Labor Day originated in Canada from labor unions fighting for a nine-house work day. The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City as a result of the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the US military and US Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike. With our current animosity toward all things union, Labor Day has become little more than a reason for a car sale and a three-day last gasp of Summer vacation. Kind of a drag when you realize that we are working harder and getting less now than generations past…
Here are the top 10 songs I believe celebrate the working person as the backbone of America.
1. Work’in Man Blues – Merle Haggard – Still a staple in Merle’s set list and a must have in all the best honky-tonks and beer joints across America.
2. Can’t Make it Here – James McMurtry – In the recent economic downturn it’s become fashionable to pen songs about tough times for a quick buck. None come even close to the gritty heart of McMurtry’s tale of hard times.
3. 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton -This two Grammy Award winning crossover hit was the theme song to the hit film starring Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman. Leave it to Dolly to make cubicle drudgery sound so fun.
4. Take This Job and Shove It – Johnny Paycheck – Penned by David Allan Coe about the bitterness of a man who worked long and hard with no apparent reward. The song was also covered by the Dead Kennedys on their album Bedtime for Democracy.
5. Maggie’s Farm – Bob Dylan – Dyman made it popular but Maggie’s Farm has a much longer history that includes Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs.Though it has been documented that Maggie’s Farm was Dylan’s declaration of independence from the constructions put on him by the folk movement, it stands just as well as an oppressed employee leaving his thankless boss.
6. Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell – Written by by Jimmy Webb and famously covered by Glen Campbell While driving on a deserted highway in northern Oklahoma, Webb spotted a solitary lineman working high on a transmission cable and the idea for the lyric was born. It has been referred to as ‘the first existential country song’.
7. Working Man – Hank Williams III – Shelton’s narration of the hard times and the endless struggle of blue collar work and his role in society and his family.
8. Dark as a Dungeon – Merle Travis – Travis’ father was a coal miner in Muhlenberg County, Ky. and this classic song details the risks and drudgery of the work.
9. Millworker – Emmylou Harris – Emmylou covers this James Taylor song in her signature sublime style.
10. John Henry - Woody Guthrie, Merle Travis, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, etc – The enduring American folk tale of man and machine.
Country and roots music has a long history of honoring and reflecting the dignity of work and the labor of Americans from all walks of life. We celebrate this Labor Day, 2009 with a collection of songs as diverse and enduring as the people they celebrate.