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Each year on Labor Day, I have a soundtrack in my head. Songs about working people, and labor, and unions. Many of the images that accompany that soundtrack are from WPA Federal Art Project murals that fascinated me as a child. I grew up listening to a lot of folk music, and songs that celebrated struggle. The man whose voice I can still hear is Paul Robeson. So I'll open with his version of Joe Hill.  

I hear echoes of Joe Hill's music in John Lennon's Working Class Hero.

Though for many, labor day weekend means the last gasp of summer, or a time to cash in on sales, for me it will always be about work—whether in the fields, or factories, on chain gangs or in cafeterias and offices.  

So join me today in celebrating work and workers, and feel free to post your favorite songs that epitomize this day for you.

Alert: This post will be very video heavy. Most will be below the fold.

I first saw the artwork of Charles Henry Alston at Harlem Hospital, in New York City.

Labor Day 1942 poster
Labor Day, 1942, by Charles Henry Alston, the first African American supervisor for the WPA Federal Art Project
Alston painted murals throughout Harlem, including depression-era murals as part of the WPA. One of his best-known murals was created by Alston and other Harlem artists for the Harlem Hospital Center. Despite some opposition to the murals because of the numbers of African-Americans prominent in the design sketches, the project moved forward with the financial support of Louis T. Wright, the first African-American physician to serve on the hospital's staff, and community support. Artists who worked on the murals included Georgette Seabrooke, Vertis Hayes, Alfred Crimi, Beauford Delaney, and photographer Morgan Smith.
(Continue reading below the fold)

 A 12 foot tall by 18 foot wide labor history mural adorns the inside of Laborers' Local 362's old hall, 2005 Cabintown Road, Bloomington, Illinois. The mural depicts local labor history, including the Chicago & Alton Railroad Shops and the 1922 Shops workers' strike; a 1917 visit by Mary Harris
Labor history mural, painted by Kari Sandhaas. Bloomington, Illinois
"Talking Union" opens with lyrics most of us can relate to.
If you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do;
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you;
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,
But if you all stick together, now, ‘twont he long.
You'll get shorter hours,
Better working conditions.
Vacations with pay,
Take your kids to the seashore.

It ain’t quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train;
‘Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
We’ll all be waiting till Judgment Day;
We’ll all be buried - gone to Heaven -
Saint Peter’ll be the straw boss then.

No song-list on unions and worker movements would be complete without Woody Guthrie. Here are Pete Seeger, and Woody's son Arlo Guthrie talking about, and singing Union Maid.

We should all remember, that joining a union was not merely a matter of going to a union hall and paying dues.  It could mean being beaten, jailed or losing your life.

I think of "Which Side Are You On?" by Florence Reece.

Reece was the wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. In 1931, the miners of that region were locked in a bitter and violent struggle with the mine owners called the Harlan County War. In an attempt to intimidate the Reece family, Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men (hired by the mining company) illegally entered their family home in search of Sam Reece. Sam had been warned in advance and escaped, but Florence and their children were terrorized in his place. That night, after the men had gone, Florence wrote the lyrics to "Which Side Are You On?" on a calendar that hung in the kitchen of her home.
Here's Natalie Merchant's version:

I also like Rebel Diaz rapping their version, recorded during the Bush years.

Laborers the U.S. didn't always get paid.  Many were enslaved. After the emancipation of slaves, a new form of slavery arose- the chain gang.

Oscar Brown Jr. and Sam Cooke both have versions.


The blues, and country music in the US have so many songs about work, and workers it would be impossible to try to list them. As a kid, I remember hearing "Sixteen tons" on the radio, and thinking about coal mines, and coal miners.

"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the life of a coal miner, first recorded in 1946 by American country singer Merle Travis and released on his box set album Folk Songs of the Hills the following year. A 1955 version recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford reached number one in the Billboard charts.


Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert recently released a new version of Lynn's Coal Miner's Daughter.


Mississippi John Hurt sings one of my favorite versions of songs about John Henry.

The legend of John Henry has been compared to that of other American "Big Men", such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. John Henry's heroism is associated with several elements: his strength and grit as a working-class common man, his status as a hero to African American laborers, and his allegorical depiction of "the tragedy of man versus machine" and other aspects of modernization.

There are many versions of John Henry's story. In almost all versions of the story, John Henry is a black man of exceptional physical gifts, a former slave, possibly born in Tennessee. Henry becomes the greatest "steel-driver" in the mid-nineteenth-century push to expand railroads from the East Coast of the United States, across and through the mountains, to the frontier West. However, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black steel-driving crew. To save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner to a contest: Henry will race the steam-powered hammer.




two steel workers, lithograph
Builders, lithograph by Harry Sternberg, WPA

From railroad worker's swinging hammers, the music moved on to steel workers, and Billy Joel's anthem "Allentown".


Growing up during the 50's, I saw street peddlers, knife grinders, and fruit wagons in the streets of Brooklyn and when we lived down south.




Often, when I eat a banana, I hear Harry Belafonte's Banana Boat Song in my head, reminding me of the labor it takes to put fruit on my table.




Both of my grandmother's were domestics. My white grandmother worked as a laundress, and my black grandmother worked as a maid, and a cook.


black woman folding laundry
Tuesday-Othelia by Meyer Wolfe

I've worked in quite a few jobs that were traditionally "women's work", including waiting tables. The advent of the women's movement saw the rise of musical anthem's about women and work. I have two favorites, by Dolly Parton and Donna Summer.


I'll add this ode to waitressing, "Nickled and Dimed" from the movie “The American Ruling Class”.





I remember, growing up during the days of "doo-wop", R&B, and early rock and roll, songs about finding and getting jobs.



Some history, about why we celebrate in September.

In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the CLU (Central Labor Union) of New York. Others argue that it was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada.

Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday in 1887. By the time it became a federal holiday in 1894, thirty states officially celebrated Labor Day. Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland reconciled with Reyes, leader of the labor movement. Fearing further conflict, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday; Cleveland signed it into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The September date originally chosen by the CLU of New York and observed by many of the nation's trade unions for the past several years was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers' Day because Cleveland was concerned that observance of the latter would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements that, though distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in International Workers' Day. All U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the territories have made it a statutory holiday.

Even though this is our US labor day, I want to close with an international song,
Plegaria a un labrador(Prayer to a Worker) by Victor Jara.


I could sit here all day listing and posting songs, but will stop. Time to go outside and check the grill. Thank you for listening, and when I come back in, I am looking forward to hearing what's on your Labor Day music list.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 07:45 AM PDT.

Also republished by J Town, In Support of Labor and Unions, Rebel Songwriters, Barriers and Bridges, DKOMA, and Protest Music.

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