A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 29, 2008
Like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween, Labor Day’s meaning has been obscured by time. For most folks, it’s a day off and symbolizes the end of summer — which is kind of dumb, because summer doesn’t actually end until Sept. 20 or so, and the start of school, which is summer’s end for most kids, is in late August in many places.
Labor Day, which became a federal holiday in 1894, was originally meant to honor all working people — not presidents, not any individual. And it wasn’t associated with any religious tradition. But yes, the day off with pay was part of the deal. Why no “Bosses’ Day”? Look at corporate salaries, and you’ll realize that every day is Bosses’ Day.
This country has a proud history of labor songs and songwriters. Joe Hill, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose ghost appeared to Paul Robeson and Joan Baez in dreams, wrote some classics like “There Is Power in a Union,” “Rebel Girl,” and “Casey Jones: Union Scab.” Woody Guthrie wrote (or perhaps co-wrote) “Union Maid” and “Ludlow Massacre.” And we can’t forget Utah Phillips, who died earlier this year. He sang lots of labor songs and, in the 1990s, recorded two albums with Ani DiFranco — Fellow Workers and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere — filled with original and classic labor tunes.
Here’s a list of my favorite songs for Labor Day. Most of them you won’t find in union songbooks, which is too bad.
1. “Plenty Tuff, Union Made” by The Waco Brothers. Sung by Jon Langford, this rockabilly rouser is a punchy, high-energy anthem. The song is about hard times, but there’s joy in the struggle, and ultimately it’s an optimistic tune. “I don’t think the king woke up one morning/Said all people should be better paid (no!)/Things were bad but things got changed/Plenty tough, union made.”
2. “Working Man’s Blues” by Merle Haggard. This country classic captures a lot of the conflicted sentiments and impulses of modern American workers. And with the opening line, “It’s a hard job just gettin’ by with nine kids and a wife,” it could serve as propaganda for Planned Parenthood.
3. “Sweetheart on the Barricade” by Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson. This tune, from Richard and Danny’s (no relation to each other, by the way) 1997 album Industry, owes much to Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” with the added element of romance. Richard picked up on the sexual energy of the struggle for decent wages and working conditions: “My heart, it skips a beat/There’ll be fighting in the street/My sweetheart’s on the barricade.”
4. “Union Song” by Carter Falco. It’s not surprising that this Steve Earle-influenced song wasn’t embraced by the Nashville establishment. Lyrics like “I’m headin’ into tear gas, dig in, man, hold your ground” tend to scare corporate bosses in any industry. Falco curses “dirty scabs who cross the line” as well as cops firing rubber bullets at strikers. And he sings praises to César Chávez, Joe Hill, and all “union men and women standin’ up and standin’ strong.”
5. “Red Neck, Blue Collar” by James Luther Dickinson. This song, written by Bob Frank, is the highlight of Memphis veteran Dickinson’s 2006 Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger album. It’s not a glorification of the working class but a frustrated look at how so many working-class folks are systematically fooled into backing politicians and political positions that are contrary to their own economic interests.
6. “Lawrence Jones” by Kathy Mattea. This is the most powerful song from Mattea’s concept album Coal, released early this year. It was written by folk singer/organizer Si Kahn and deals with the bloody 13-month miners’ strike that began in 1973 in Harlan County, Kentucky. As documented in Barbara Kopple’s influential documentary Harlan County U.S.A., Jones was fatally shot.
7. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” by The Del-Lords. This tune was written by West Virginia hillbilly bard Blind Alfred Reed at the outset of the Great Depression. It’s a screed against high prices, bad schools, trigger-happy cops, crooked preachers, and doctors who dispense “a dose of dope and a great big bill.” All these things were still around in the 1980s when New York’s Del-Lords ripped into it and made it rock.
8. “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” by Randy Newman. This song comes from the album Good Old Boys, which was released in 1974, so I always assumed the lyrics were aimed at Richard Nixon. “We’re not askin’ you to love us/You may put yourself high above us/Mr. President, have pity on the working man.”
9. “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You or Me)” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. In this rockabilly tune, John Fogerty takes a poke at the elitism found in too many hipster circles in the late ’60s. As Fogerty explained in a Rolling Stone interview: “We’re all so ethnic now, with our long hair and shit. But, when it comes to doing the real crap that civilization needs to keep it going ... who’s going to be the garbage collector? None of us will. Most of us will say, ‘That’s beneath me, I ain’t gonna do that job.’”
10. “Big Boss Man” by Jimmy Reed. “You got me working, boss man, working ’round the clock/I want me a drink of water, but you won’t let Jimmy stop.” The sentiments of this venerated blues song are so universal. I can imagine a movie about the construction of the Pyramids. One of the slaves stops his work, looks up, and begins to sing: “Big boss man, don’t you hear when I call?”
Workin’ man radio: Hear these songs and lots more when Stan Rosen joins me at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7, for Terrell’s Sound World’s annual post-Labor Day show (on KSFR-FM 101.1). As always, we’ll focus on songs about workers and the labor movement.
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