By Patricia Bouweraerts —
Work songs, a home-grown art form for people of the great melting pot striving for a better life — folk tunes, blues, rock ballads and country songs about a wide array of occupations — have become an enduring aspect of American culture.
Ten classic songs about working life are detailed for this playlist, chosen based on articles highlighting their impact, solid musical composition, or meaning expressed in the lyrics about work’s very nature or the worker himself or herself. Music may at times also shine light on forgotten parts of history, or show the common experiences of people — whatever their background, race, gender or political leaning.
This playlist may serve as a song resource to discover these shared experiences, or to help those who’d like to de-stress after a hard day … or hard day’s night.
10. “Makin’ Thunderbirds,” composed by Bob Seger (Robert Clark Seger)
This song is about hope and pride, inspired by the robust manufacturing industry during the mid-1900s in the Midwest.
Bob Seger was born in Dearborn, Michigan, not far from Detroit — Motor City — America’s hub of automobile manufacturing.
“Rooted in 1950’s and early 60’s rhythm-and-blues, with secondary echoes from country music, Mr. Seger’s songs deal honestly and sympathetically with the lives of working people,” wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times.
When Seger was about 10 years old, Ford released the Thunderbird, widely known as a classic, and one of the most memorable cars to be produced in the 1950s. They are sometimes called T-birds.
“Seger worked for General Motors for half a day, putting rubber around windshield glass, but he cut his hands, so he quit,” wrote Timothy White for the article “The Roads Not Taken” in Musician magazine. “He worked for Ford for three weeks. ‘(As Seger explains,) I was so poor I didn’t have a car and I was hitchhiking to work. I had wanted to write a song about the production line in Detroit and make it a blues song, ’cause I remembered how blue I was. You’d become a robot, and nobody would ever talk to me at work because of the plant noise. You couldn’t use earplugs because you had to hear bells for when the line would stop.’”
The song “Makin’ Thunderbirds” is about an era when U.S. manufacturing was at one of its strongest points. Classic hits radio station in Detroit, 104.3 WOMC posted a short commentary about the song.
“From 1982’s album ‘The Distance,’ ‘Makin’ Thunderbirds’ is a Bob Seger song that tells the story of a young Detroiter workin’ on the assembly line in 1955 (the first year of the Ford Thunderbird) putting out a special kind of car,” according to the WOMC website. “It’s more than a song about making cars, it’s a metaphor for a young man’s optimism for life and country.”
Seeger’s recording features musicians Drew Abbott on guitar, Craig Frost on piano, Alto Reed on saxophone and harmony vocals by Bonnie Raitt.
9. “Deportee,” a poem by Woody Guthrie, music by Martin Hoffman
The song “Deportee” is about 32 people who died in a plane crash — deaths of four crew members were listed by name, but the 28 workers were simply called “deportees.”
In the 1940s, California growers hired foreign-born agricultural laborers, letting them be sent back to Mexico when their work contracts concluded. Farm or orchard owners then applied for extensions on the workers’ visas in order to hire them back for an additional length of time, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) interview with author Tim Hernandez.
Recording artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Dolly Parton have covered the song by Woody Guthrie about a tragic Los Gatos, California plane crash in 1948 where 28 migrant workers were killed as they were being returned to Mexico by the U.S. Immigration Service. Radio reports at the time only gave the names of the four crewmembers, and called the victims who had been farm laborers simply “Mexican deportees.”
One of the migrant workers may have been born in Spain and another could have been a citizen of the Philippines, according to the NPR interview with Hernandez.
“Some were in the United States legally as part of the federal Braceros guest-worker program; others had crossed the border without documents,” wrote Malia Wollan in the New York Times.
The dead were buried in a mass grave in Fresno with a plain stone marker, Hernandez said. He added that in about the year 2003, an anonymous donor provided funds for a gravestone with an inscription that 28 Mexican nationals who died in a plane accident were buried there. At the time of the NPR interview in March 2013, Hernandez was working toward getting each individual’s name on the marker.
In September, 2013, a large headstone was dedicated at Holy Cross Cemetery. It lists the full names of each person who died in the crash. Some of the volunteers who helped to raise money were high school history students of Dinuba, Calif. who held a bake sale toward the cost of the memorial service and large flat marker, Wollan wrote.
At the memorial service, a mariachi band played.
8. “Working Class Hero,” by John Lennon
Lennon said that “Working Class Hero” is a revolutionary song — its lyrics explore whether or not people can transcend their background and circumstance.
In 1971, Jann S. Wenner interviewed John Lennon for an article in The Rolling Stone magazine. One of the songs that he asked Lennon questions about was “Working Class Hero.”
“You see, I’m shy and aggressive so I have great hopes for what I do with my work and I also have great despair that it’s all pointless and it’s shit,” Lennon said. “You know, how can you beat Beethoven or Shakespeare or whatever? In me secret heart I wanted to write something that would take over ‘We Shall Overcome.’ I don’t know why. The one they always sang, and I thought, ‘Why doesn’t somebody write something for the people now, that’s what my job and our job is.’”
Lennon added that the song is meant to unite people for a cause.
“I have the same kind of hope for “Working Class Hero,” he said. “It’s a different concept, but I feel it’s a revolutionary song.”
Wenner then asked Lennon to clarify what he meant by revolutionary.
“I think it’s for the people like me who are working class – whatever, upper or lower – who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, through the machinery, that’s all,” Lennon said to Wenner. “It’s my experience, and I hope it’s just a warning to people. I’m saying it’s a revolutionary song; not the song itself but that it’s a song for the revolution.”
The punk rock band Green Day’s cover has a muli-layered harmonic accompaniment that builds with the verses, and it includes a few lines of John Lennon’s original acoustic recording at the end, showing the timelessness for how people born into different financial classes may look at work and career options.
7. “Factory Girl,” a song of the Industrial Revolution
A young woman working in an 1800s textile plant has her own pay and independence, but a strict overseer, six-day workweek and 12- to 14-hour weekday shifts are also parts of the bargain.
In the 1830s, there was a booming textile manufacturing center at Lowell, Mass. Rural women who wanted to escape manual farm chores would be able to answer newspaper ads for factory employment directed to those 15-35 years old.
They lived in corporation-owned boarding houses with other factory workers, walking to the factory and back again for meals, as narrated on an educational film by Colleen G. Casey, posted on You Tube. Their days started at 5 a.m., with work shifts of 12-14 hours on weekdays and half a day on Saturdays, but they also found time to read and share poems, write essays and articles. They participated in launching legislative petitions and in starting the first labor organizations.
“Factory Girl” is partly a reflection of the new independence felt by working women, for the first time not needing a father or husband to support them financially. On the other hand, the factory overseers were strict, enforcing a moral code and encouraging observance of the Sabbath and abstinence from alcohol. They had a curfew, and also lived in close quarters with 4-6 women to each boarding house bedroom, the film’s narration adds.
Every company had a bell tower that would ring at 4:30 a.m., and since they all rung at the same time, no matter where you were, you’d hear the call to work. It also rang at mealtimes.
“Although ‘The Factory Girl’ is primarily a love song, it is also an expression of this declaration of independence, i.e. that a woman, no matter how poor or humble, is still her own master and needn’t marry to have money or peace of mind,” according to MainlyNorfolk.info. “The first printed version of this song was called ‘The Country Girl,’ published in 1843.”
In some versions of this song the girl is proud of her own independence and turns away from the advances of her suiter. In other versions, the couple marries, and the factory girl no longer has to answer the bell-tower chime.
This recording by The Chieftains on their album “Tears of Stone,” features an intricately detailed and heartfelt performance by Sinead O’Connor.
6. “John Henry,” folk ballad covered by many singers including Bruce Springsteen
This is a song about man against the newest technological machine. Or is it? It may be a song about man against the capitalist machine … and his fellow man.
Automation is currently replacing human workers in many industries, say experts, including reporter John Markoff in an award-winning New York Times article.
In the 1800s ballad “John Henry,” the story unfolds of a worker challenged to outdo a steam-powered drill in the task of tunneling through hillsides for the laying down of railroad tracks.
Scott R. Nelson, Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. He wrote a book about the legend, and very possibly real person, John Henry. The book is called “Steel Drivin’ Man.”
In an interview with Nelson by The College of William and Mary’s Office of University Relations, posted on Ibiblio.org, he said that there actually may not have been a challenge to beat the steam drill, but simply a convict sold into railroad construction work.
“The C&O railroad wants to get these tunnels dug; it has to get these tunnels dug by 1872 if it is to be granted the rights to the whole run from Richmond to the Ohio River,” Nelson said. “So, they buy up all of these convicts; they buy up the steam drills. John Henry doesn’t really challenge the steam drills. He, and everybody else, is forced to work on these tunnels, and the terrible tragedy here is that nearly everyone who was forced to work on these tunnels died in the space of five or six years, not from exertion but from acute silicosis — they actually inhaled all of this crystalline dust from the rock.”
Because folk songs are passed down more through oral tradition, rather than with written notes and lyrics — the ballads evolve through time and between renditions.
“One of the first people who heard it was Carl Sandburg, who really is the first folk singer,” Nelson said in the interview. “Sandburg gives poetry readings. He would give a lecture, and then he’d say, ‘If you don’t mind, I want to sing you a few songs,’ so he pulls out a guitar on the podium.”
The song evolved within the country genre. Fiddlin’ John Carson sings it to an audience who has left rural areas to work in the cities, including in textile mills. A market for country music was growing in this group. This is where the concept of man versus machine begins.
“I think a lot of these workers understand the process of fighting the machine,” Nelson said. “To compete with other mills, these workers are involved in the ‘stretch out,’ in which they’re speeding up the production process to keep up with all of the other mills. They’re making workers work more and more looms. It leads to all kinds of nasty strikes. Ironically, the milling process produces this byproduct that people inhale, and it kills them the same way that John Henry was killed.”
Charles Seeger uses the song as a symbol of protesting the capitalist machine, and advocating more of a Communist system.
“Then in the ’40s, John Henry goes to work for the U.S. government,” Nelson said. “The song is broadcast in Europe to U.S. troops and to the resistance fighters as a symbol. In effect, it says, Germany and Japan are the nations that hate other races. America is united. Blacks and whites work together. Italians and Asians all live together. To prove it, here is a song about the black working class.”
The song “John Henry” with its many levels has eventually come to be featured in places as wide-ranging as albums by Bruce Springsteen to music education books for elementary school children.
5. “Nine to Five,” by Dolly Parton
Parton said that she looks like a woman, thinks like a man, and when businessmen think the blonde doesn’t know what’s happening, she’s already made her money and is on her way.
Dolly Parton wrote “Nine to Five” on set during the filming of this movie with the same name. It was the first movie where she appeared as an actress.
It was the story of three working women in a large city, an office supervisor/assistant and two secretaries. In most offices at the time, typewriters were tapped and clicked before computer keyboards became widely used.
Parton was interviewed by Morley Safer in 2009 on 60 Minutes and talked about how she was inspired for some of the rhythms by her long acrylic nails as they clicked together.
“I have acrylic fingernails and they make a great, you know, rhythm sound, and they sound almost like a typewriter to me, and it was all about secretaries,” she said during the interview. “So, I’d be on the set, so I’d just go around ‘Workin’ nine to five, what a way to make a livin.’ So they all got a kick out of my nails and I actually wound up playin’ my fingernails as part of the percussion sound on the real record.”
Parton would play around with the rhythms and kept adding to the song.
“You know, I look like a woman but I think like a man, and in this world of business that has helped me a lot because by the time they think that I don’t know what’s going on, I’ve done got the money and gone,” she said during the 60 Minutes interview.
In 1981, “Nine to Five” won a Grammy award for Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. The song was nominated for a 1981 Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song.
“Not only did Parton break down the walls for the woman in the country music industry during a time when it was mostly male-run, but she also was great at it,” wrote Nicola Rossi on NinjaJournalist.com. “Parton has won many awards and has been inducted into all of the halls of fame that exist for country singers, but her biggest claim to fame is what sits in her bank account, and that’s $500 million bucks.”
A live performance of the song — a duet of Melissa Etheridge and Dolly Parton — may well be a novel and fresh rendition for many listeners.
4. “Dark As a Dungeon,” by Merle Travis
The lyrics of this song describe dreariness and dangers of the mine, and yet “Like a fiend for his dope and a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust for the lure of the mine.”
Merle Travis was born into a Rosewood, Kentucky coal mining family. As a child, he learned to play the banjo and guitar, and started playing with country bands. He eventually worked in the Hollywood movie industry.
“The saddest songs are written when a person is happy,” said Merle Travis in an interview excerpted in the book “Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy,” by Dorothy Horstman. “I was driving home after a date with a beautiful girl in Redondo Beach, Calif. I had a recording session to do the next morning and needed some material. I parked my car under a street light and wrote the verses to ‘Dark As a Dungeon.’ I got the idea from growing up around the coal mines in Kentucky. My father and brothers were coal miners.”
Travis also talks about the lives of miners in a United Mineworkers’ Journal interview, part of which is printed in the Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer book, “Songs of Work and Protest.”
“Taylor, my oldest brother, would come home and get ‘washed up,’” Travis said in the United Mineworkers’ Journal, also posted on FolkArchive.de. “How well I remember the galvanized tub set in the middle of the floor — the big black pot of water poured in — the steam — and then enough cold water to make it just right. When I’d watch him wash the black coal dust from a little rose tattoo on his arm I longed for the day when I could work in the mine and have a tattoo… He practically broke every rib in his body in a mine accident and it changed his whole life.”
The lyrics of Travis’ original 1947 Capitol recording include a spoken introduction.
“I never will forget one time when I was on a little visit down home in Ebenezer, Kentucky,” Travis chanted on the recording. “I was a-talkin’ to an old man that had known me ever since the day I was born, and an old friend of the family. He says, ‘Son, you don’t know how lucky you are to have a nice job like you’ve got and don’t have to dig out a livin’ from under these old hills and hollers like me and your pappy used to.’ When I asked him why he never had left and tried some other kind of work, he says, ‘Nawsir, you just won’t do that. If ever you get this old coal dust in your blood, you’re just gonna be a plain old coal miner as long as you live.’ He went on to say, ‘It’s a habit sorta like chewin’ tobacco.’”
Below is a cover of “Dark As a Dungeon” sung by Johnny Cash, a stand-out vocal performance recorded live at Folsom Prison.
3. “Welcome to the Working Week,” by Elvis Costello
A song by computer programmer turned composer and singer reveals that musical expression and work experiences cross national borders.
“Recorded in a mere 24 hours of studio time during sick days and holidays while Costello maintained his day job working as a computer programmer through late 1976 and early 1977, the song served as a spry opener to what would be a critical darling of the music press, considered the strongest debut of the year by Rolling Stone, though the album would enjoy only marginal commercial success,” wrote Tom Maginnis in a song review on AllMusic.com.
The song is concisely written — under one-and-a-half minutes — serving as a quick kick-start to the workweek.
“The second verse voices Costello’s contempt for traditional nine-to-five drudgery, the words gushing in a snide rant, ‘All of your family had to kill to survive / And they’re still waitin’ for their big day to arrive / But if they knew how I felt they’d bury me alive,’” Maginnis wrote about Costello’s lyrics.
Computer programmers typically make good money, so why would work be “drudgery”? Today’s programmers have the World Wide Web as a venue to comment on their work.
Richard Ward writes about computer programming and programming languages on Quora.com, a wiki question and answer website published by Quora, Inc. based in Mountain View, Calif. He responded in July to the question “Are you happy being a computer programmer?” The subhead for the question states “In my country, life for programmers just equals to work like hell.”
“Luckily, my main job is engineering so I am not forced to program,” Ward wrote on Quora.com. “I have periods where I like to program and others when I am bored of it. I am guessing you are from a country like India or Costa Rica where they provide little training and have you work in largely undisciplined and harsh or boring environments. This would be bad working conditions for any type of job.”
He advises the person asking the question to develop a computer application of his or her own to sell, and to find some open-source collaborative projects.
“Even if it is hell, you still may be better off being a programmer in hell than a fast food server in hell,” Ward wrote.
“Welcome to the Working Week” is performed in this YouTube selection by Costello.
2. “I Am a Union Woman,” by Aunt Molly Jackson
Songs such as “I Am a Union Woman” help tell the history of labor unions in America — thoughts and experiences behind the concept of worker solidarity.
“’I Am a Union Woman’ comes out of the bitter labor battles of Kentucky coal miners in the early 1930s and was composed by the redoubtable Aunt Molly Jackson,” according to the liner notes of singer Bobbie McGee’s “Bread and Raises” album. “Aunt Molly was one of three talented Kentucky coal miners’ wives (the other two were her sister Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Florence Reese) who made a major contribution with their ballads of the coal miners’ struggles.”
The original labor organization that Jackson wrote the song about was the N.M.U., National Miners Union.
Jackson was also a nurse who testified for the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, Straight Creek, Kentucky in November, 1931. In the town where she lived, the Red Cross helped families who had little or no income and could not buy food, according to transcripts from testimony posted on HistoryIsAWeapon.com. She testified that the Red Cross would discontinue helping families if the organization found out that a parent belonged to a union.
She went to talk with a Red Cross representative in Pineville, asking for food and clothing for children in her community who were starving and in danger of getting sick during the winter. There was no relief offered, she said.
“No, because they was members of the National Miners Union,” she replied. “They said, ‘We are not responsible for those men out on strike. They should go back to work and work for any price that they will taken them for.’ That was last week.”
Jackson was asked if she was a member of the N.M.U.
“My husband is a member of the National Miners Union, and I am too, and I have never stopped, brother, since I know of this work for the N.M.U.,” she said. “I think it is one of the greatest things that has ever come into this world.”
Note: History Is A Weapon credits the source of this interview to the book, “Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields.”
In Bobbie McGee’s rendition of the song, she uses the letters C.I.O. instead of N.M.U.
C.I.O. is the Congress of Industrial Organizations, originally called the Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935, but took the new name in 1938 after breaking off from and becoming a rival to the American Federation of Labor from 1936-1955. The CIO rejoined the AFL in 1955, forming the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
1. “SixteenTons,” by Merle Travis
“Sixteen Tons” was written about mining, but the song easily relates to other occupations, as seen in the opening sequence of the movie “Joe Versus the Volcano.”
In 1955, the song “Sixteen Tons” was recorded, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It became a number-one single by the end of that year, according to Wow.com.
But it was not written by Ford. It was composed and first performed by Merle Travis in 1946. Travis was once asked where he got the idea for the song “Sixteen Tons.”
“Well, that sort of come from rememberin’ how my folks used to work in the coal mines,” Travis said in an interview with Jimmy Wakely. “They was always working, always in debt, but always on the job.”
He composed the song at the request of Capitol Records, Travis said during an interview, part of which is printed in the book “Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy,” by Dorothy Horstman.
“I had to do an album at Capitol Records, and Cliffie Stone said, ‘do a folksong album,’” Travis was quoted in Horstman’s book. “I said, ‘Well, Burl Ives has sung all the folksongs,’ and he said, ‘Write some.’ So that’s how I came to write ‘Sixteen Tons’ — because I had to.”
Travis attributed the lyrics about owing one’s “soul to the company store” to a saying of his father.
“My dad never saw real money,” he said in an interview excerpt printed in “Songs of Work and Protest,” a book by Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer. “He was constantly in debt to the coal company. When shopping was needed, Dad would go to a window and draw little brass tokens against his account. They could only be spent at the company store. He used to say: ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.’”
In that interview, he also added that a miner’s daily quota was to dig 16 tons, thus the song’s title.
Ford knew about the song “Sixteen Tons” — he had previously worked with Travis — and performed it in 1955 on his NBS show. Ford also recorded it that year as the B side of a Capitol Records single.
“In eleven days following its release, 400,000 singles are sold,” according to a history of the song posted on ErnieFord.com. “Demand for the song was so great, that Capitol geared all its pressing plants nationwide to meet the deluge of orders. In twenty-four days, over one million records were sold, and ‘Sixteen Tons’ became the fastest-selling single in Capitol’s history.”
The cover here by Eric Burdon was included in the soundtrack of Joe Versus the Volcano. The film addresses manual work, factory and office occupations, service work — and along the way, risk and fulfillment.