Hive Five: Songs of Labor

Coal Miners, circa 1935. Photo: Frederic Lewis/Getty Archives

Vive l’esprit de corps! Labor Day is celebrating it’s 129th birthday on Monday, and there’s not a person in America who isn’t looking forward to it. (Not one single person, okay?) While labor unions have always had a complicated relationship with the vagaries of American business and liberty, artists have generally seemed to fall on the side of the sweat-drenched common man, writing songs of lament and plaudit for the overworked, underpaid, and underrepresented. Here are five classics that explore the time-honored tradition of making a living.

1. Jimmy Reed, “Big Boss Man”

Written by Luther Dixon and made into a Top 20 hit for Blues guitarist Jimmy Reed, “Big Boss Man” tells the harmonica-laced tale of toiling away for the man, hoping that one day your voice will be heard. Required listening for anyone who’s felt swept under the working man’s rug. [Listen here.]

2. Dillinger Four, “An American Banned”

Minneapolis’ third most-famous punk band has a long history of raking against the man and art and dumb things (“OK Soda,” “The Great American Going Out of Business Sale”), always with the most jutted of middle fingers — and “An American Banned” is a chide against that part of the working week that we long to forget — when we get that small paycheck and notice all the taxes taken out. Or as they say: “I can’t help thinking this cheated feeling’s universal when we’re all clocked in… I wanna tear this fucker down.” [Listen here.]

3. Lee Dorsey, “Working In the Coal Mine”

Though written by Allen Toussaint, the often-covered “Working in a Coal Mine” was a top 10 hit for Dorsey, despite a career that never included actual coal mine work. Still, this groovy-swing R&B classic details the plight of the manual workers that made the infastructure of what this country’s become. You don’t have to get into the coal mines to connect with the message: Work’s exhausting. [Watch here.]

4. Tennessee Ernie Ford, “16 Tons”

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song about a hard-working, oft-fighting son of a lion is about as mythologically American as you can get — and about as depressingly American as you can get. On poor people: “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.” While the dialectic around the appeal and repel of Ford’s character may be fascinating, it is, most importantly, a fantastic and fantastically simple song. [Listen here.]

5. Bruce Springsteen, “Downbound Train”

No list about labor would be complete with out a nod to the working man’s hero, Bruce. Taken from his 1984 seminal album Born in the U.S.A., “Downbound Train” argues that the labor life really sucks, and the Boss feels your pain (more or way less). Guy has a nice lady, a good solid job at the lumberyard and everything just has to go down the toilet, doesn’t it? [Listen here.]



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