May 1 is International Workers’ Day, a day for working people and a time for laborers to stand up for their rights since the late 19th century. It’s celebrated in dozens of nations around the world. The Catholic Church even dedicated it to St. Joseph the Worker, patron saint of craftsmen.
Except in the United States, where May 1 is Loyalty Day. That’s right: A nation founded on a bloody insurrection against its old government saw a wave of pro-labor celebrations and said, “Let’s dedicate a day to being loyal.” Despite the fact that Labor Day in the U.S. and Labour Day in Canada (where they apparently just put the letter U wherever they want) began over a decade earlier.
But I digress.
In honor of the (non-American) world’s laborers, here are five songs celebrating people who do work for a living.
Woody Guthrie — “Union Burying Ground”
Believe it or not, there was a time when the music of rural white Americans was downright radical.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie, who sounds downright country by modern standards, was the Rage Against the Machine of his time. He was so far to the left that his music regularly got banned by radio stations. He performed with “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” painted on his guitar, describing fascism as “a form of economic exploitation similar to slavery.”
He would have loved the past couple years.
“Union Burying Ground” is about union leaders getting buried in an unmarked grave, presumably for being union leaders. Because celebrating workers is all well and good but we should also recognize those who gave their lives so that we can have things like weekends.
Drive-By Truckers — “This Fucking Job”
Though it’s rare, the spirit of Woody Guthrie does live on.
Celebrating workers means recognizing that for many, their job is a treadmill where each paycheck is barely enough to get them to the next paycheck. That’s who this song is about. Those who can’t afford to save a dime, those who get laid off and have to take whatever work they can get to keep a roof over their heads.
Don’t judge the underemployed. Recognize that it’s just a couple bad breaks from being you.
Cam’ron — “I Hate My Job”
Just one more depressing one, I promise.
The last group we need to recognize is people still suffering the consequences of a mistake after serving their time. Nobody’s saying felons shouldn’t pay the price, but once they’re out of prison or off probation, they need to be able to get back into the world. And that means getting a job.
To quote Cam’ron: “I went in for an interview for delivery/ ‘Locked up, felonies?’/ Now the dude’s quizzing me/ You working on my future, why you need to know my history?”
Johnny Paycheck — “Take This Job and Shove It”
Now let’s get aspirational.
Look, I love my job. I get to write about music and go to concerts for free with RIFF. I get to shine a light on my community’s issues with my freelance data journalism. It’s a genuinely good gig and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. As far as jobs go, it’s tough to beat.
But if, rather than doing my job, I could do no job? Live a life of leisure? Spend my days with frivolities? Yeah, I’m right there with Johnny Paycheck. I’m not sure who wouldn’t be.
Dolly Parton — “9 to 5”
Look, I can’t list songs about working without including Dolly’s classic. I just can’t. We’re a society of laws.
If you claim you don’t love “9 to 5,” you’re either lying or wrong. We as a species don’t deserve Dolly Parton, gigantic hair and all, and this song is the top of her game. So of course she’s included.
Plus, after bringing you down with the first three, I had to build you back up somehow.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.