Songs for the American Working Class

by Allan Branstiter and Carson Starkey

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It’s that time of the month. Bills are coming in the mail. Paycheck’s still a week or more away. Management won’t get off your back. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Landlord keeps getting on you about your dog. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump are the favored Republican nominees for president, and one Democratic candidate president made more giving one speech to Goldman Sachs than you’ve made in a decade.

Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. While we may not have the money or the machine on our side, we have the music. So here’s a list of songs to get you through your day. Let the melancholy, exuberant, repressed and empowered voices of these singers remind you it’s a privilege to be working-class.

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“It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube (1993) – This song is simple enough; it’s about a good day in South Central Los Angeles. And as any working class American can tell you, sometimes the pleasures of good day are all you can hope for and more.

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“Factory” by Bruce Springsteen (1978) – The most culturally relevant rock hero in the world today wrote this at the height of stagflation, oil embargoes, and deindustrialization. America’s blue collar working populace, which bestrode the planet unchallenged in its productivity and prosperity for a generation after World War Two, was under ferocious attack from ultra-conservative elected officials, investment bankers, and industry owners who used racial bigotry as a vile, divisive wedge when they saw their opportunity to shatter both the consensus of progressive policy outcomes as well as the spirit of political consensus among ordinary people. “Factory” and the overall album “Darkeness on the Edge of Town” came from a place of sadness, anger, and anxiety about the future we non-millionaires faced (and continue to face) in a brave new world dominated by ferocious culture war distractions and wage slavery.

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“Hard Time Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster (1854) – I’m going WAY into the deep cuts here, but I’m going to start with the Father of American Music, Stephen Foster. “Hard Times Come Again No More” is a parlor song that was extremely popular among Civil War soldiers, who satirized it as “Hard Tack Come Again No More.” Although it had an international audience and was printed as piano sheet music for middle class families, the song is a story of sadness and poverty, with images of cabins, lost comrades, and toil. One of America’s original working-class songs, it has been covered by Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and a slew of others.

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“Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan (1965) – Dylan’s early counterculture war cry makes you remember why you’re in love with political music. Maybe your parents played Dylan in the car or in the house as white noise, and you never bothered to listen to the lyrics until you found yourself questioning the wisdom of unpleasant drudgery that otherwise “respectable” adults assured you would build character while they always disappeared during the heavy lifting. At some point, we all decided that we didn’t want to endure any more unfairness, or work for Maggie’s parents.

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“Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean (1961) – I love this old country song for its story-telling qualities. This song hearkens back to a day, our folk heroes were working people: Paul Bunyan, Calamity Jane, Joe Magarac, Casey Jones, Pecos Bill, and John Henry. “Big Bad John” is a story from that mold: a transient worker on the edges of society, whose strength not only killed a man, but saved his fellow miners. Absent from this story are the mining companies and managers, as Jimmy Dean focuses on miners toiling in “that worthless pit.” What else needs to be said other than “At the Bottom of this Mine Lays a Big Big Man, Big John.”

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“Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke (1960) – We can level a fair amount of criticism at popular music/musicians/record labels for giving excessive air time to the working songs of mostly white men. Sam Cooke, for all of his substantial crossover appeal to white people, blazed trails singing about the Civil Rights Movement and about an institution that had been used/still is associated with demoralizing poor black people. Sure, there aren’t explicit references to black people swinging hammers in the song, but the cultural references were clear then and now.

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“Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry (1970) – No, this isn’t Iggy Azalea’s terrible song. Bobbie Gentry wrote “Fancy” in 1969, and it was famously covered by Reba McEntire in 1990. “Fancy” is in many ways a problematic song since it approaches prostitution as both redemptive and exploitative. Fancy’s ma’s words betray the extreme precariousness of their situation as she tells her “Your Pa’s runned off and I’m real sick and the baby’s gonna starve to death” and urges he to “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they’ll be nice to you.” Despite the fact that she was completely dependent on men for a living, Fancy never loses her determination to be true to herself, escape her dependent state, and her pride. Gentry argued that this song was her strongest statement for women’s lib, and she supported women’s equality, equal pay, and abortion rights (no small thing for a woman from Chickasaw County, Mississippi in the 1960s). “Fancy” still confounds us to this day, but the tone of the song never betrays an underlying truth—the powerless are not inevitably doomed to their powerlessness forever.

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“Union Burying Ground” by Woody Guthrie (1976) – Towering hero to Springsteen, Dylan, and Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie’s anthems defined, and continue to define, the language of American workers seeking better wages, safer workplaces, and a fairer society for actual wealth creators.

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“Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” by Travis Tritt (1992) – The Tritt Kickers raise a fair point of frustration. Why is the rich man always dancing while the poor man pays the band? And why is it that when Big Gummit’ needs a dime (for unwinnable wars, or for tax cuts that exclusively benefit millionaires), they just help themselves to the little people’s pockets?

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“Rain On The Scarecrow” by John Mellencamp (1985) – A lot of Mellencamp songs come in mind for this list, but I want to go with the less obvious “Rain On The Scarecrow” solely because of the three farmers at the beginning of the music video. For all the strengths of “Jack & Diane,” “Pink Houses,” and “Small Town,” none of Mellencamp’s songs capture the plight of the Farm Crisis like these guys:

“Well, all the government wants to talk about is they wanna keep givin’ more loans, that’s all. Seems like that’s all they’ve got in their head. We don’t need another loan, we need a good price. . . . Just another farm loan, that’s another payment we gotta make and we can’t afford to do that. . . . I think the politicians are playing games with us, you know. It don’t cost them anything to change a rule, you know, and embargo another country. . . . All they want is cheap food and I can see that, but they don’t take the farmer into consideration at all. . . . Just sick of working ten or twelve hours a day or more and just breakin’ even if you lucky, if you’re real good. . . . If I knew what it was gonna be like when I got out of high school, I probably wouldn’t of done it. You wanna buy a far?”

If you don’t have people like this in your life, I feel sorry for you. Today’s liberals are making a mistake when they underestimate the intelligence and legitimate anger of the rural working folk. It’s no wonder we’ve lost them to the Cruzes and Palins of the world.

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“Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by Robert Johnson/Performed by Keb’ Mo’ (1996) – Blues legend Robert Johnson originally recorded this song in 1936, and it has been covered by the likes of Eric Clapton, Todd Rundgren, and Beck. If it’s not sacrilegious to say so, I prefer Keb’ Mo’s fusion of New Orleans jazz and Delta blues in his 1996 cover of the song. This song has a little bit of everything: reassurances to a penny-pinched spouse, a terrible boss, and the road home. “If you cry ‘bout a nickel, you’ll die ‘bout a dime.”

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“Paying the Cost to be the Boss” by B.B. King (1968) – Hating the grind of a nine-to-five job is understandable. The pay is usually not commensurate with the grief. The leadership doesn’t have your best interests in mind. The one redeeming quality of working for a living is that you retain some measure of independence, and that independence stems from claiming or controlling your wages. You can tell other people who disagree with your decisions that you earn and pay the bills. Another reminder that working people don’t need high-falutin’ titles or lifestyle morality lectures.

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“One Piece At A Time” by Johnny Cash (1976) – There’s nothing like stealing from your boss with the help of your friends. More light-hearted than Johnny Paycheck “Take this Job and Shove It” and a million times less racist than any of Merle Haggard’s songs, Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time” is my choice for the best country music working man song of the 1970s.

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“Song of the South” by Alabama (1989)  There once was a time when country music had a lefty bent, thanks to the legacy of farm socialism and populism. Sure, so much of it had neo-Confederate overtones and overly simplistic memories of FDR’s alphabet soup of agricultural agencies, but the key message here still rings true: life is better when land and wealth is distributed more equally. If only we could resurrect that message without all the old racism and sexism. Country hasn’t been the same since the height of Alabama and Garth Brooks’s popularity.

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“Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chaplin (1915)/Performed by Pete Seeger (1955) – The single most famous song of the American labor movement. Required at any left-of-center political event because of its eternally relevant lyrics. If you’re not singing this song on Labor Day, you’re doing it wrong. Full stop.

3 thoughts on “Songs for the American Working Class

  1. Hayden February 6, 2016 / 12:48 am

    Approve of the John Mellencamp selection, but Sixteen Tons wasn’t here, yo! Or Allentown… But great list nonetheless! I designed a US II course around labor, and I used a lot of these songs. Also, Grandmaster Flash, “The Message.” #Merica

    • agreeingloudly February 6, 2016 / 2:29 am

      A part two of “Songs for the American Working Class” is clearly needed. There are so many!

  2. Victoria Harris February 7, 2016 / 5:33 pm

    Love that “Maggie’s Farm” was included here. One of my favorite Dylan songs.

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