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Re: Songs about working life

PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2006 2:53 am
by judith
Norman wrote:And do we know of any songs from, for example, India, Africa, Southern America or China - all with massive industrial complexes - that talk about people's working lives? Norman

There is a young man in China, Sun Heng, who is composing and performing. He has one album: All the Migrant Workers Are a Big Family (2004). I know only of him by his dedication to the workers, have not heard the music. Just checked him out on the internet and found little more information other than that about his album and a reference likening him to Woody Guthrie, which I assume is because he performs for and to the workers rather than for his musical style.

I remember a Carlos Santana song about migrant workers, but it may have been back in the day when he was performing around the Bay Area...sorry...that would be San Francisco Bay.

PostPosted: Sat Sep 23, 2006 9:50 pm
by NormanD
OK, back to this one. I've just heard a song that says a few home truths about current US life. It's "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" by James McMurtry And The Heartless Bastards, and has just been awarded Song of the Year at the 5th Annual Americana Music Awards held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN.

In 2003, country band The Dixie Chicks were facing death threats, an orchestrated radio boycott, and potential career melt-down because of a mild anti-Bush sentiment one of them expressed at a London concert. Three years down the line some country musicians have now become a lot more outspoken with songs like this:

"We Can't Make it Here"

Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
Flag on the wheelchair flapping in the breeze
One leg missing, both hands free
No one's paying much mind to him
The V.A. budget's stretched so thin
And there's more comin' home from the Mideast war
We can't make it here anymore

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here 'less you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

The bar's still open but man it's slow
The tip jar's light and the register's low
The bartender don't have much to say
The regular crowd gets thinner each day

Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore

High school girl with a bourgeois dream
Just like the pictures in the magazine
She found on the floor of the laundromat
A woman with kids can forget all that
If she comes up pregnant what'll she do
Forget the career, forget about school
Can she live on faith? live on hope?
High on Jesus or hooked on dope
When it's way too late to just say no
You can't make it here anymore

Now I'm stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store
Just like the ones we made before
'Cept this one came from Singapore
I guess we can't make it here anymore

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in
Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today
No I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They've never known want, they'll never know need
Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed in the damn little war
And we can't make it here anymore

Will work for food
Will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
Let 'em eat jellybeans let 'em eat cake
Let 'em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can't make it here anymore

And that's how it is
That's what we got
If the president wants to admit it or not
You can read it in the paper
Read it on the wall
Hear it on the wind
If you're listening at all
Get out of that limo
Look us in the eye
Call us on the cell phone
Tell us all why

In Dayton, Ohio
Or Portland, Maine
Or a cotton gin out on the great high plains
That's done closed down along with the school
And the hospital and the swimming pool
Dust devils dance in the noonday heat
There's rats in the alley
And trash in the street
Gang graffiti on a boxcar door
We can't make it here anymore

Music and lyrics © 2004 by James McMurtry

With songs like this being written, played widely, and even winning awards, there must be some change in the wind.

Free download of song here: ... ustic.html


PostPosted: Sun Sep 24, 2006 12:25 am
by Charlie
normand wrote:"If You Think The System's Working, Ask Someone Who Ain't" - Arrested Development.

There will be people writing dissertations based on this thread of yours, Norman, so we'd better not mislead them. I think this was done by Speech, as a solo project, and not when he was lead vocalist for AD. Either way, a great record.

RobHall wrote:here's a few more to throw into the pot:
Joan Baez "Joe Hill"

Joe Hill was a union organiser in the States, who was executed in 1915 after being found guilty of a murder unrelated to his union activities. As the Wikepedia piece about him reports, he was a poet and songwriter in his own right, but the song bearing his name was written twenty years after his death.

My father didn't have a lot of records, but a 78 of Paul Robeson's 'Joe Hill' was one of them. Paul sang in a sort of operatic bass voice that I didn't altogether like, but I played this over and over again and still remember most of the lyric:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you or me
Said I, "but Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died", said he

"The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
They shot you, Joe," says I.
"Takes more than guns to kill a man,"
Says Joe, "I didn't die,"

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, "What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize."

"Joe Hill ain't dead," he says to me,
"Joe Hill ain't never died.
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side."

"From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill,
Where workers strike and organize,"
Says he, "You'll find Joe Hill."

I just looked it up, and I missed out the second verse:

"In Salt Lake, Joe," says I to him,
Him standing by my bed,
"They framed you on a murder charge,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."

The song was written by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson in 1936.

Earl recorded the first version in 1940, Paul Robeson did it soon afterwards and Pete Seeger kept it alive in the 1950s (although he never could sing very well). But after Joan Baez sang it at Woodstock, many people assumed she wrote it.

PostPosted: Thu Sep 28, 2006 8:40 pm
by NormanD
Charlie wrote:...I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night...
There was a movie made about Joe Hill many years ago, by the Swedish director Bo Widerberg (Joe was a Swedish emigrant). He made the film in the USA and I think it died a death. You never see it around at all. Anyone got a copy??

One scene I remember is at the end of the film. After Hill's judicial murder, his ashes are being posted out to sympathisers around the USA, on his request. He'd specified that they should be sent to every state except one. He'd said "I don't want to be found dead in Utah".


PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 1:01 am
by judith
normand wrote:You never see it around at all. Anyone got a copy??

Our labor history has been/is being erased faster then we speak.

I called a place that if anyone had it they would. I was really hoping I could ship you a copy for the fun of it but, no copy. dammmit.

According to this
the original distributor destroyed the master copy.

PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 1:15 pm
by NormanD
Oh Judith, that would have been great, a nice thought of yours. I remember the music was by Stefan Grossman - lots of moody, slidey blues guitar - anachronistic for the times, but effective. Why was the master destroyed? Did the director get moody (he's now dead I think)?

Another one to look out for, if you've not already seen it, is "Blue Collar", directed by Paul Schrader. A discussion about its music started off this thread, months ago. It's meant to be set in a large car plant, but was filmed in a smaller factory where they make the Yellow Cabs. The scene of the fork-lift being driven into the malfunctioning coke machine is memorable (there's also another memorable coke machine scene in "Dr Strangelove", I digress).


PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 3:24 pm
by Adam Blake
"Blue Collar" - fabulous film. Other great tough American films about real working lives: "The Last Detail" (Jack Nicholson when he used to actually have to act to earn his fee) and, of course, "On The Waterfront" ("It was you, Charlie, it was you...")

PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 11:10 pm
by Ted
Has anyone seen "Killing Floor"? (I'm sure the makers were only too aware of the HW song)
Its about the attempt to unionise the meat industry in Chicago in 1919. It doesn't altogether succeed, but it addresses stuff about race and class that most american cinema wouldn't touch with a long stick. Plus its got John Mahoney (Martin from Frasier) as the evil factory boss.

Speaking of Joe Hill does anyone remember the Bluebells version form 1985?
It finishes with a sample of a newsreader saying "the labour leader neil kinnock today refused to call a general strike in support of the miners".


PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 11:11 pm
by Ted
normand wrote:Another one to look out for, if you've not already seen it, is "Blue Collar", directed by Paul Schrader.

Love that film. For the Beefheart song and for the way it portrays the corrupt union bosses.


PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 11:16 pm
by Ted
And if you're the kind of person with a hundred quid to spend on a cinema poster, try this:

PostPosted: Tue Oct 03, 2006 7:14 pm
by Ted
normand wrote:[There was a movie made about Joe Hill many years ago, by the Swedish director Bo Widerberg

Next time its on at the NFT the popcorns on me. I'd love to see it again - I saw it when I was too young to understand it in the early seventies at the school film club.


PostPosted: Tue Oct 03, 2006 8:22 pm
by NormanD
Yet another good one is "Matewan", written and directed by John Sayles. It's about a pre-WW1 miners' strike, but is basically a cowboy film, complete with a shoot-out at the end. Chris Cooper (one of Sayles' regulars) hits town as a union organiser.....ah, you've gotta see it.

"Matewan" also has a strong performance by young actor Will Oldham, years before he reinvented himself as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, the master of brilliant miserabilism.

If Joe Hill ever comes on at the NFT we should organise a Forum outing.


PostPosted: Tue Oct 03, 2006 9:40 pm
by nikki akinjinmi
I don't know if anyone recalls a song sung by Little Steven Van Zandt and Ruben Blades called "Bitter Fruit", I remember being played around the late 1980s. I can't quote the lyrics, but I seem to recall it had powerful punch at the time and I am sure this would be a "contender" (sorry couldn't resist the On The Waterfront reference) for this topic/ strand.

PostPosted: Wed Oct 04, 2006 8:20 am
by NormanD
Bitter Fruit
Steven Van Zandt (Blue Midnight Music, 1986)

I was born lucky they always say
I work in these fields of plenty
Sweat for the company far away
Fruit once sweet now has bitter taste

My father was a union man
Very proud and outspoken
They came and took him when I was young
I will fight 'till his work is done

And my children are hungry
To taste the sweet life
Though my eyes have grown tired
Their desire keeps me alive

I will gather no more of your bitter fruit

I have a sister she loves to dream
Now she works right beside me
We work the land we can never own
Someday we'll reap what we have sown

I don't look east I don't look west
I don't understand their accent
If it's not soldiers it's foreign debt
But they haven't won this one yet

Soon from the fields will come fire
To cleanse the lies from all sides
The flames of freedom grow higher
Until desire - is satisfied

I will gather no more of your bitter fruit

And they want to help in America
And the guns they come from America
But they fight against us North America
Why are the people so quiet in America?

Top 10

PostPosted: Wed Oct 04, 2006 10:12 am
by Charlie
Forgive my preoccupation with lists, but I think somehow they help to focus things.

So Norman, since you came up with this thread, I think it's got to be your job to draw up the top ten of songs about working. Or a top 20 if it stretches that far.