It’s a federal holiday, so hopefully most of you are enjoying time away from the workplace and, by proxy, the screens to which we all seem to be anchored these days.
We’ve got an amazing lineup of recovering musicians on deck for the weeks to come — Jack Russell of Great White; singer-songwriters Morgan Wade, Mitzi Dawn and Griffin House; and country star Terry McBride among them — but out of respect for the Labor Day holiday, and your own schedules, we’ve opted to take this week off and instead curate a Spotify playlist of songs that fit today’s theme.
According to History.com , “Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers and is traditionally observed on the first Monday in September. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894. Labor Day weekend also symbolizes the end of summer for many Americans, and is celebrated with parties, street parades and athletic events.”
No doubt, many of us work hard at our respective jobs, but undoubtedly the conditions are remarkably better than they were 150 years ago, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when “the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living.” Child labor was common, wages were pitiful and conditions were unsanitary and unsafe. With the rise of labor unions, however, workers began to demand change.
Those efforts often turned bloody: The Haymarket Riots of 1886 resulted in several deaths in Chicago, and in 1894, after workers for Chicago’s Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike and brought the nation’s railroads to a halt, federal troops were sent to the Windy City, clashes with which led to additional violence. That same year, however, President Grover Cleveland signed a law that made Labor Day a legal holiday.
To commemorate it, we’ve compiled the following:
- “Joe Hill,” by Phil Ochs. A Swedish-American songwriter and labor activist, Hill was executed in 1915, but his efforts have been beatified by songwriters ever since. According to artist John McCutcheon , “If there hadn’t been a Joe Hill, there wouldn’t have been a Woody Guthrie ... there wouldn’t have been a Bob Dylan. He introduced to the folk music world the whole notion of taking extant melodies, especially popular songs — vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, whatever — and writing songs that were apropos to a single event, more often than not. The more I started looking into him and what he did, the more I became fascinated by this guy who’s in a lot of ways the antithesis of the modern musician — he never had a gig, he never had a recording, he was never on the radio and he never did a newspaper interview until the night before his death.”
- “Solidarity Forever,” by Pete Seeger. Originally written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915 for the Industrial Workers of the World, it’s since become a labor union anthem recorded by numerous artists over the years. Chaplin himself wrote , “It is still my contention, however, that the story of organized labor, both in principle and practice, is too important to be misrepresented or swept under the rug of labor-hating pressure groups or individuals.”
- “John Henry,” by Bruce Springsteen. A traditional folk song about the quintessential American working man, this was recorded for The Boss’ 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” On his website , it states, “A loose, exuberant throwdown of folk songs and traditionals popularized by Pete that can only be explained with commas: rock, folk, Dixieland, ragtime, gospel, French Quarter, honky-tonk, blues — in a word, American music. ‘Not music being written,’ Springsteen writes, ‘but music being made.’”
- “Sixteen Tons,” by “Tennessee” Ernie Ford. According to the website Pop History Dig , “The song had actually been written in the 1940s, its verse grown piecemeal from oft-heard phrases and the lives of miners dating to the 1930s.” Merle Travis originally wrote it, but Ford took it to the top of the charts in late 1955 and ’56, and in 2015, it was recognized by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance.
- “Banana Boat (Day-O),” by Harry Belafonte. A traditional Jamaican folk song that was included on Belafonte’s 1956 album “Calypso,” it became one of his biggest hits. The song “depicts the daily struggle of Jamaican laborers,” according to a 2018 article by CBS News .
- “Chain Gang,” by Sam Cooke. According to The Daily Doo Wop , “while on tour, Sam Cooke and his brother Charles saw a chain gang of prisoners on the highway. They were moved by what they saw and wrote this song. The story goes that they gave the men some cartons of cigarettes.” Released in 1960, it became one of Cooke’s biggest hits.
- “Workin’ Man’s Blues,” by Merle Haggard. Considered one of the most blue collar odes to workers, this country hit was released in 1969. The website Country Rebel writes , “Out of all of Haggard’s many songs that celebrate the working man, none is more well-known … the song claimed the top spot on both the U.S. and Canadian country charts following its release. Haggard wrote the song entirely on his own, with the lyrics celebrating the effort the working man puts into each day.”
- “9 to 5,” by Dolly Parton. Recruited to co-star with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the 1980 comedy about women working for a sleazy boss, “Parton wrote the tune to help pass time on set (as she found the pace of filming slower and less stimulating than that of a musical performer), and it topped the Hot Country Songs chart on Jan. 24, 1981, and the Hot 100 on Feb. 21,” according to Billboard .
- “Take This Job and Shove It,” by Johnny Paycheck. Released in 1978, this song spent two weeks at No. 1, and “it was immediately something that every working person could connect with,” according to a writer for radio station KXRB . “It was a song about a man who worked hard at a job for a long time without much recognition.”
- “Makin’ Thunderbirds,” by Bob Seger. Included on his 1982 album “The Distance,” this track is the beginning of a song cycle that documents the flight of Detroit residents to better opportunities elsewhere … but in 1955, when the song is set, “the assembly lines kept moving, the cars were fast and workers were proud and hopeful,” Geoffrey Himes wrote for The Washington Post in 1983 . “The song captures both the noise of the factory and the optimism of the era as well as the pounding momentum of its rock 'n' roll.”
- “Factory,” by Bruce Springsteen. If any blue-collar rocker deserves to double dip on a Labor Day playlist, it’s Springsteen. Blogger James McGahey writes , “With haunting simplicity, Springsteen captures the soul-killing drudgery and (often) meaninglessness that characterizes so much work in both the industrial and (now) post-industrial eras in the West — and, just as importantly, the deleterious effects of such on human relationships both in the home and in society.”
- “Driver 8,” by R.E.M. Included on the 1985 album “Fables of the Reconstruction,” “’Driver 8’ suggests a story more than it tells one, and it's probably more correct to say that it suggests many stories,” Robert Loss writes for Pop Matters . “The people who live them in the song speak quickly, or someone speaks for them, about them, or they say the same thing over and over … and some don't speak at all … They're a loosely defined community, which is to say, a nation, bound together by what can seem like not much at all, but bound together nonetheless.”
- “Working for the Weekend,” by Loverboy. What playlist would be complete without this one? However laborious it may sound, however, frontman Mike Reno told the website Noisecreep  that Paul Reno, the band’s guitarist, “had this line: 'cause everybody's just waiting for the weekend.' And I started playing around with it and as soon as it came up and the band started going [bah dah], I went [sings], ‘'cause everybody's working for the weekend.' And he just stopped everything and went, 'Oh, wow, that's so much better.' He said, 'That's it. That's the title.' So that's how that happened."
- “The Company Man,” by Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires. In putting together the the 2014 album “Dereconstructed,” “Bains starts the record's opening track with a ripping guitar lick and gospel-style rave ups, before he kicks into a screed against local greed and a juxtaposition of furtive businessmen in the church,” according to radio station KEXP .
- “Hard on Equipment (Tool for the Job),” by Corb Lund. A Canadian whose as clever as he is serious, Lund (with his band, The Hurtin’ Albertans) pour one out for a guy who means well and works hard … even if, over on the blog Mac’s Motor City Garage , the song is described as “a musical tribute to that guy we all know: the poor soul who can’t change a spark plug or drive a nail.”
- “Workin’ for the MTA,” by Justin Townes Earle. At its core, blogger Scott Huffard writes , this is a song “about being cold while working for the MTA, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is in charge of operating the city’s massive subway system. It’s a simple blues song told from the point of view of a subway operator who’s moved to NYC from the South.”
- “This F------ Job,” by the Drive-By Truckers. In this visceral kiss-off to lousy jobs, DBT frontman Patterson Hood penned this one remembering the work he and his bandmates put in as they tried to get their fledgling band off the ground: “We worked really hard, made some right moves but inevitably we also got lucky and I still go to bed knowing that my shitty old day job is still nipping at my heels and with children in the picture we certainly couldn’t be so cavalier in waging it all on some pipe dream,” he writes in the liner notes .
- “Work Conquers All,” by American Aquarium. Included on 2018’s “Things Change,” this song is an ode to the Sooner State. The website Wide Open Country notes , “The Oklahoma state motto is Labor Omnia Vincit, Latin for ‘labor conquers all things.’ Again, (frontman B.J.) Barham circles back to the blue-collar themes found in ‘The World Is On Fire,’ ‘Crooked+Straight’ and ‘Tough Folks.’ ‘Work Conquers All’ is just that — a straightforward narrative about genuine effort and hard work.”
- “Conscious Evolution/Working on a Building,” by Donna the Buffalo. If you’re wondering what a spiritual and metaphysical rumination like “Conscious Evolution” is doing on a Labor Day playlist, don’t. We included it because the live version, off the 2002 double album “From the American Ballroom,” mashes it up with “I’m Working on a Building,” a standard that’s attributed to both the African-American spiritual and Southern gospel traditions, according to Wikipedia . It’s often presented as a slower number, but the members of the New York-based jam outfit Donna the Buffalo turn it into one of our favorite versions.