Oldies for Workers

Classic oldies about work, jobs, workers and their issues

Getting lost in the music of old
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The peculiar economic and social structure of America in its post-war years was designed for the working man to live like a king — or so the history goes. The real life of the blue-collar man was actually, then as now, fraught with emotion (and a little humor), and so the great engine that runs the democratic marketplace decreed, at times, that workers be given their due on vinyl. Here's a list of the great chart hits from the '50s, '60s, and '70s that deal with laborers of all kinds and the jobs they do for us.

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'Sixteen Tons' by Tennessee Ernie Ford

There's never been a better song about the lives of the men who built America — their day-to-day desperation, their need to find some scrap of dignity in "fighting and trouble," the spiraling debt, the backbreaking hours, and the crushing sense of futility. If "Ol' Man River," in the proper hands, could be a declaration of stoicism in the mind of the 19th century slave, then this dark and yet somehow ultra-smooth number performed the same service for the 20th century miner. So true was its message that original artist and songwriter Merle Travis was nearly blackballed in the McCarthy witch hunts of the early Fifties; Dennis Kucinich pointedly mentions (and sometimes sings) this in his campaigns today.

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'Chain Gang' by Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke could, it was said, make any experience sound heavenly, and it's true: if you didn't understand English, you could confuse the experience of "Chain Gang" for the unalloyed beauty of "You Send Me" or "For Sentimental Reasons." Cooke's soul, more gospel-based than any other singer, was the kind that transcended pain, not wallowed in it, and therefore his freestyle laments — "My work is so hard, give me water, I'm thirsty" — somehow get scatted and sewn into something positively beatific. You don't understand emotion like this, you simply feel it. Or as Frederick Douglass once noted, "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy."

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'Get A Job' by The Silhouettes

There aren't as many blues songs about not being able to find work as you might imagine, and by the time African-American music had morphed into doo-wop in the mid-'50s, Ike was President and the country was bopping along just fine. Or was it? Once again, our lead singer has some tall 'splainin' to do to his significant other, who "tells me that I'm lying about a job that I never could find"! And when you get down to it, pounding the pavement is even more frustrating and detrimental to your psyche as punching a clock, right? (The Silhouettes themselves worked for years after this one hit, proving that diligence, in art as in commerce, pays off.)

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'Five O'Clock World' by The Vogues

These Pittsburghers usually straddled the line between square harmony vocal groups and the burgeoning folk-rock scene, but their 1965 hit pulled off a remarkably streetwise look at the working joe's lot with lyrics like "Tradin' my time for the pay I get / Livin' on money that I ain't made yet." As with "A Hard Day's Night," the main focus of this song appears to be a girl — but as an antidote to (and, ironically, a reason for) a life of toil. Drew Carey's eponymous office comedy found it relative enough to be used as an intro... that is, until his natural love for his Cleveland hometown took over.

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'Work To Do by The Isley Brothers

Here was a common plight of the working man in the days before women got liberated — how much time can you spend nurturing your relationship when you have to work like a dog just to keep food on the table? A minor anthem of sorts for the newly-empowered African-American community, this one kept it real when discussing how you have to run after some dreams. "So keep your love light burning," croons Ronald Isley, "And a little food hot in my plate. You might as well get used to me coming home a little late." Ouch.

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'Take This Job And Shove It' by Johnny Paycheck

A country hit, yes (written by David Allan Coe), but it made such an imprint on the national consciousness in the inflation-crunched late Seventies that it led to a movie of the same name. To this day, folks dream of singing this to their boss the day after they win the lottery (or whatever floats your fantasy boat). The irony is that a closer examination of the lyrics reveals this to be merely the singer's fantasy, not his reality: he only wishes he could tell the idiots he works with where to get off.

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'A Hard Day's Night' by The Beatles

Probably the most famous pop song about living (indirectly) off of love, this smash from the early days of Beatlemania is as clever as we might expect from the Fabs: a workingman's lament carefully couched in the particulars of a love song. (Or, depending on how you look at it, the other way around.) The foursome's natural exuberance — you have to love the way John and Paul let loose with a tiger scream just before George's solo — takes some of the bluesiness out of the equation, but it doesn't lose it any authenticity. This is, after all, a celebration of a girl who's totally worthy of making you "work all day to get you money to buy you things."

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'Working In A Coal Mine' by Lee Dorsey

As recent events have sadly underlined, coal mining remains one of the hardest (and most dangerous) jobs in America. Of course, New Orleans Soul, which flourished nationally in the early Sixties, is not the kind of music that laments so much as shrugs, so this ditty comes off less like a sociopolitical statement than a funky novelty. But it's really funky, as only a track can be when the Meters back you up. And Dorsey's brand of soul was real and rough enough to appeal to the Northern Soul movement all the way across the pond. When Lee sings, "Lord, I'm so tired," you feel it.

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'Taking Care Of Business' by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

The fact that Office Depot's been using this ditty for years now to hawk white-collar supplies is a pretty good cosmic joke, especially when you consider how this '73 hit practically revels in the idea of [i]escaping[/i] the humdrum workaday life. In fact, according to the band, they've already done it, and so can you: "If you ever get annoyed, look at me. I'm self-employed." Lest you think they're just rubbing their rockstar excesses in your face, Verse 2 is practically a manual on how to form a band and wind up also "work(ing) at nothing all day." Work out!

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'Car Wash' by Rose Royce

Times change, and jobs change with them: for the Seventies, the car wash was considered the epitome of blue-collar struggle. Or maybe someone just needed a hip theme for their movie soundtrack. In any case, producer Norman Whitfield's irresistible opening groove, which reveals itself with the tantalizing slowness of a burlesque dancer, made this look at soaping panels and waxing hoods are surefire hit even amongst those who'd never dream of working there. "You might not ever get rich," lead singer warns, "but let me tell you, it's better than digging a ditch." True enough.