It’s apt that Working for the Man is out today, a Saturday, because it was on a Saturday that Labor Day was originally celebrated. Actually, Labor Day started on Saturday, May 1st, 1886—“May Day,” “International Worker’s Day”—as a strike, in demand of an 8-hour work day. When Grover Cleveland rushed a bill for a Federally-sanctioned Labor Day through Congress in 1893 to placate the strikers enraged by his violent strike breaking tactics in Pullman, IL, he set the day of celebration in September—in 1909 it was moved to a Sunday, and in 1968, to Monday—to differentiate it from International Worker’s Day and the ethos of protest and dissent that it represents. Much more amenable to the up-and-coming football and online sale seasons, today’s Labor Day stands in for picnics and barbeques, family and friend-time, but not, at least in the greater American public eye, for striking. If you’re interested, I’m leaving a detailed descriptions of Labor Day’s origins in the Labor movement to the professionals: I like, in particular, Curious New York and Jacobin’s elaboration.
I did make this mix with hanging out in mind, but the irreverence of these songs is often tempered by the reality that work sucks, it’s exploitative, and, quoth The Onion, often does more bad than good. That said, there are lots of ways to’ve made this mix. The 1910’s and ‘20’s, at the cusp of the music recording industry surge, boasted a ton of protest music from the laboring Left. I’ve already made a mix of protest songs from the R&B and Soul-centric 1960s and ‘70’s, People Get Ready, that speaks to the effects of labor atrocities (like, for example, slavery) on African Americans. I could’ve stuck exclusively to railroading songs, or protest songs, or hobo songs, or prison songs. This could’ve been a rap mix.
Instead, I started us off in 1928 with Harry McClintock’s timeless “Hallelujah! I’m A Bum” (revived by the excellent protest singer Utah Phillips), then right into the 1960s and ‘70’s, where we linger until Johnny Paycheck’s boisterous invective, “Take This Job And Shove It,” recorded in 1977 and penned by the famously rough-mouthed Country curmudgeon David Allen Coe. A decade of volatile protest followed by one marked by employer attack, the ‘60’s and ‘70’s were fascinating, musically, for protest. While Roy Orbison had a hit with “Working For The Man” in 1972—the magic of capitalism morphing the eponymous line into “I’m gonna be the maaaaaaaan!” at the song’s finish—in 1971, just a year earlier, Loretta Lynn was complaining about being over-worked and under-appreciated as a stay-at-home-mom in “One’s On The Way.” Just a year after Orbison, in 1973, Barbara Dane revived Woody Guthrie’s “Greenback Dollar” as “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister” for her no-holds-barred album, I Hate the Capitalist System. Jury’s still up about the actual effects of music in politics, but these tunes are, patently, movers and shakers, at least for your bod, if not for The System. Track three, Billy Butler & The Enchanters’ “I Can’t Work No Longer,” is a relentless, soaring jam.
Rather than think of Labor Day as the celebration of the contributions of American workers to the tenuous ideality of American prosperity, it’d be cool, this time around, to privilege the workers themselves. With this in mind, hand-in-hand, some Labor Day songs.