Last week I had the opportunity to take over a session of Professor Mark Naison's Fordham University history class on the American Working Class, talking about music and the working class. In advance I prepped a CD of songs and burned a copy for each student to listen to before the class. Most of 'em did, too.
I am posting here the brief "liner notes" I handed out with the tunes. To make it easy on you, I have included links to online versions of most of them, I have linked only the original artists for the versions on the CD I created, either in the originals or or reasonably close alternates--some live. Some of the others you can probably dig up on Spotify or other music sites.
And if anyone wants th' whole damn thing, I'd be glad to cut you a CD of yer own. Music wants to be free. Also, it gets lonely when nobody is listening.
[Crossposted from Fire on the Mountain]
This is not a blues by any means, more of a rag. Jenkins deals with the miseries of the just unfolding Depression—still called after the stock market panic that triggered it—with humor:
All the landlords done raised the rent,
Folks that ain't broke is badly bent,
and a certain grim prophecy:
So if luck don't change, there'll be some stealing done,
The Bright Light Quartet--"Menhaden Chanteys" (1959)
A nifty sampler of work songs, songs sung while working to provide the rhythm for the work process itself. This was not recorded on the small skiffs used to fish menhaden with nets in the coastal waters of Virginia and North Carolina. These guys were a semi-professional gospel quintet from Virginia, who also worked as menhaden fishers. One thing you’ll notice right off is that groups of men working together don’t only sing about the work process.
The Dixon Brothers--"Weave Room Blues" (c. 1935)
This is not a work song, but a song about working. Dorsey Dixon and his brother Howard spent most of their adult lives working in Carolina textile mills, because they made so little money from performances and the dozens of records they cut.
Ella Mae Morse--"Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet" (1942)
Cut with Freddy Slack’s Orchestra, this tune highlights the war production that ended the Great Depression and drew millions of women into industrial production for the first time. A word of explanation: milk used to come in bottles and be delivered right to your home in the wee hours of the morning by a milkman, who also picked up the empties.
This blues, one of Broonzy’s best known, was unusual for its blunt depiction of racism:
If you was white, should be all right,
If you was brown, stick around,
But as you’s black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"
Often overlooked is that it’s about racism in work—-he sings about discrimination on the job and trying to get one.
Early rock & roll was the music of working class youth. Working class kids made it and they were the market. Can you imagine a million-selling group today releasing and pushing a cut about working on a garbage truck?
Bob Luman--"Poor Boy Blues" (1965)
Luman got his start as one of the rockabilly cohort, like the early Elvis, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis. As rock changed in the early ‘60s, he shifted toward country, but kept a bit of rock’s rhythm and sly humor in this cut, which addresses the Great Society programs which spread the county’s wealth more broadly across the population.
Dick Curless--"A Tombstone Every Mile" (1965)
Truckers’ songs are a whole sub-genre of country music. Any guesses why that might be? This one, like a lot of songs about mining, logging and working on the water, emphasizes the dangers inherent in the work.
Lorraine Lee--"Pennies From Heaven" (1990?)
This woman was my baby-sitter when I was in elementary school, but that’s not why the cut is here. This, too, is a look at hard and dangerous work, but it’s matter-of-fact, not overblown, and conveys something of rural working folk in the North.
One o’ them SF hippie bands--and one of the best. Notable for being led by two women, Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite, in a period where women in rock tended to be pigeonholed as “chick singers.” This is noteworthy for the evocation of working class life for a single woman, and reflected the changes in women’s consciousness as the modern women’s movement caught fire.
These guys are arguably the finest vocal combo country music has ever produced. Most of their stuff tends to be either comic or sentimental. This leans into both, but never falls in, and presents a good look at life (for white folks, anyhow) during the era when a lot of your grandparents were coming up. Looking back at this high point of the US Empire, the song has a fatalistic undertone, a sense that the American Dream is somehow flawed.
Loretta Lynn--"The Pill" (recorded 1972, released 1975)
By the 1970s, the trend of women entering, and staying in, the workforce was changing the face of the US class structure and gender relations within the family. One of the things that made it possible was the birth control pill, first introduced in 1960. In the very conservative world of country music, this song by the top female star was banned on many stations.
Like “Class of ’57,” this is about the American Dream, but with an even harsher look. I include it, instead of something by, say, Bruce Springsteen, who plays in the same ballpark, because it hints at some answers to a question that has plagued political scientists—and Marxists: Why is there no strong socialist tradition in the US?
A soul outfit out of Columbus, Ohio. Unlike the Statlers, and like the Dixons, leaders Billy and John Valentine actually were siblings. This great song observes the Reagan Recession with a mellow vocal and a bitter eye. It also observes the decline of the Black liberation movement, which had been the driving force in social change in the US at least since the early 1950s.
These guys belong in a serious look at class in the US, because they have staked out New Jersey’s suburban middle class as their turf. This, for instance, is a song about guys who have trouble growing up, but it is also about the meaningless and precarious nature of life in middle management. (And it’s a tip of the hat to Timbuk 3’s ironic 1986 hit, "The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades")
Afroman--"Graveyard Shift" (2000)
“(Dedicated to all the blue collar workers strugglin', strivin', throbbin', and thrivin'.)” There’s plenty of hiphop dealing with the underground economy of drug dealing, some real as death, some made right up. Afroman goes another route here is one of the best songs so far about legal work in the 21st century in any genre, period. It captures late night, low wage work--and more important, the relations among the workers on the job.
James McMurtry--"We Can't Make It Here (acoustic)" (2004)
James McMurtry is one of the best songwriters working today. This song foreshadows the coming of the Occupy Movement, with its clear look at the collapse of the old industrial economy in this country and the slow burning out of Rust Belt cities and towns. He’s doesn’t bite his tongue when it comes to calling out those responsible either.
Pretty Girls Make Graves--"Parade" (2006)
Ah, hell, I can’t do this without at least a couple of union songs. This one, by a sadly defunct post-punk band out of Seattle, is a rocking tribute to labor organizing and paints a picture of last winter’s Battle of Wisconsin before the fact.
Tom Morello--"Union Town" (2010)
And speaking of the Battle of Wisconsin, here’s Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman, Street Sweeper Social Club,… that Tom Morello) doing his anthem written during the high point of that struggle. Like "Parade," it looks forward to a revival of the trade union movement.
Leslie Fish--"Curse of the Drinking Class" (1977)
Leslie Fish made her name as a founder of filk music (you do not want to know, trust me on this), but she’s also an anarchist and wrote this modern day version of the work songs I highlighted at the beginning. Oddly enough, she doesn’t limit herself to singing about the work process either…
And to complete the symmetrical reflection of the first two cuts, here to close things out is a nifty—and timely--update of the Hezekiah Jenkins song this CD starts with.