Woody Guthrie, “Better World A-Comin'”
Woody Guthrie spent most of the Dust Bowl traveling through Southwest with migrant farmers, so he knows a lil’ something about the plight of the American worker. “Better World A-Comin'” is one of many pro-union songs that promise the American working class a bright future. WE'LL ALL BE UNION AND WE'LL ALL BE FREE.
The Kinks, “Get Back in the Line”
As he is wont to do, Ray Davies plucks the shit out of our heartstrings with this tale about an oft-unemployed union worker. He just wants to provide for his lady, so he lines up at the union offices every morning and prays for a job. One doesn’t get the feeling that it often works out.
Lisa Simpson, “Union Strike Song”
Way back during The Simpsons' fourth season there was an episode called “Last Exit to Springfield,” in which Homer became president of his labor union. He dressed like Don Fanucci and hilarity ensued, but the highlight of the episode was a song that Lisa wrote for the strike scene. It’s classic early Simpsons, when even their original music was of the utmost quality. NOW DO CLASSICAL GAS.
The Band, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”
As far as I'm concerned, every self-respecting playlist should include something from The Band. Fortunately, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” tells the story of a struggling farmer’s decision to unionize, so it totally fits in here. It’s got everything we’ve come to love about these boys: Richard Manuel’s pitch-perfect croon, Rick Danko’s country funk bassline, Robbie Robertson’s lyrical genius and Arkansas-farmboy-slash-drummer Levon Helm’s impeccable timekeeping. Oh, and organist Garth Hudson is pretty much as badass as his forehead is large, which means he’s massively badass.
Harry Belafonte, “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”
Sure, this one probably makes you think of the dinner scene in Beetlejuice, but it’s actually a traditional Jamaican folk song about dockworkers and bananas. It’s also an excellent choice for any party. Whether you’re possessed by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis or just plain drunk, you can’t not dance along.
Bo Diddley, “Sixteen Tons”
“Sixteen Tons” tells one man’s story of working as a miner when the scrip systems were still in place. Before there were mining unions, workers were paid not in cash but in vouchers that could only be redeemed at the company store. Miners usually lived in company-owned dormitories and houses, so there were zero opportunities for financial autonomy. The song’s references to Saint Peter make its message pretty clear: mining was hell and mining companies were the devil. Bo Diddley’s version is not the earliest or most sincere recording of “Sixteen Tons” (that honor goes to Kentucky fingerpicker Merle Travis), but it’s definitely a rocking’ jam. And we’re trying to plan a barbecue here, okay.
Loverboy, “Working For the Weekend”
Not much to say about this one, except that when you tell your coworkers and friends that you’re making a Labor Day playlist the first thing they say is “You’re going to put ‘Working For the Weekend’ on there right?” [What? What coworker would suggest this?—Ed.] This just makes me miss Chris Farley and The Swayze.
Devo, “Working in a Coal Mine”
I can almost guarantee you that no member of DEVO ever slaved away in a coalmine. But that certainly didn’t stop them from covering Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit “Working in a Coal Mine.” It’s quite a departure from the original soul number, but DEVO ushered the hit into the 1980s with a finesse that only men who wear Energy Dome hats can pull off.
The Clash, “Career Opportunities”
England in the late 1970s looked a lot like America in 2012: there were no jobs and young people were pissed. Out of this atmosphere came The Clash's song “Career Opportunities,” in which Joe, Paul, Mick and Terry complain about jobs as menial as ambulance driving and “making tea at the BBC.” Wait, I’m sorry. These sound like great jobs. I would totally take those jobs.
Lead Belly, “John Henry”
“John Henry” is a classic blues song about an American folk hero who literally worked himself to death driving-steel and laying down railroad. It’s been covered by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Hugh Laurie, but few do it better than Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who spent most of his adult life in prisons and on chain gangs.
Lighting, “Long John”
Around the time John and Alan Lomax were getting to know Huddie Ledbetter, they recorded this version of a work song at the Darrington State Prison Farm in Texas. As is the case with most works songs sung by African American prisoners and railroad workers in the twentieth century, “Long John” dates back to the days of slavery. It is part of this country’s darkest and richest musical tradition, and it exemplifies the strange relationship between backbreaking labor and good music that makes a silly playlist like this possible.
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”
She’s not just boobs y’all—she’s a hard worker. Dolly Parton wrote this hit single for the film of the same name. It’s the prototypical chick flick in that it’s definitely got a feminist vibe but the characters are totally one-dimensional, kind of cliché and I’m not sure it’s all that empowering. But the song is a classic. Really great choice for karaoke.
Cam'Ron, “I Hate My Job”
I could’ve filled 15 Labor Day playlists with songs from before 1965, but that wouldn’t have been well-balanced journalism. So my coworkers and I scoured our Spottify libraries for something from the 21st century, and then we remembered that we totally love Cam’ron. It’s hard to find a job these days and even harder to find a job that doesn’t suck. This little humdinger is perfect to listen to on those days when you really really don’t want to go to work but dammit you should feel grateful you at least have a job; we can’t all be rap stars and anyway you have no choice because you’ve got bills and student loans.