Get a job. Work hard for the money, 9 to 5. Take this job and shove it. Popular song has a lot to say when it comes to the daily grind, it seems. Many of the most famous songs about work being in the rock n’ roll tradition look on “working for the man every night and day” as being antithetical to the goals of freedom and rebellion on which the values of rock n’ roll are traditionally based. And maybe this is because “takin’ care of business” in the Bachman-Turner Overdrive sense means being able to dream of the possibilities that work need not be as demoralizing as all of that. Yet, there are scores of songs about working, toiling, and sometimes just making do, which resonate with us because scratching to get by is a reality for most people.
The very act of hearing someone sing about how work can kill you is strangely liberating, which is maybe why the work song became such a standard way for slaves in the American southern plantations, and later sharecroppers, to deal with the hardships of their lives spent toiling in the fields – that is until that intolerable situation, and new songs, inspired them to take on the new job of getting free.
There is a certain sense that song is the secret world which no heartless boss can ever touch. Here are 10 of them, framed by the idea that jobs or the pursuit of them can get you down, steal your time, take your energy. But singing about it, and listening to someone else sing sometimes makes it easier to know you’re not alone. Making connections and staying connected are what we’re really after, and when work stops us from getting there, popular song has helped us to document the consequences.
above image courtesy of Philon.
The mission of early rock n’ roll records was clear – give teens a voice (after all, they’re the ones buying the records…). And no song better embodies the core message of that mission quite like Eddie Cochran‘s “Summertime Blues”, a tale of a young slogger who is caught in a series of parentally and economically driven catch-22 situations. Borrow the car? Sure, but you have to work to earn the privilege. But, I want the car so that I can go out, so I’ve taken the night off. Really? No car then, junior. Aw, gee Dad! I think I’d better take this to a higher power – the U.N! Sorry, son; you’re too young to vote. Of all the luck – what’s a boy to do?
This is a fantastic youth anthem recorded in 1958 by Cochran which actually speaks to pretty much anyone who feels the pinch of needing money, and having to work to earn that money to the degree that you don’t have time or energy (or indeed the money you’ve earned!) to spend on anything else. And in the era it was written, when the idea of the teenager as a social group was still a pretty new one, the song must have seemed like a manifesto in striking out against The Man. In fact, it would be covered memorably by proto-metal band Blue Cheer in a particularly ferocious take on the song in the next decade, taking out Cochran’s lightheartedness in favour of bringing out the rage. The Who also performed it at the Monterey Pop Festival, later at Woodstock, and later still on their Live at Leeds album in very much in the same spirit as the Blue Cheer version. More recently, it was recorded by Rush, adding considerable scope of the song’s span of influence, not to mention the sentiments behind it, across the decades and across genres.
The theme of the catch-22 when it comes to working to live, not living to work is recurring in popular song. Here in Lee Dorsey‘s 1966 signature hit “Working in a Coal Mine”, which hides a lot of anguish underneath a celebratory arrangement, we get the portrait of someone who is not only feeling oppressed by their job, but is also in constant danger because of the nature of the work. Much like in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” which is also about the hopelessness of the coal miner, the protagonist here is eaten up by the obligations of having to work a job which takes all energy which would otherwise be spent having a good time on his off hours. Coal mining here takes on a double meaning; going down, down, down is a physical thing, but also a spiritual one too. In this song, the daily grind is like a life sentence.
It’s interesting that this song is such a rollicking, good-time tune about someone who doesn’t have time, or energy for what the music promises, due to a crushed spirit. Backed here by the Meters and aided and abetted by fellow New Orleans musical figure Allen Toussaint, the melody and rhythm of the song is an infectiously joyous experience. Yet lyrically, it’s full of hopelessness which acts against the jauntiness of the tune . No wonder the post-punks of the late 70s and early 80s loved it, and Dorsey, so much since the tension between lyrical content and the classic pop melody was such a big part of the new wave approach. The song would be covered by new wave outfit Devo in the early 80s. Dorsey himself, like Bo Diddley before him, would tour with the Clash before his death from emphysema in 1986.
In some cases, work can really help you focus on what is most important to you. Yet sometimes, it can consume your life rather than just provide a means of sustaining it. Doing a job can often mean using it to avoid other things in one’s life, like being connected to others and embracing love. Or, it can simply prove to be a distraction when we’re thinking about the more life-changing aspects of our lives; often the mundaneness of work routines provides an escape hatch to making the real decisions in our lives with the illusion that our jobs are the things which define us, not our relationships or even our character.
Glen Campbell’s 1968 recording of this song by composer Jimmy Webb of “MacArthur Park” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” fame, evokes a man at work not at a job which is particularly dangerous or oppressive, so much as one which is ultimately defined by how isolating it is. “Witchita Lineman” is a song about someone who is dedicated to his work, yet always alone, ironically the one to ensure that others are able to literally stay connected. This disconnectedness is a central theme, hearing the one he loves “through the whine”, distracted by his duties and unable to pull himself away. One may get the impression that the Lineman, who has no other name or identity, will always be “still on the line”, out on a lonely Midwest plain, and connected to no one.
To many, work is not just the pursuit of a career, it is literally life and death. This is particularly true when we’re talking about the disappearing family farm, and old-fashioned dependence on the earth itself to provide success, or doom efforts to failure. By the turn of the century, the plight of the farmer created the need to organize into unions in order to consolidate the efforts of entire communities, to avoid the isolation faced by many farmers up until that point.
The Band regularly mined the richness of North American history to tell tales of common people and their struggles – Virgil Kane in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, Ragtime Willy from “Rocking Chair”, the migrant droves of francophone refugees from “Acadian Driftwood”, just to name a few. In this song, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” from their self-titled sophomore album in 1969, we get the first person view of a farmer who turns to the power of the union to empower him in an uncertain profession. Work here is about protecting one’s livelihood at any cost, aligning oneself to something greater in order to weather the storms of uncertainty attached to taking your living from the ground.
Listen to singer/pianist Richard Manuel’s lead vocal on this one – a key example of a singer who brings out the character in the song’s first-person voice, like a stage actor who wins your sympathy by the strength of their commitment to the material. Add to that the musicianship of the others, and you’ve got one of the group’s most powerful tracks. Incredible!
Much like the Band, Tom Waits also provided portraits of characters common to American myth in his songs. But instead of sepia-toned historical settings and rural characters, Waits made those who inhabited the city after sunset his reference points, particularly in the first half of his career; the denizens of a seedy, unadorned nightlife of after-hours bars, cafés, and strip joints. The pathos found in Wait’s collection of hard-boiled, urban characters is what makes his work so vital. The yearnings of humanity found in his tale of a lonely late-night worker found in “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work” still center around connecting with others, and finding that the mundane tasks of a job taken to pay for a life with another are becoming intrusive to that life.
The song is taken from his 1976 album Small Change, arguably his best collection of songs recorded during his “barfly” phase. Waits’ grizzled vocal adds to the atmosphere of the after-hours work environment, cleaning up after those who have been out for a good time, and yearning to leave it all in favour of the loving arms of someone waiting at home. There is a sweetness about this song, and rough-around-the-edges tenderness which has the power to turn even the hardest boss’ heart into melted honey.
One thing that working a job that could be considered “dead end” is that sometimes the connections with others that are so important in any circumstance can come about through sharing a situation like this too. Dead end jobs which bring people of various backgrounds together often provide something that is often the thing which pulls us through in any scenario – friendship and camaraderie due to a shared struggle. This song by Rose Royce is the theme song to a 1976 film Car Wash written by Joel Schumacher (of all people!), with musical direction from Motown’s Norman Whitfield. It’s arguable maybe, but the title song tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the movie, with goof-offs, would-be stars, and Indian chiefs aplenty!
I’ve always liked this song, with the funk-infused disco beat undulating under Rose Norwalt’s androgynous-yet-sexy lead vocal. The soundtrack to the film is kind of a curio piece in many ways, placed as it is between the blaxploitation era and the disco era of Saturday Night Fever. It uses the best sounds of each era to make working at the Car Wash almost preferable to anything, never mind ditch-digging. C’mon y’all, and sing it with me…
The message “stay in school” has been a popular slogan for the importance of education. But in Billy Bragg’s 1983 song “To Have and Have Not”, which is taken from one of his earliest releases Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy, “stay in school” may also have other connotations – that in school, you’re the top of your class, while outside, you’re “top of the scrap heap”. This is the point of view of the disillusioned young person out of school, promised a career after working hard there, yet ultimately finding no reward in the working world. Bragg was speaking here in the context of Thatcher-era Britain, which many in the working classes remember as being a time of union-smashing and economic repression among depressed areas of the country which traditionally relied on natural resource and manufacturing jobs which were rapidly disappearing.
Billy Bragg called himself “the One-Man Clash”, actually operating more like a Bob Dylan with an electric-guitar from the Essex district of Barking. His music would incorporate what many would consider to be ideas associated with left-wing, pro-union politics. He has been quoted as saying that he was not a natural political writer, but that his government at the time he began to promote himself as a songwriter had encroached so negatively on his life to the degree that his approach was clear.
This song could very well have been added to my 10 Love Songs Without Cheese list, in that this is a song about putting everything one has into love, including work. At least, that’s one interpretation. In this song, taken from XTC’s 1984 album Mummer, it’s easy to swap out the idea of a poor rural worker gathering the funds to marry his true love with pretty much any specialized profession like, say, a songwriter in an under-promoted cult rock/pop band like XTC. This song is another one which talks about work as a means to an end, but with inhospitable return which becomes intrusive to that end. Soon, doing”the only job I do well” becomes a force which, according to our Farmboy hero, is “breaking my back”. Maybe Partridge wrote this song as a simple love song. But, I suspect that there is more to it than that.
The band were never satisfied with their lot when it came to their record company at the time. In fact, it came to a point that, after their 1992 Nonsuch album, they went on what Partridge called “a strike” for seven years, meaning that they held back releasing new material until they were let out of their contract. Could this song be an earlier attempt to communicate their frustration with the record company who didn’t support their releases or promote them as a group? I think it’s entirely possible. If so, this is more a protest song rather than a love song. But, whatever the motivation, this song has always struck me as coming from someone who loves their work – “Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in/shilling for the fellow who milks the herd/Shilling for the fellow with the wife for keeping…” – yet knows that he will never be rewarded in the way that he feels he should.
Working life, like other aspects of life, is in constant motion in terms of how work is done and by whom, a lot of the time driven by technology. This song which is taken from Sting’s 1985 debut solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles comes from the point of view of the industrial worker who finds the life he’s come to know is slowly fading from view with the onset of technology with a pointer to a future when all life may come to an end because of it. There is an undercurrent here that our innovations in technology which are meant to make life easier ends up making it harder for many, and less predictable when we think about where it may take us. There are some good old-fashioned 1980s fear of nuclear power sentiments here – a means to provide the “cheap and clean” energy down to “machines that we can’t control”.
In this song, people are forgotten, the ‘grimy faces’ that are ‘never seen’, well-hidden while agendas are pushed forward without their input. This song is about a lack of control, and the inability to control one’s own destiny. Beyond the fears of technology for technology sake, the real undercurrent here is the lack of contact and communication between people to set a plan for the greater good, which should be the real objective of work in a healthy society. This is the picture of people being dehumanized, and the results that are born out of trying to make short cuts to prosperity on the backs of others. I don’t think Sting is rewriting the Communist Manifesto here. But I do think that he’s discussing the gap between economic and social progress as needing to be inclusive of all that feed it, rather than making such persons among the faceless.
Finding one’s self in a job that we hate is a pretty common experience. And in this song by Fountains of Wayne, taken from their 2003 album Welcome Interstate Managers, we get the story of a burnt-out sales manager who is beginning to realize that the lifestyle associated with his chosen profession is slowly killing him in more ways than one. Adrift in a haze of business lunches, airport bars, and alcoholic misadventure, our hero is a man barely hanging on, losing numbers to “brand new accounts”, and trying to figure out his computer and what “all the little flashing lights mean”. And the theme of disconnectedness runs through this song as wel. This time, the narrator is disconnected from his own true ambitions, caught in the inertia of what he feels he’s meant to be pursuing, instead of what he actually wants to pursue.
The bright future in sales that is spoken of here is ironic in that it’s clear that any bright future for this guy is worlds apart from the path he’s on. And while the trials of a job that is beginning to consume him may be a pretty strong force to keep him where he’s going just by sheer inertia , what he does have is one thing which many in his situation do not – self-awareness. He knows exactly what he needs to do – “get my shit together” – and why he needs to do it – “’cause I can’t live like this forever”. In this there is always hope that the world of work which is not suited to the worker, and which keeps that person disconnected from themselves and to others need not be a life sentence.
Work; we all complain about it, but we all have to do it. And judging from many of these songs, one might think that work is the enemy of happiness. But, this is too simple to be true, like most important things. One thing I’ve discovered personally is that for all of the challenging or even unpleasant things I’ve had to do while working, I’ve pulled out a number of weapons in my personal arsenal which I didn’t think I even had. And, I’ve been able to use a lot of what I’ve learned in my career and apply it to my life – commnunicating better, managing a schedule better, and thinking about how best to use resources better as well. And with regard to these songs, most of them are pretty hopeful in the end, because they are about people on this very same curve – under seige, and learning to deal with what reality throws at them.
Ultimately, songs are snapshots of life which reflect little shards of our own lives at times, which is why I think they’re so powerful. I think the Seven Dwarves had it right when they sang “Whistle While You Work” – songs remind you that reality isn’t that one sided either, and that what makes them such binding forces is that they reflect common experience. there is more than just comedy in hearing someone sing “take this job and shove it”. There is good, old-fashioned catharsis and empathy too.
How’s that for a bottom line?