It’s Labor Day, and it’s hard not to think about the economic hard times we are living through now. Although I am a lucky person with a relatively secure and decently paid job, even I live with the evidence of decline—the house across the street that has been vacant for three years, the colleague whose husband lost his job, our continually eroding health and retirement benefits in the State of Florida, the old guy who bicycles by every now and then looking for yard work, the empty storefronts even in fancy Winter Park, the massive numbers of now-homeless pets that have been abandoned by families in distress.
My new mantra is that some people lived through the Fall of the Roman Empire, too. For some reason, that thought calms me, though I’m not sure it should.
So, today I bring you a selection of songs about hard times and hard work. (For some of us, it’s a holiday, so maybe there’s time to listen to more than one.) I’ve tried to select only first-person songs that are about the personal experience of economic difficulty and hard labor, as opposed to the many more that are about the poor who are “them.” As the span of dates on these songs indicates, of course, there are hard times all the time, depending on who you are. It’s just that now we are returning to a pre-Civil Rights pervasive poverty for more people, and the rich are getting richer.
Bing Crosby, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931)
Woody Guthrie, “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” (1944)
Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” (1964)
Bob Marley, “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” (1974) (see above)
Bruce Springsteen, “Factory” (1978)
Simply Red, “Money’s Too Tight to Mention” (1985)
Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1988)
Ani DiFranco, “Coming Up” (1992)
Michael Franti & Spearhead, “Crime to Be Broke in America” (1994)
Cam’ron, “I Hate My Job” (2009)
Script, “For the First Time” (2010)
Andy Grammer, “Keep Your Head Up” (2011)
My favorites, I will admit, are the protest songs, the ones like Marley’s and DiFranco’s that call for revolution—“A hungry mob is an angry mob” and “whoever’s in charge up there had better take the elevator down and put more than change in our cup, or else we are coming up.” Even though Marley’s song encourages listeners to take comfort in dancing, there’s the implication that poverty should not be tolerated. On the other hand, two of the more popular recent hard-times songs, “For the First Time” by Script and “Keep Your Head Up” by Andy Grammer, seem more sanguine, more insistent that poverty isn’t all bad.
Some of these newer pop songs feel a bit to me like pacifiers—little anthems for hard-hit folks to sing along to and feel better, feel encouraged, feel hopeful. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, studies show that domestic violence has increased significantly since the onset of the recession, and so it might be a good thing for men who listen to this kind of music—who may be struggling with issues of anger and resentment, who may be tempted to raise a hand to a family member in frustration—to hear a song that encourages them to pull together with their loved ones. On the other hand, these songs also assert that poverty is not important, that it can be overcome, that struggling people should address it with personal gratitude and forbearance.
They’re also just a little hard to believe, what with those beautifully veneered teeth, stripper types showing up in videos, and happy tunes. There are tougher recent songs out there, like Cam’ron’s “I Hate My Job.” He’s just not played as much on pop radio. Go figure.
Anyway, happy day off, to those who have the day off.
* * *
The selection process was hard. There are some good articles and lists about this subject, past and present:
Poem Hunter Songs About Poverty
Top 10 Songs About Working Hard for the Money
Telecaster Songs for Recession
Washington Post, “The Recession Becomes a Topic in Popular Music”
Guardian, “Beyonce’s New Single Spells Economic Doom”
Telegraph, “Recession Means Depressing Music”
A contrary opinion from American Public Radio Marketplace, “Pop Music Misses Recession”
Another, different opinion from the Idolator, “Can We All Stop Saying that Pop Music Reflects the Economy, Please?”