Recommended Labor Day Reading: Studs Terkel’s Working
Recommended Labor Day Viewing: John Sayles’ Matewan, City of Hope, or Sunshine State
Recommended Labor Day Listening: Hmmm . . .
Labor Day music playlists have been compiled before, and disappointingly they always feature the same stock tunes (Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Working for a Living”). We at the Indie Mine have our own take on the Labor Day playlist. And for a unique spin, we’ve categorized our list to provide a more eclectic selection for your Labor Day turntable.
Indie Mining Town
Whether in West Virginia or Chile, miners’ lives have always been difficult, inside and outside of the mine. More than just soot and grime and Loretta Lynn tunes, mining life is one of blood, sweat, and tears, taking a toll on everybody and everything around it, including the land. Few musicians have highlighted those plights as well as Billy Joel in “Allentown” and Midnight Oil in “Blue Sky Mine,” but there is a brand new gem we’ll be spinning in the Indie Mine this weekend.
“Rox in the Box“ from The Decemberists’ most recent album The King Is Dead, exhibits classic Americana folk rhythms, acoustic guitar, and short, sharp lyrics that recall Wilco and Springsteen. Colin Meloy has always written songs about odd occupations, so it’s not unusual that he chose the miner’s life, but I am surprised at how well this song works. Borrowing the rhythms of early jigs, “Rox in the Box” keeps your foot tapping even while the perfectly rhyming lyrics make your soul a little weepy.
Also on our list: Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” with its refrain, “Sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt,” is a maxim that even the modern day office worker can understand. For a more modern twist, check out The Eels live version. Tom Waits’ version of the Disney classic tune “Heigh-Ho” features ambient machinery noises and Waits’ gritty voice echoing the mantra, “Dig, dig, dig.” You won’t find any whistling in this mine.
Blue Collar Life, After Five
Tom Waits captures the bittersweet life of an industrial town on the decline in many of their early songs. Tom Waits has hardly strayed from his melodies about the drunken misfits and beautiful wrecks of society. Without sentiment or woe, Waits’ “Heart of Saturday Night“ and “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work“ capture the small joy of working your way through the week so you can shine, however softly, on a Saturday night at your favorite watering hole.
This section features all remakes of classic working songs. While Bob Dylan’s “(I Ain’t Gonna Work on ) Maggie’s Farm” often makes the Labor Day Top Ten, I prefer the U2 version of this song. Performed live in several locations in the mid-1980s, Bono’s earthy anger and righteous indignation shines through in this arrangement. John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” also makes the list, but it is Marianne Faithfull’s “Working Class Hero” which is most remembered by music connoisseurs. Her raspy vocals coupled with synthesizers give this version a tad more gravity than Lennon’s. Finally, “Moonshiner” is a classic Americana tune recorded by many artists, but Uncle Tupelo’s live version that stands out for me. The life of a moonshiner is full of broken dreams and wobbly barstools, simple wants and unfulfilled desires: “And the whole world is a bottle, and life is but a dram./ When the bottle gets empty, well, it sure ain’t worth a damn.”
There are a number of folk songs which highlight largely solitary jobs, like truckers and drivers. I guess what’s nice about these songs, while their melodies are mellow, the narrators experience exuberant joy in their travels. These tunes are quietly happy in their feel-good attitude, as the drivers steadily move towards home. We recommend Son Volt’s “Windfall” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” both about truckers rolling through the Carolinas.
Also on our list: Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”: listening to Glen Campbell croon about the “singing in the wires” will make anyone nostalgic for AM radio. The Decemberists’ “The Engine Driver” somehow connects the lives of engine drivers, linemen, and writers.
Let’s Make Lots of Money
In the decade that gave us Gordon Gecko, it also gave us quite a few songs about making money. Lots of money. My particular favorite for its cool British style is Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities” with its unabashedly decadent refrain “Let’s make lots of money.”
While there are probably more than enough country ballads about soldier’s lives, we prefer a less literal approach to military life at The Indie Mine. Metaphorically, Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” offers a great cynical approach to the genre. And The Decemberists’ “Legionnaire’s Lament,” about a desert-marooned legionnaire, is just a fun, quirky tune. But nothing combines the pathos and hypnotic rhythm as well as the alternate universe of The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshima Battles the Pink Robots (Part One).” Narrating the tale of one girl in all the world who can fight evil, Wayne Coyne sings, “She’s got to be strong to fight them/ so she’s taking lots of vitamins, / ‘Cause she knows that / it’d be tragic/ if those evil robots win.” Destiny’s a bitch.
One of my favorite summertime songs is Warren Zevon’s cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” about a guy “working part-time at the Five & Dime” when salvation breezes through the store. The startling vocals of Zevon gives this pop song makes a rockin’ edge.
The service industry is not so redeeming in Live’s “Waitress” and Belle & Sebastian’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” Both of these female workers face ungrateful customers, soda cans in the head, and a severe lack of tips. But as the Live song pleads, everybody deserves some frakkin’ change.
The Daily Grind
No one illustrates the daily grind as well as The Bangles do in “Manic Monday.” Written by Prince, this late 80s song captures the spirit of a Monday morning which seems more melancholy than manic. Droning alarm clocks, rainy skies, crowded trains … I’m glad my days aren’t like these. Ditto for Hard-Fi’s “Cash Machine.” Living paycheck to paycheck? Always spending more than you’re saving? Well, at least it’s got a great dance beat. RJD2’s “Work” is not so lyrically depressing, but the arrangement creates the mood. “Work” uses blues instrumentation, drum machines, and a lot of reverb to create the impression of exhaustion.
As a non-comics person, I love Crash Test Dummies’ “Superman’s Song” about the Man of Steel. There’s nothing colorful about an illegal alien working the double-shift with little reward or vacation time. The comparisons to Tarzan provide a great foil. Unlike that guy who hangs out with chimps in trees, Superman needs to stimulate his brain. This song highlights that the life of a superhero can be a real drag, but a real superhero doesn’t complain.
White Collar Boy
When we think of songs about traditional white collar jobs we can’t leave out The Kinks “A Well Respected Man” and The Beatles “Taxman.” But it’s easy to poke fun at these conservative stereotypes. We prefer a modern day take on the white collar employee. Jonathan Coulton’s “Code Monkey” is what we recommend for your Labor Day playlist. I’m hard-pressed to think of another song about an applications programmer. And while it features the expected tokens of Mountain Dew and Fritos, it also features some developer smack-talk: “Maybe manager wanna write goddam login page himself. ” Of course code monkey not say it aloud. Even while he delineates the boring aspects of the software industry, Coulton reminds us that we can find the joys in the office that make the work day a little more bearable.
Also on our list: Belle & Sebastian’s “Step Into My Office, Baby”
Being famous isn’t always an easy gig, as David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” can attest to. The ballad of an ego-tripping rock star reveals the highs and lows of the glamrock life. Turns out that it’s work, especially if you are a Spider from Mars.
Also on our list: Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer.” Joel’s song offes an astute depiction of the manacled musician: “If you wanna have a hit, you gotta make it quick, so they cut it down to 3-0-5.”
Some other songs for the Labor Day playlist:
David Bowie’s “DJ.” I think this is the musical response to Ziggy Stardust: a song about the lonely DJ who spins the music of others instead of making his own. Unlike the frenetic “Ziggy,” the “DJ” is more strung out with synthesizers, dragging at places, jaunty in others.
The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” Classic.
Belle and Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher.” While this song is more of an homage to the 1960s and the mythology of baseball, it has one of the greatest lines about how we conflate our lives with our jobs: “Life outside the diamond is a wrench.” Sometimes work is the easy part and the rest of life is the difficult part.
Amy MacDonald’s “Footballer’s Wife.” MacDonald’s song confronts reality TV shows like The Real Housewives, revealing that these women do not experience the “struggles and strife” they think they do.
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