Most of us technically went back to work last week, but between post-holiday malaise, the slow trickle of coworkers back from vacation, and remembering exactly what it is you do again, it can take a few days to get into the swing of things. So we’ve put together some work-related songs to provide a soundtrack to your week of getting back on the job in earnest. The subject of work is a time-honored one across styles and ages, though the genre is still dominated by songs about men doing grueling physical labor for hardly any pay (which, if you’re reading this in an office, may help you appreciate your own job a little more). As always, contribute your own suggestions in the comments!
- Bruce Springsteen, “Factory”: I’m not sure you’re allowed to make a list of songs about working without including the Boss. I mean, entire books have been dedicated to understanding Springsteen’s efforts to chronicle the life of working America over the past four decades. But out of the wealth of material, it’s his 1978 song “Factory,” which depicts a son watching his father go off to work each day with “death in [his] eyes,” that wrecks me every damn time.
- Merle Haggard, “Workin’ Man Blues”: Merle Haggard first recorded this song in 1969, but elements of its sound arguably originate in the Dust Bowl migration four decades earlier that brought the Okie country style to central California, resulting in the “Bakersfield Sound,” a rougher, twangier style of country than the one coming out of Nashville at the time. It’s too bad the narrator has to slag off welfare recipients to prove his bona fides, but his resignation to working for the sake of his family—the flipside of Springsteen’s somber realization of his father’s sacrifice—cuts through Haggard’s sometimes reactionary politics.
- Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2”: This song, off Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times, starts off with some familiar tropes—watching the “evenin’ haze settlin’ over town” in some pleasant hamlet, thinking about the travails of working life in America—but it gets weird fast. Within a couple of lines, Dylan’s rasping about how the “buyin’ power of the proletariat’s goin’ down” and how the pressure from foreign competition is driving down wages; by the end he’s got a “brand new suit” and a “brand new wife”—but he’s still singing the blues.
- Mississippi Fred McDowell,”John Henry”: “John Henry”‘s been covered by all the usual suspects—Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Belafonte—but this version, by legendary guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, puts a bluesy spin on the old folk tune. The song’s been interpreted just as many ways—as an allegory about the dawning of the modern age, a parable of man versus machine, a paean to the power of work ethic and drive, or just a reminder that working too hard can actually kill you.
- Hedy West, “Cotton Mill Girls”: American folksinger Hedy West borrowed from folk tunes to write this song about factory girls “working 12 hours a day for 25 cents of measly pay” in the New England cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution, a worthy addition to the rich subgenre of songs about a new world of women’s work. (West’s version isn’t available online—the performance below is by the old-time trio Shingle the Roof.)
- Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”: Dolly Parton’s song about the trials of the office life heralded the start a new era of women’s work when it was first recorded in 1980, but it’s never lost its relevance, as evidenced by this 2010 version performed on David Letterman. When she sings “It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it/And you spend your life putting money in his wallet,” it’s a good reminder that wariness of the rich bossman is just as enduring in American life as the aspiration to become him.
Devo, “Workin’ in a Coal Mine”: It’s a pretty safe bet that no one in nerd-rock band Devo has ever worked in a coal mine. But their 1981 cover of this Allen Toussaint original, featuring a New Wave version of folksy twang and the clank of pick-axes, puts an irresistibly catchy spin on the classic tale of hard workin’ woe. Devo say they’re “too tired for having fun,” but I’m not sure I believe them.
Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons”: Tennessee Ernie Ford’s peppy pop version of the old folk song, performed in a tuxedo in front of a team of dancing girls, likewise makes hard labor sound like a blast, even though the lyrics—”Sixteen tons and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt”—are grim as ever. (Someone may want to play this for Rick Santorum the next time he waxes nostalgic for the days of getting paid in company scrip.)
Geto Boys, “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta”: So this song isn’t itself about work, but tell me you can listen to it without thinking of Office Space, that scathing indictment of the prosperous-but-soul-crushing post-industrial work—code monkey-dom, restaurant hostessing, middle management, consulting, paper-pushing—of the ’90s. Now get back to your TPS report.
- Billy Bragg, “St. Monday”: If you’ve got a case of the Mondays, British folkie-socialist Billy Bragg can sympathize—he’s a hard-working man, don’t get him wrong, but Mondays? Still the weekend. Totally don’t count!
The Clash, “Clampdown”: Punk bands didn’t glorify the dignity of work or mythologize the noble struggles of the working man; instead, they declared the working world to be hopelessly corrupt and announced their intentions to stay as far away from it as possible. The Clash want no part of the factory, warning “It’s the best years of your life they want to steal.” What’s more, they say, if you stick around too long, you’ll turn into the boss one day; coming from proudly leftist frontman Joe Strummer, that’s not a promise—it’s a threat.
- Pink Lincolns, “I’ve Got My Tie On”: This 1988 track by Florida punk band Pink Lincolns drips with scorn for ties and the people who wear them. The sarcasm is laid thick over furious guitar and clattering drums, with lead singer Chris Barrows scoffing “I’ve set my watch I’ve set my goals/when I get old I wanna be fat,” and turning his nose up at the perks of tie-clad life: a name on an office door, a penthouse, a Rolls-Royce. The tie-wearers, he claims, have “picked their side”—if there’s class warfare to be had, they started it.
The Ramones, “The Job That Ate My Brain”: The Ramones aren’t big fans of suits and ties either. Facing the nagging boss in his office attire, Joey Ramone laments that he “looks so lame I wanna die.” Bad as the dress code is, though, the job, with its crazy pace and staring coworkers, sounds even worse—though I bet the supply room at least has some extra glue lying around.
The Specials, “Rat Race”: British ska band the Specials may wear suits on stage, but don’t let that fool you—you won’t find them standing around the water cooler. They’re particularly disdainful of the pseudo-intellectual, qualification-holding, concern-feigning rich kids whose description sounds like a prototype of the character in the wildly popular Gap Yah videos.
- They Might Be Giants, “Minimum Wage”: This might be the shortest song about work ever written. But really, what more is there to say? If you’ve ever had a crappy service-work job, you know exactly what they mean.
Of course, these are just a few of zillions of work-related songs out there. Tell us some of your own favorites.
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