building exercise that modern companies do—in fact, in a lot of ways, it’s far less humiliating than a company picnic with Mandatory Interdepartmental Three-Legged Races.
Many of the songs mirror the kinds of things that university students of the same time period might sing in honor of their alma mater. When viewed from the perspective of the Depression and post-Depression era, the singing is still silly—but it also makes a lot more sense. Watson reportedly wanted to inspire loyalty and cohesion among employees—and, remember, this was also an era where “normal” employee behavior was to work at a single company for most of one’s professional life, and then retire with a pension. It’s certainly a lot easier to sing a company’s praises if there’s paid retirement at the end of the last verse.
I just want to sing
The era of the absurd singing IBM employee dwindled to a close in the 1950s, when Thomas Watson Jr. took over IBM after his father’s death. The music played on strongly in the sales side of IBM’s business until at least the late 1960s, but shifting corporate and cultural mores saw more and more people finding the singing campy and corny. As NetworkWorld’s piece notes, companies began to turn to “t-shirts [and] mugs” to reward employees, rather than the joy of shared song.
The last vestige of Watson’s musical IBM died in 2001, when the company disbanded its symphony orchestra. When it existed, the band performed daily summer concerts for employees at the company’s Endicott, NY location. At least according to this IBM historical exhibit site, the company’s musical tradition continues to live on, but the days of fedora-clutching men proudly singing “Ever Onward” in a jolly unified baritone are long gone.
The idea of singing songs in praise of an employer today seems patently crazy—but also, sadly, is the idea of working somewhere for 30 years and retiring with full benefits. I could sing a little song for that kind of security. Maybe it’s time to start writing “We All Work in the Orbiting HQ,” set to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”