Civil Servants, Evil Rhythms

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Canceling stamps by hand (affixing the inky postmark that tells where the letter has been when it arrives and how it’s traveling once it leaves) is an incredibly tedious process, every one of thousands of letters sent needs to have a rubber stamp with date and location inked and stamped over the postage before each letter can then be shunted into various piles by destination. To do it by hand means repetition of the same dull motion over and over for hours. Unless….

This audio, of four men manually canceling stamps, was recorded in 1975 at the University of Ghana Post Office. It is totally amazing. In this recording: one man slides the letters with his hand out from a long line of post (the slide and slap heard in the middle register), inks the stamp on an ink pad to the right of the line of letters (the lowest bass thud heard in the recording), and stamps the letter (some of which have more than one stamp on them, depending on their address, which leads to the syncopation in the counter-rhythm), a second man takes the canceled letters and sorts them (other slaps on 1 and 3), a third man has a pair of scissors that he snips for the high metallic sound they make (snip, snip, snip, rest) not because they have anything to do with the work, and the fourth whistles in harmony.

The point of this song isn’t about making music for the sake of music, the rhythms are for no dancers, the extra stamps and scissor snips and whistle tremolos aren’t stage theatrics. The point of work songs is to make music to make the day go faster, to unify the motion of the working body in rhythm and though this idea often manifests itself often in our minds below the decks of listing ships, in dusty fields, in national parks, rarely might you think of such a simple and beautiful work song being spun out of such a mundane (and now often mechanized) indoor task. How lovely, and in the most American sense, efficient.

Just watch the first five minutes of this 1978 documentary about the state of the USPS, and think of what a little wah-wah-whistling could do for these people.

If you’re having a hard time visualizing what the stamp canceling music looks like, here’s a short video (but this guy’s stamp crew is like The Troggs to the University of Ghana’s Post Office Beatles):