Happy Labor Day, Rhode Island. Enjoy your day off, and thank a union member that you get them. Here are some of my favorite working class songs to help you celebrate.
While all such lists much start with Dust Bowl Poet Woody Guthrie, the godfather of the modern working class song and a real life folk hero himself, he certainly wasn’t the first one to sing about labor struggles.
That dubious distinction belongs to the early American slaves.
Blues guitarists like Leadbelly took it from there.
And then artists like Johnny Cash took over.
Joan Baez was one of the folk singers to follow in Woodie Guthrie’s footsteps by singing about folk heroes like Joe Hill, most famous for saying, “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
All of a sudden, the working class was a meme in pop music once again.
Reggae legend Bob Marley wrote many songs about the struggles of black people. This one is my favorite.
Once John Lennon shed Paul and Ringo, he joined in too:
But no one since Woodie Guthrie has better portrayed the working class struggle than Bruce Springsteen. This song is called “Factory”
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking through the factory gate in the rain
Factory takes his hearing, but he understands
He’s just a working, a working a working man
End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through the gates with death in their eyes
And you just better believe boy somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight
It’s the work, the working, just the working life
The eighties, for reasons related to Ronald Reagan, wasn’t the best era for working class anthems, but punk bands kept the tradition alive.
So did country music, and to some extent Hollywood:
Here’s another of my favorite working class songs that come from the stage. “Annie” is one of America’s great examples of anti-government propaganda – the poor kids are mistreated in the public orphanage until Daddy Warbucks comes and rescues the lucky ones. The American dream, indeed.
In the 1990’s rap acts like Public Enemy kept alive the tradition of creating music about the struggles of the poor.
And today, artists like Steve Earle are keeping the tradition alive.