Labor Song of the Month

A playlist of songs about work and workers curated by Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program

June 2020: Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Midnight Special” (1969)
April 2020: John Prine, Grandpa Was a Carpenter” (1973)
March 2019: Arthur Roberts, “Take Away Your Billion Dollars” (1946) 
February 2019: Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (1971)
January 2019: Alejandro Escovedo, “Silver City” (2018)
September 2018: “Harry Bridges” (multiple versions since 1941)
March 2018: Margo Price, “Pay Gap” (2017)
January 2018: Jason Isbell, “Something More Than Free” (2015)
November 2017: Tom Petty, “Something Good Coming” (2010)
September 2017: Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City” (1973)
April/May 2017: Mavis Staples, “Action” (2016)
March 2017: The Choral Group of Aljustrel Miners, “The Miners’ Hymn” (date unknown)
January 2017: Dolly Parton, “9 to 5” (1980)
September 2016: Tacocat, “I Hate the Weekend” & “Leisure Bees” (2016)
April/May 2016: “Which Side Are You On?” (multiple versions since 1931)
March 2016: The Avett Brothers, “Hard Worker” (2004)
February 2016: Amy Rigby, “Knapsack” (1996) | Bottle Rockets, “Gas Girl” (1993) | The Silos, “The Only Story I Tell” (1990)
December 2015/January 2016: Los Lobos, “A Matter of Time” (1984)
November 2015: Billy Bragg, “There is Power in a Union” (1986)
October 2015: Tom Breiding, “River, Rails or Road” (2015)
September 2015: Sarah Neuberger, “These Hands” (2015)
April 2015: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” (2014)
March 2015: Merle Haggard, “Big City” (1981) | Iris Dement, “Big City” (1994)
February 2015: Sleater-Kinney, “Price Tag” (2015)

June 2020: Cut #28, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist
Adam Gustine, D. Min., Assistant Director, Social Concerns Seminars


Track 8 (Side B, Track 3) from the LP Willy and the Poor Boys (1969, Fantasy)

In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) released their fourth LP, Willy and the Poor Boys, a record with a number of major hits for CCR including “Down on the Corner” and “Fortunate Son.” Taking those tracks along with others such as “Cotton Fields” (a Leadbelly blues cover), “Poorboy Shuffle,” and our featured song “Midnight Special,” it is clear that John Fogarty and the the band were wrestling with economic issues at the critical intersection of race, class, and big government machines like the military and the prison system. The result was a classic and compelling protest album that dealt with major themes in CCR’s signature style. 

Because of the overwhelming popularity of “Down on the Corner” and “Fortunate Son,” it’s possible to overlook the contributions other tracks made to the record, specifically “Midnight Special.” A blues/folk cover, also originally attributed to Leadbelly, “Midnight Special” “shines a light” on life in industrial prison camps and the communities of people impacted by the complex of incarcerated labor.

The song starts with a haunting call — Fogarty’s vocal evoking the sound of the very thing he sings about —

Well, you wake up in the morning/
You hear the work bell ring/
And they march you to the table/
You see the same ole thing.

While these opening lines reveal the image of the prison, the lyrical adjustments Creedence made to the original Leadbelly recording suggest an intentional blurring of the lines between the song’s historic labor prison roots and the lived realities of the poor and working classes on the “outside.”

Ain’t no food upon the table/
There’s no pork up in the pan/
But you better not complain boy/
You get in trouble with the man.

It’s also now clear that this is a song dealing with the racialized implications of the American prison system. “You better not complain boy” is no throwaway line, it’s a slogan of white supremacy in the United States, and the prison system — prison labor in particular — is one of its primary agents of enforcement and coercion. Infamous labor prisons, such as Parchman Prison in Mississippi or Angola Prison in Louisiana, function(ed) as legal extensions of the slave labor system which, particularly in the South, allow(ed) for both government and private business to thrive economically on the forced (free or cheap) labor of overwhelming numbers of black Americans.

So, while the opening lines could easily be applied to industrial factories in a northern city or a West Virginia coal mine, it’s clear that the psychological and economic impact of the prison labor system are in focus. But, importantly, that impact extends to those outside the prison system as well, as the second verse makes clear:

Yonder come Miss Rosie/
How in the world did you know?
By the way she wears her apron/
And the clothes she wore.

Umbrella on her shoulder/
Piece of paper in her hand/
She come to see the governor/
She want to free her man.

Miss Rosie is the everywoman — and the hero — in this song, experiencing life on the outside with “her man” locked up in the industrial prison complex. She is on a mission, not just to survive, but to find freedom. 

Her situation becomes clearer as the verse progresses. Her mission that day is to visit the governor, the piece of paper in her hand — a clemency petition. Yet, with such an important appointment in front of her, a few details help to fill in the bleak economic situation she faces. Rosie’s apron suggests that she works in the service industry, perhaps as a domestic, and the state of her clothes implies she doesn’t have much in the way of “appropriate” dress to visit the governor’s mansion. That she has an umbrella on her shoulder seems to mean that she walked to this meeting as well. 

Rosie is symbolic of so many early twentieth-century working-class black females who walked to, and worked, in contexts foreign to where they raised their families. Prepared for anything — inclement weather or the need to get her husband out of prison — Rosie is making it work, and is missing work to make it happen.

As the song turns to verse 3, we come to understand that the entire song is as much a warning as a lament:

If you ever in Houston/
Oh you better do right
You better not gamble/
You better not fight.

Or the sheriff will grab ya/
And the boys will bring you down/
The next thing you know, boy/
Oh, you’re prison bound.

Highlighting the razor thin line between life outside and inside the prison system, and the tenuous nature of life for the black community because of that, the narrator of our song (locked up himself) warns his listeners not to step out of line, or the system — designed to extract labor from black bodies as cheaply as possible — will work its machinations on you, adding to their labor force and creating yet another Miss Rosie. 

The song’s chorus, “Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,” is a repetitive line, prayerful in content yet despairing in tone. The line itself refers to a railroad running alongside the prison, which has a train that rambles by in the middle of the night every night. From inside the prison, the light of the train comes through the bars on the windows, stirring the desire to ride away from this hell to wherever that train is going. It’s worth noting that the imagery of trains as an escape from harsh conditions, particularly economic, is a hallmark of the American folk and blues tradition, finding its way into gospel songs (the Impressions’ “People Get Ready”) and country music (Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”) as well. In “Midnight Special,” to be found “in the light” of the train is to escape the prison in which our narrator finds himself; it is the freedom he longs for and the freedom for which Miss Rosie fights. 

Let the Midnight Special, shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special, shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special, shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special, shine her ever loving light on me.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


April 2020: Cut #27, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist
Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program


Track 8 (Side B, Track 2) from the LP Sweet Revenge (1973, Atlantic)

The great John Prine, a victim of the coronavirus last week, spent a career penning and performing songs about his own death, many of them winningly whimsical, from 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” to 2018’s “When I Get to Heaven.” Prine’s vision of death was irreverent, and over a half-century of songwriting he optimistically anticipated an afterlife filled with wonderful encounters and experiences straight out of … well, the best John Prine songs.

Please Don’t Bury Me(link is external),” from his third LP, Sweet Revenge (released in 1973, when he was just twenty-seven years old), is a young man’s sarcastic kiss-off to the long goodbye, with his reported last words forming the song’s chorus:

Please don’t bury me/
Down in that cold, cold ground/
No, I’d rather have ‘em cut me up/
And pass me all around

Throw my brain in a hurricane/
And the blind can have my eyes/
And the deaf can take both of my ears/
If they don’t mind the size

Mixing the serious with the silly, he offers his arms to the Venus de Milo, his love to Rose, and his stomach to Milwaukee, “if they run out of beer.” And he begs the listener to “put my socks in a cedar box, just get ‘em out of here!”

When I Get to Heaven(link is external),” by contrast, from his final LP, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, reflects a much older man’s vision, one informed by seventy-plus years of loving and losing family. Prine can’t wait to see them all, from “mom and dad, and good old brother Doug,” to “cousin Jackie” and “all my mama’s sisters, ‘cause that’s where all the love starts.” But the song is neither maudlin nor sober. After first shaking God’s hand, he sings, “I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band,” and then “open up a nightclub called The Tree of Forgiveness,” to which “I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics.” The raucous chorus celebrates Prine’s anticipation of a joyful afterlife:

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale/
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long/
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl/
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town

Some of Prine’s most poignant songs share memories of faces and places long gone, including the wistful yet angry “Paradise,” from his 1971 eponymous debut, and the loving tribute “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” another classic from 1973’s Sweet Revenge.

Paradise(link is external)” focuses on the fond recollections of childhood visits to “a backwards old town” in “western Kentucky where my parents were born.” Since those days, however, “the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel, and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.” Now Paradise — the town’s actual name — no longer exists, because “Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

Despite the destruction, though, Prine’s attraction to the site endures, and in the song’s conclusion he croons:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River/
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam/
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’/
Just five miles away from wherever I am

In Prine’s afterlife, you reunite with both long lost loved ones and long lost loved landscapes, a delightful prospect.

And two of those lost loved ones Prine would undoubtedly most hope to remeet in heaven would be his grandparents, the subjects of 1973’s “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” our current featured Labor Song of the Month.

A ditty less about death itself than the living memory of loved ones lost, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” perfectly presents a child’s patchwork perception of those quirky, affectionate, and exotic creatures known as grandparents, who can seem both so close and similar to us and yet so weird and different.

In just over two minutes of goofy singing, Prine captures the fusing of the mundane and the sublime, the banal and the strange, that forges the unique relationships uniting family members two generations apart. From what they wore to how they spoke, from what they sang to how they fixed things, and from where they took him to what they gave him, Prine weaves a word portrait of their lovable, ordinary oddness observed through his childlike eyes. And mixed into those memories is his mentioning of their labor — what they did for a living — revealing his recognition of their work. As he sings in the chorus:

Grandpa was a carpenter/
He built houses, stores, and banks/
Chain smoked Camel cigarettes/
And hammered nails in planks/

He was level on the level/
And shaved even every door/
And voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the war*

Though mostly focused on his grandfather, Prine also sings affectionately of his grandmother, testifying to the importance of both her paid and unpaid labor, including childcare, though again it’s showcased through a child’s experience:

Now my Grandma was a teacher/
Went to school in Bowling Green/
Traded in a milking cow for a Singer sewing machine/

Well, she called her husband “Mister”/
And she walked real tall and proud/
And used to buy me comic books after Grandpa died

Clearly Prine takes pride in his grandparents’ identities as working people, but their labor is set down alongside their other traits, just one part of what makes them special to him. And, really, that is how we should all aim to think about work — meaningful, valued, and more equitably divided and compensated. In this moment where we’re all reminded of the essential value of the too-often-underappreciated paid and unpaid labor sustaining our households, our communities, and our entire economy, John Prine’s wry and affectionate songs can act as a bridge to both our past and our potential future. 

“Grandpa Was a Carpenter” is my favorite John Prine tune, probably because it conveys in a nutshell that paradox of the best popular music: the more singular and specific the storyteller’s songs — from Prine through Prince to current favorite Lilly Hiatt(link is external) — the greater it resonates with our own uniquely individual experiences, flooding us with feelings and memories of our own “Crooked Piece of Time(link is external)” (another gem, this one from 1978’s Bruised Orange).

As Hiatt put it in a touching tribute to her musician hero in the wake of his passing, “There is a John Prine album for everyone.(link is external)” Go find yours, listen to it on repeat, tally up the wisdom in the songs, and then make good use of it when social distancing finally ends.

*The line about his grandfather’s affiliation with the GOP is another nice little touch, a nod to the older man’s connection to his own grandparents, and a reminder of an era when political party preferences endured over lifetimes and generations.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.

March 2019: Cut #26, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist
Chris Temple, Assistant Registrar & PhD Candidate in History, University of Notre Dame

Note: Notre Dame alum Chris Temple (BSEE ‘92; MA ‘15) is researching/writing a dissertation titled “Becoming a Catholic Research University: Leveraging Science and Technology at the University of Notre Dame, 1842-1967.”


Arthur Roberts’ “Take Away Your Billion Dollars,” written in 1946 and published in the journal Physics Today(link is external) in 1948, questions the enthusiastic embrace of military research funding and the influence of that support on dictating the research agenda for American physicists.

During World War II, the United States military had proven to be a new and powerful patron for American science. The federal government effectively mobilized scientists for wartime research at universities through financial contracts coordinated by the engineer and scientist-administrator Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).  Research scientists at places like MIT, Cal Tech, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Chicago became the earliest beneficiaries, while those at other schools such as Stanford quickly recognized the need to maneuver for maximum institutional advantage.

Vannevar Bush believed in the fundamentally meritocratic nature of science.  After the war, Bush authored an important report, Science – the Endless Frontier, which outlined a postwar role for the federal government to continue fostering American science.  Bush wanted to dismantle the OSRD and replace the successful wartime bureaucracy with a new federal agency which would fund basic science research while minimizing the potential for political interference. Congressional debate delayed the formation of what would become the National Science Foundation until 1950.

In the absence of a federal agency formally designated to support basic research, American scientists embraced other research funding opportunities which emerged in the late 1940s. The Manhattan Project passed supervision of its operations to the Atomic Energy Commission to fund nuclear research, and the Office of Naval Research became a significant source of support for university-based research.  Some scientists questioned the wisdom of accepting military patronage, wondering if it was possible to do so without serving military goals.

Some of that questioning took musical form, as in the case of Arthur Roberts, (1912-2004), a professor of physics at the University of Iowa. “Take Away Your Billion Dollars” offers an insightful parody on the federal government’s growing role in scientific research funding after World War II. As historian of science David Kaiser has argued(link is external), the song became very popular with physicists, who “delighted in quoting from the song at American Physical Society (APS) meetings over the course of the next year, often slipping in a line or two without needing to give any reference.”

This recording(link is external) of the song was made by faculty and students of the “State University of Iowa” (now the University of Iowa) in 1947. As you listen(link is external), you can read along to the lyrics pasted below (reprinted from Haverford College’s “Physics Songs” website(link is external)):

​(link is external)Upon the lawns of Washington the physicists assemble,
From all the land are men at hand, their wisdom to exchange.
A great man stands to speak, and with applause the rafters tremble.
“My friends,” says he, “you all can see that physics now must change.
Now in my lab we had our plans, but these we’ll now expand,
Research right now is useless, we have come to understand.
We now propose constructing at an ancient Army base,
The best electronuclear machine in any place, — Oh

It will cost a billion dollars, ten billion volts ’twill give,
It will take five thousand scholars seven years to make it live.
All the generals approve it, all the money’s now in hand,
And to help advance our program, teaching students now we’ve banned.
We have chartered transportation, we’ll provide a weekly dance,
Our motto’s integration, there is nothing left to chance.
This machine is just a model for a bigger one, of course,
That’s the future road for physics, as I hope you’ll all endorse.”

And as the halls with cheers resound and praises fill the air,
One single man remains aloof and silent in his chair.
And when the room is quiet and the crowd has ceased to cheer,
He rises up and thunders forth an answer loud and clear.
“It seems that I’m a failure, just a piddling dilettante,
Within six months a mere ten thousand bucks is all I’ve spent.
With love and string and sealing wax was physics kept alive,
Let not the wealth of Midas hide the goal for which we strive. –Oh
“Take away your billion dollars, take away your tainted gold,
You can keep your damn ten billion volts, my soul will not be sold.
Take away your army generals; their kiss is death, I’m sure.
Everything I build is mine, and every volt I make is pure.
Take away your integration; let us learn and let us teach,
Oh, beware this epidemic Berkelitis***, I beseech.
Oh, dammit! Engineering isn’t physics, is that plain?
Take, oh take, your billion dollars, let’s be physicists again.

*** “Berkelitis” refers to the infectious enthusiasm among physicists for so-called Big Science projects typified by such institutions as the growth of the Ernest Lawrence’s laboratories at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1930s and during the Manhattan Project during World War II.

The concerns expressed in “Take Away Your Billion Dollars” proved to be particularly insightful and even prophetic, as an American obsession with so-called Big Science and military-focused projects during the Cold War drove the research agenda for many scientists at American universities – particularly in the post-Sputnik era. Two decades after this song was published and fifty years ago this month, students at MIT demonstrated on March 4, 1969, against the Vietnam War and against their school’s work on military-related research.  The campus disturbance disrupted the work at some laboratories.

Historians Stuart Leslie(link is external) and Rebecca Lowen(link is external) have told the stories of how MIT and Stanford became “Cold War universities” and highly integrated parts of the military-industrial-academic complex by prioritizing federal government-funded scientific research. In the twentieth century overall, research universities became the pace-setting role model institutions of American higher education, and the expensive demands of scientific research made government funding an operational necessity after World War II and during the Cold War.  The song “Take Away Your Billion Dollars” offers the listener an opportunity to pause and reflect on the effects of government research funding and its role in determining the agenda of American scientific labor.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


February 2019: Cut #25, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist
Tom Kellenberg, Executive Director, Notre Dame Washington Program 

Note: Notre Dame alum Tom Kellenberg (PLS, ECON ’80) directs Notre Dame’s study-in-DC program, where he teaches courses in law, public policy, and human rights. A graduate of Harvard Law School who has worked as a labor and employment attorney, Tom is also the executive director of International Human Rights Advocates (IHRA)(link is external), a non-governmental, nonprofit organization that provides legal support, lobbying assistance, and government relations services to individuals and human rights groups in the United States and abroad. He is a longtime supporter and friend of the Higgins Labor Program. — Dan Graff


Track 9 (or Track 3, Side 2) from the LP What’s Going On (1971, Motown Records)

In some neighborhoods in Washington, DC, where I’ve worked for the past twenty years, you can’t sit in a barber chair for long without hearing a Marvin Gaye song playing on the overhead speakers. With a clientele that is largely older, and African American, those barbershops are often anchors for the black community, preserving the history and culture of the people who have lived there with photographs, newspaper clippings, and yellowing concert posters hanging from the wall. (Quincy Mills(link is external), Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies at Vassar College [and a former research fellow at Notre Dame in 2005-06], provides a fascinating look into the political and social role of those neighborhood barbershops in his wonderful Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America (University of Pennsylvania Press 2013).

Marvin Gaye was born and raised in Washington, DC, where he is still revered as a cultural icon and a much loved son, and where his image graces several large murals and a monument in Marvin Gaye Park, named in his honor. His soulful music resonates here in large part because his songs speak to the conditions lived by so many city residents, even thirty-five years after his untimely death in 1984. Perhaps no song is more evocative than “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” from his landmark 1971 LP What’s Going On.

With a silky voice, and a three- (some say four-) octave range, and backed by legendary Motown studio band The Funk Brothers, Marvin Gaye sketches a harrowing portrait of urban hopelessness and despair set to a powerful rhythmic groove.

Hang ups, let downs/
Bad breaks, setbacks/
Natural fact is/
I can’t pay my taxes.

Crime is increasing/
Trigger happy policing/
Panic is spreading/
God knows where we’re heading.

For many District residents, those lyrics unfortunately mirror an appalling economic reality. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a local think tank which focuses on issues affecting low- and moderate-income families, Washington, DC has deeper income inequality than any state, with households “in the top 20 percent of income having 29 times more income than the bottom 20 percent.(link is external)” At 18.6 percent, the District also has one of the highest rates of poverty in the United States, trailing only Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico.

Make me wanna holler/
And throw up both my hands/
Yeah, make me wanna holler/
And throw up both my hands.

Much of that inequality is rooted in an entrenched ethnic divide, and a long legacy of racism and segregation. A recent report by the Urban Institute, The Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital(link is external), found that “white households in DC have a net worth 81 times greater than Black households.(link is external)” The median income for African American households is $42,000, compared to $134,000 for white households; and while the poverty rate for white residents is 7.9 percent, it is nearly 30 percent for the African American community. In Ward 8, the poorest of DC’s wards, located east of the Anacostia River and overwhelmingly African American, the statistics are even grimmer. There the median household income is only $31,000, more than 50% of children live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is three times the national average.

Make me wanna holler/
The way they do my life/
This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’/
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’.

Employment discrimination, whether overt or resulting from unconscious bias, exacerbates existing income and wealth disparities between the city’s black and white residents. Professor David Phillips, an economist affiliated with Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, found that DC job applicants with “black-sounding names receive a 6.0 percentage point lower callback rate than those with ambiguous or white names.(link is external)The D.C. Policy Center(link is external), another local think-tank, notes that racial bias is particularly prevalent “in the rapidly growing, customer-facing service market, which is disproportionately a source of employment for people of color in D.C.(link is external)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops(link is external) has condemned this systemic racism — citing enormous racial disparities in income, wealth and employment — in various pastoral letters, perhaps most comprehensively Brothers and Sisters to Us(link is external), from 1979:

Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.

The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices.

If Marvin Gaye were alive today, he might feel the same sense of hopelessness and despair that he felt when writing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Despite advances in the political and legal spheres brought about by the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, there is still much work to be done to fulfill the promise of that movement, most critically in the economic sphere. Indeed, a recent paper by economists Patrick Bayer and Kerwin Kofi Charles, “Divergent Paths: A New Perspective on Earnings Differences Between Black and White Men Since 1940(link is external),” concludes that “after narrowing consistently from 1940 to 1970, the black-white difference in median annual earnings among all men has since widened substantially, growing by the end of the Great Recession to its size in 1950.” Only when that deep-seated, structural injustice is eliminated will Marvin Gaye’s cry for peace, justice, and equality in “Inner City Blues” be finally answered.


January 2019: Cut #24, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist
Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program, and Professor of the Practice in History


Track 13 on The Crossing (Yep Roc Records, 2018)

I write this in the midst of the longest government shutdown in US history — 25 days and counting — idling 800,000 federal workers, disrupting public services, and threatening to push the economy into recession. How did we get here? Well, essentially, it boils down to this: a presidential administration has decided to hold the country hostage to a campaign promise by contriving a national security “crisis” inflaming long-standing American fears of foreigners. Or, as a historian from Mexico spending the year at Notre Dame put it, “Every day I wake up to the fact that people don’t want me here, that they don’t want brown people here.”

He shared these thoughts at a recent session of the Labor Café, where folks come together to talk about work and the politics of work. Heading into the annual Martin Luther King holiday, this particular gathering focused on MLK’s life, labor, and legacy. Several in the room argued that if King were alive today, he would likely be protesting the persecution of asylum seekers and the separation of families on our southern border.

I think they’re probably right, and it got me thinking about the importance of music to the civil rights movement, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” What shall be the soundtrack to this moment in the ongoing freedom struggle? Surely it should include Alejandro Escovedo’s 2018 cover of the Joe Ely classic “Silver City,” a fable about an optimistic migrant searching for work and gradually awakening to the rude realization he is unwanted in a land of plenty and promise.

Alejandro Escovedo is a criminally underappreciated rocker who’s been toiling in relative obscurity for over thirty years. His newest album, The Crossing, teems with stunning stompers and beautiful ballads mostly penned by him (and his bandmates). So it seems a little odd — or even downright disrespectful — to choose a cover from the new LP as the Labor Song of the Month.

But Escovedo’s version of Joe Ely’s “Silver City” is so beautiful, so haunting, and so perfectly-timed — I’m hard-pressed to find a song more poignant for our moment. Track thirteen on a concept album about immigrant punk rockers from Mexico and Italy confronting the full fire and fury of Trump’s America, “Silver City” is a bittersweet riposte to the fusillade of family separations, tear-gassing, and racism-by-tweet unleashed upon migrants and asylum seekers at the US-Mexican border by our current commander-in-chief.

Written decades ago by Escovedo’s friend and fellow Texan Joe Ely, who included it on his 1987 honky tonk classic Lord of the Highway, “Silver City” presents the universal tale of a poor migrant leaving home in search of opportunity whose optimism crashes after he’s robbed, then ignored, later arrested, and finally imprisoned  (Ely briefly explained the song ’s origin during a 2014 live performance(link is external).). Covered by Escovedo thirty years later, the unaltered lyrics seem to me less about the protagonist’s stubborn naivete and more about our country’s shameful pride in proclaiming itself the most coveted land on earth while violating not only its own laws but also international norms of human decency. As Escovedo sings:

I honestly believed/That I would be received/With the golden key to the Silver City.

But my first night on the town/Bandits knocked me down./They welcomed me to the Silver City.

Must’ve been a freak mistake/I said as I did wake/In the gutter of the Silver City.

With a throbbing head/I begged for my bread/Half-smiling as I bled in the Silver City.

Oh, how can there ever be/Such misery in the streets?/How can it ever be in the Silver City?

But soon enough I saw/How easy it was to fall/And not be seen at all in the Silver City.

It’s fitting that alt-country crooner Ely sings harmony on rocker Escovedo’s cover, reminding us that the best music bends, blurs, and blows up boundaries, thereby exposing the arbitrary falsity of segregating songs and the people who play and purchase them into commercially viable, race-coded categories (rock, country, rhythm and blues, tejano, e.g.).

Moreover, just like desperate people in search of work, the most exciting music insistently jumps the lines arbitrarily drawn on maps to divide nations. By synthesizing novel sounds, stories, and songs with familiar ones, border-crossing music has historically worked to heal the pain of homesickness, loneliness, and separation from loved ones while helping migrants forge new identities intertwined with the new melodies and rhythms born from new experiences. This was how the blues, country, and rock and roll were created in the 20th-century US — the musical fruits of working-class Americans’ engagement with the migration, increased pace, commodities, and alienation associated with the industrialized economy.

These, indeed, are the subjects of many of The Crossing’s tracks — the lure of economic opportunity, the seduction of new experiences, the longing for lost loved ones, and the danger of being different and undocumented in today’s USA. Sometimes the sentiment is wistful, as on “Waiting for Me,” when Escovedo sings, “So if you see her/Please tell her I blew her a kiss/It will be landing when the wind shifts.” At other times, as on “Fury and Fire,” the anger is palpable: “Whatever happened to the promise of a better life?/They wanna tear it down/They wanna tear it down.” Meanwhile, the music on the LP genre-hops, from Mexican and American folk to rock, and from twang to spoken-word poetry.

Apple Music categorizes The Crossing as “Americana,” whatever that means — though I guess that’s the point. A native of Texas born to Mexican immigrants, Alejandro Escovedo is as American as Bruce Springsteen or Aretha Franklin — and, like them, he’s a national treasure — even if you wouldn’t know it from his near-invisible media presence (A recent New Yorker piece(link is external) offers a nice introduction to his career and his new album).

“Silver City,” in fact all the songs from The Crossing, tell a most urgent American story, and do so in the most American way possible — with voice, guitar, bass, and drums. Give it a listen, and you just may join the caravan of the converted.

“This is the America I wanna be!” to quote Escovedo (from “Sonica USA”).

September 2018: Cut #23, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Peter Cole, Professor of History, Western Illinois University

“HARRY BRIDGES” (multiple artists and versions since 1941)

Note: Labor historian Peter Cole is a longtime friend of the Higgins Labor Program. An expert on dockworkers and their struggles, he is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia(link is external) (University of Illinois Press, 2007) and Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area(link is external) (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming fall 2018). He’s also a fan and follower of working-class culture, here made manifest in music. — DG

Nowadays, the name Harry Bridges elicits no response from the average American. Some San Francisco Bay Area residents might connect his name to the large plaza outside the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero running alongside the bay.

Yet there was a time, a long time ago — half a century — when Harry Bridges was a household name. He was known across the land as the president of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU)(link is external), perhaps the most militant, powerful, left-wing union in twentieth-century America.

He was so respected that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, two of America’s greatest songwriters, each penned tunes in his honor. For good measure, Rancid, part of the Bay Area’s thriving 1990s punk scene, also wrote a song for him.

An Australian immigrant, Harry Bridges helped create the ILWU, a union of dockworkers born out of the now-fabled “Big Strike” of 1934(link is external) that shut down every West Coast port for nearly three months. The strike’s pivotal event occurred on July 5th, “Bloody Thursday,” when San Francisco police killed a striker and strike supporter and wounded many more; four other strikers died at the hands of police during the strike. After a bruising conflict that helped define worker militancy in the 1930s, the dockworkers won. Their still-powerful union, the ILWU, emerged soon thereafter. Though not the leader at its start, by the end of the Big Strike Bridges led workers on the San Francisco waterfront. He remained the union’s president until 1977.

The ILWU transformed tens of thousands of workers on the West Coast from “wharf rats” into “lords of the docks.” They commanded the highest wages among manual laborers. They killed the much-hated hiring system, the “shape-up,” that many compared to a slave auction, because workers had to gather on the docks each day to see if an employer would hire them. In its place, they instituted a system called “low man out” in which the worker with the fewest hours worked in that quarter of the year got the first job; truly, the last was first in the ILWU.

The ILWU also voluntarily integrated its ranks in the 1930s. Local 10 of the SF Bay Area, Bridges’ home branch, might have been the most thoroughly integrated institution in the nation in the mid-twentieth century. As Cleophas Williams, Local 10’s first African American president, recalled, “When I first came on the waterfront [1944], many black workers felt that Local 10 was a utopia.” Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr., both were honorary members.

Bridges’ name also was familiar because he suffered relentless persecution from the US government for more than twenty years. Political conservatives and Cold Warriors considered him a Communist though Harry denied the charge. He did, however, regularly admit that he agreed with the Communist Party line 95% of the time. To labor unionists and progressive allies alike, Harry was a hero attacked for his socialist beliefs and effective leadership that improved the lives of tens of thousands.

No less than US Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy agreed, writing in a 1945 Supreme Court opinion, “Seldom if ever in the history of this nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise that freedom which belongs to him as a human being and is guaranteed him by the Constitution.” Harry joked at the time: “I don’t deny that I’ve had due process. I’ve had all the due process I want.”

Given his importance, it comes as little surprise that songs have been written about Harry. The legendary Almanac Singers released the first, in 1941, as “Song of Bridges” (sometimes called “Ballad of Harry Bridges”):

The Almanac Singers stood at the heart of a burgeoning leftist folk music scene in the era, with one foot in New York City and another walking the backroads of rural America. The Almanac Singers’ lineup consisted entirely of all-stars: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays(link is external), and Millard Lampell(link is external). Seeger sang the recorded version. Later, in honor of the seventh-fifth anniversary of the Big Strike, he lovingly recounted the first time the Almanacs performed it(link is external), to Harry Bridges and other ILWU members, in Frisco town.

Also in 1941-42, now legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax(link is external) joined Woody and Pete in writing Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People(link is external), a collection of tunes in book form. For unknown reasons, it was not published until 1967(link is external). To this day, it remains a treasure trove for lovers of music, Americana, and history.

This classic tome includes a song called “Harry Bridges,” by Woody Guthrie, with lyrics different from the original (though it follows the same chronology as the Almanac Singers’ version). Woody’s lyrics, as with other songs in the book, are preceded by comments in his unique, homespun, radical voice: “The trouble Harry Bridges had on the west coast took place while I was making various noises on the radio there in Los Angeles [late 1930s] and, well, I just sort of thought that they ought to be some kind of little song wrote up about old Harry and the tough old human race for which he stands.” This statement is a little different from what Seeger said, much later, but may be equally true.

The Almanacs’ version is more detailed and much longer. It contains more specific references to the dramatic, largely forgotten events of the San Francisco waterfront in the 1930s, along with Bridges’ trials. Here are that version’s final two stanzas:

The bosses brought a trial to deport him over the sea/

But the judge said, “He’s an honest man, I got to set him free.”/

Then they brought another trial to frame him if they can/

But right by Harry Bridges stands every working man!

Oh, the FBI is worried, the bosses they are scared/

They can’t deport six million men, they know./

And we’re not going to let them send Harry over the sea/

We’ll fight for Harry Bridges and build the C.I.O.

Compare the final two from Woody’s version:

Well, they carried him away to Angel’s Island/

It was there they had his trial/

They wept and sighed and lied and cried/

But Harry licked ‘em with a smile.

This is a song about Harry Bridges/

And the Union battle he did fight./

Said, “Unionism is Americanism.”/

Well, I figure he’s just about right.”

In 2008, the Harry Bridges Project(link is external) recorded Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, singing a version:

There is no evidence that Woody ever recorded his song. It first appeared in 1967, in the aforementioned book, coincidentally the same year Woody passed away. From the mid 1950s onward, Woody was incapacitated with the debilitating Huntington’s disease that ultimately killed him. In 2008, Sarah Lee Guthrie, one of his granddaughters, beautifully covered Woody’s song with a tune different from the Almanac’s original:

Since Harry Bridges was punk before punk rock music, perhaps it is unsurprising that Rancid, the Berkeley-based punk band, contributed their own song, “Harry Bridges”:

These punk rockers grew up in Albany, one of Berkeley’s working-class neighbors, just across the bay from San Francisco. Unlike most Americans, the members of Rancid know their labor history! While sounding quite different from Woody and Pete, they also discuss Bloody Thursday and the Big Strike of 1934, name check two other prominent 1934 strikes, and fast forward to late twentieth-century American deindustrialization. Here are the opening lines of their 1994 song:

Bloody Thursday was July 5th/
The pigs killed 3 workers Harry Bridges grabbed the mic/
The city shut down July 5th/
The workers outrage it was a general strike.

The media claimed that the commies were taking over/
And some believed it was true/
3 uncompromising strikes paved the way/
Minn, SF and Toledo.

Today, nearly every one of the 35,000 workers who belong to the ILWU knows Harry Bridges. They simply call him “Harry.” And they still love him.

The rest of us could learn a thing or two from these songs. As the legendary Wobbly songster Joe Hill once wrote, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is only read once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.” Even better when a labor leader has not one or two but three songs about his storied life.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


March 2018: Cut #22, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program, and Professor of the Practice in History


Track 5 on All American Made (Third Man Records, 2017)

“Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way,” belts Margo Price in the opening track of 2017’s All American Made, her wonderful collection of honky-tonk romps, touching ballads, and Tom Petty-inspired rockers. On the surface, “Don’t Say It(link is external)” is a rollicking bar tune about a romantic relationship, but the political and the personal consistently intertwine in Price’s lyrics, so she could be addressing a lover, a boss, policymakers, or men in general:

Oh, I’ve been wondering what the hell’s goin’ on/
Who gave you the right to do me so wrong/
I don’t care about your rules ‘cause I don’t wanna play/
Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way

Price writes and performs deeply personal, heartfelt songs that explore the challenges of being a working musician and a mom:

It’s hard to be a mother, a singer, and a wife/
But all the men they run around and no one bats an eye/
I don’t want this trouble/
But it’s all I ever find.

Those lines are from “Wild Women(link is external),” but “this trouble,” the enduring gender double standard, courses throughout the album. On “A Little Pain(link is external),” Price declares, “I’m breaking my back and working like a mother,” a neat bit of wordplay drawing attention to the myriad ways our culture praises, curses, and confuses motherhood, labor, and value all at once.

All American Made, then, is a welcome paean to “working moms,” even as it calls attention to the redundancy of that term in an era when nearly four out of five mothers are in the paid labor force(link is external). It’s also a bracing reminder that there is no male counterpart in our vocabulary. After all, how often do we talk about “working dads(link is external)”?

But while Margo Price’s concerns are political through and through, she isn’t hosting any pity parties. Many of her songs rock, countering the sobering lyrics. Moreover, Price’s musical persona — confirmed via official videos(link is external) and interviews(link is external) — is that of a fighter, one who not only names the problem but also resists it — and relishes doing so. “Everybody thinks it’s all work and no fun,” she sings on “A Little Pain,” but the infectious joy of her music and singing prove otherwise, as does her embrace of her own bluntness: “I can’t hide what I am/I guess it’s plain to see.”

Price’s bluntness is put to great effect in “Pay Gap,” the album’s fifth track, which directly confronts the “The Simple Truth About the Gender Wage Gap(link is external),” which is that in the USA women are paid significantly less than men across all categories — age, race, sector, you name it. Overall, women working full-time are paid 80% of what full-time working men earn, and — at the glacial pace that gap has been closing since 2001 — women won’t catch up to men until 2119. We’re “goin’ n(link is external)owhere fast(link is external),” as Price might put it.

A lovely, lilting tune with bouncing bass, sweet harmonies, and an accordion solo, “Pay Gap” showcases Margo Price’s talents as songwriter, singer, and social critic. Since the lyrics say it all, I present them here in full. Enjoy the song, then join Margo Price and work like a mother to further the cause of gender equality!

Honey, I work so hard for my money/
And I leave my babies at home/
Breaking my back trying to bring home a check/
And working my fingers to the bone.

At the end of the day, it feels like a game/
One I was born to lose/
This institution, a dead revolution/
Is giving young women abuse.

Pay gap, pay gap/
Why don’t you do the math?/
Pay gap, pay gap/
Ripping my dollars in half.

It’s not that I’m asking for more than I’m owed/
And I don’t think I’m better than you/
You say that we live in the land of the free/
Well, sometimes that bell don’t ring true.

It’s been that way, with no equal pay/
And I want to know when it will be fixed/
Women do work and get treated like slaves since 1776.

Pay gap, pay gap/
Don’t give me that feminism crap/
Pay gap, pay gap/
Ripping my dollars in half.

No matter your religion/
no matter your race/
No matter your orientation/
No matter your creed/
And no matter your taste/
No matter your denomination.

We’re all the same in the eyes of God/
But in the eyes of rich white men/
No more than a maid to be owned like a dog/
A second-class citizen.

Pay gap, pay gap/
Why don’t you do the math?/
Pay gap, pay gap/
Ripping my dollars in half.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


January 2018: Cut #21, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Ben Wilson, Summer Service Learning Program Director, Center for Social Concerns


Track 7 on Something More Than Free (Southeastern Records, 2015)

Jason Isbell’s 2015 “Something More Than Free,” the title track on his fifth studio album, deals in the raw images of manual labor, painting an appreciative, sympathetic, and unromanticized portrait drawn from the life of his own father. Rolling Stone(link is external) called the song a “rough-around-the-edges tribute to blue collar workers,” and Isbell isn’t shorthanded in naming causes of workday fatigue: “No more holes to fill and no more rocks to break, And no more loading boxes on the trucks for someone else’s sake;” “My back is numb, my hands are freezing; “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts.”

And yet, the song strikes a markedly different tone than self-pity or complaint. Each soreness listed is matched by a still more expansive sense of gratitude and purpose, aligning the song with Catholic Social Tradition’s notion of the dignity of work(link is external):(link is external) “I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do;” “I’m just lucky to have the work;” “I thank God for the work.” The cyclical back and forth throughout the song between telling of physical pain and soulful pleasure recapitulate the rhythm of going to work and returning home to rest.

In an interview with The Boot(link is external) about the song’s origins, Isbell recalled: “I was on the phone with my dad, and he works six days a week, sometimes seven days a week; he does maintenance at a hospital.” Isbell’s songwriting conjures up his father’s sense of mixed guilt, longing, and gratitude on Sunday mornings as the rest of his family went to church while he stayed home “too tired to go to church.”

Isbell’s own labors — relentless touring, prolific album production, exposing one’s art to public and industry critique — have earned him a different set of scars and callouses, both physical and emotional, as well as a degree of fame and fortune that set him apart from his father and others doing the type of manual labor depicted in the song. Isbell is keen to write from a place of solidarity(link is external), not over-identification. Significantly, Isbell’s narrator casts as the setting for the song “when I get home from work,” rather than among the trenches of the workday that would be less personally familiar to Isbell the songwriter.

The “end of the day” is the song’s figurative setting as well, imbuing it with a reflective vantage point capable of weighing value in a more ultimate sense than that of one’s weekly paycheck or net financial worth. The literal setting is equally a “5 pm” song as it is a song of “Sunday morning,” the Judeo-Christian day of Sabbath and the labor movement’s hard-won weekly reprieve. Past the end of a workday or workweek, the song imagines the end of an era — that of bachelorhood. The man who leaves his clothes by the front door because he lives alone dreams of “the day will come when I’ll find a reason and somebody proud to love a man like me.” At a still further remove from which to consider the meaning of one’s life and labors, Isbell thinks on death, singing that “every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt.” And beyond death to eternal life, the song transports us to “When I get my reward my work will all be done and I will sit back in my chair beside the father and the son.”

It is this final destination and most ultimate “end of the day” that give us a clue to the song’s paradoxical title, “Something More Than Free,” suggesting we’ve traversed into territory where strict economics and labor markets cannot compute. The narrator’s deepest, most satisfied breath comes while sitting not in the living room easy chair, but aside the Lord’s throne. At judgment day, those receiving their heavenly reward are granted far more than “fair pay for fair work.” They receive eternal life after a life of work that was worth the pains.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


November 2017: Cut #20, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Mike Hebbeler, Discernment and Advocacy Director, Center for Social Concerns


Track 14 on Mojo (Reprise Records, 2010)

On the eve of All Souls’ Day, I was sitting in my apartment listening to the newest inductee of rock music’s faithful departed, Tom Petty. The mood was fitting with the dark of night descending upon November’s arrival, a winter chill looming on the horizon. This month, in the Christian tradition, offers a time of solemn observance and somber reflection as we honor the hallowed saints and pray for our beloved dead. The song that played that night, “Something Good Coming,” served as a kind of elegy for the front man who penned and performed it, positioning the listener to look back upon the life of an American rock star and celebrate the sacred constellation of relationships he formed among the living. “The thing about the Heartbreakers is, it’s still holy to me,” Tom Petty offered in an L.A. Times interviewjust days before his unexpected passing(link is external). This sense of the sacred is what struck me while watching the music video.

Like many Tom Petty songs, the opening stanza, in all its simplicity, draws the listener into the setting:

I’m watching the water/

Watching the coast/

Suddenly I know/

What I want the most

In this case, the scene is a moving landscape out of which insight arises. With patient attentiveness, punctuated by the measured pauses between lines – the kind of pauses that grow with age and wisdom – Petty captures the moment of revelation. The lyrics evoke an image of the famous riverside epiphany of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who experienced a moment of illumination that prompted the writing of his centuries-enduring Spiritual Exercises. Writing in the third person, Ignatius illustrates his experience occurring in the Spanish village of Manresa: “He sat down for a little while with his face toward the river – Cardoner – which was running deep. While he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened.” 

And I want to tell you/

Still I hold back/

I need some time/

Get my life on track

The discoverer seeks to share her discovery of insight. Yet this desire is checked by circumstances of which the mature author is fully aware, invoking a process to be undertaken and a self-trust to be re-established. Something significant has waylaid this traveler, and while a vision of something new has appeared, it has not yet taken root. The waiting prompts an introspection that triggers a nostalgia tinged with pain and perhaps regret. 

And I’m thinking ’bout mama/

And about the kids/

And the way we lived/

And the things we did/

How she never had a chance/

Never caught a break/

And how we pay for our big mistakes

In his signature shades but now with beard and weathered face, an older Petty sings with a seriousness that only one who has experienced life can authorize. The Heartbreakers are attuned, both with their instruments and each other, faces nodding to the rhythm and beat. A band in earlier years that made videos with colorful characters and special effects, this production is stripped down, like the song itself, which was recorded cleanly with no overdubbing for Mojo, the band’s twelfth studio album.  

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have grown up together and grown old together. And many of us grew up with them. Petty’s 1989 Full Moon Fever was one of two cassette tapes I remember in the glove compartment of my dad’s Buick LeSabre. He drove that car throughout my childhood until one of my older brothers wrecked it.

And I’m in for the long run/

Wherever it goes/

Ridin’ the river/

Wherever it goes/

And I’m an honest man/

Work’s all I know/

You take that away/

Don’t know where to go

Work is the anchor and the oar, that which stabilizes and also provides a sense of meaning, a direction.  In the papal encyclical Laborem Exercens, John Paul II writes, “[Wo]man’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity.”  Identity and self-worth are inextricably connected to labor, as Petty articulated in his final interview(link is external):

If I don’t have a project going, I don’t feel like I’m connected to anything.  I don’t even think it’s that healthy for me. I like to get out of bed and have a purpose. It’s kind of a lonely work because you just have to keep your pole in the water. I always had a little routine of going into whatever room I was using at the time to write in, and just staying in there till I felt like I got a bite.

Amid the changing seasons and shifting waters, Petty remained hard at work writing songs and recording records from 1976-2017.  Sometimes the current of the music industry, especially in the early years, became career-threateningly dangerous.  When his contract was sold to industry giant MCA and the band was profiting mere pennies off hit records, Petty took a stand against management(link is external):

I was being ripped off just like the black artists in the ‘50s and ‘60s, just like the innocent rock-and-rollers who were making the music that got me started.  This industry has always taken in the hungry, talented youth and exploited them to its own advantage.  I’m hardly unique.  I just started thinking, “Here’s this huge corporation, and they want to take my songs away from me?  I wrote them. I should own them.”  

With strategic tactics that included filing for bankruptcy to gain leverage, Petty was eventually able to negotiate with the record giant and secure fairer profit margins for the band. His actions set a precedent that would later benefit other artists in the industry.  

Laborem Exercens warns against these “error[s] of capitalism,” wherever “[wo]man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of [one’s] work-that is to say, where [one] is not treated as subject and maker.”                                                                                

Maker of songs, Tom Petty fought the industry also on behalf of his fans when, in 1981, MCA tried to raise the price of his new album, Hard Promises, to a full dollar more than the standard store price for records. Pushing back on the grounds of fairness and threatening to withhold his album, Petty won another victory and consumers purchased the record for a just price of $8.98. “If we don’t take a stand,” said Petty, “one of these days records are going to be $20.”(link is external)

For the love of the music and the fans, Petty committed to his craft for forty-one strong years. His band enjoyed hit songs and endured company battles, rocked sold-out tours and coped with personal struggles, witnessed breakups, and celebrated reunions. This song speaks to that full life, a traveler who absorbs all, embraces all, as the promise of his journey reveals itself in the encounters along the way. 

And I know that look that’s on your face/

There’s something lucky about this place/

There’s something good coming/

For you and me/

Something good coming/

There has to be

The look on Tom Petty’s face at the end of the music video captures the whole of it. The master craftsman nods in humble admiration of a music career created with his friends and co-workers, the Heartbreakers, connecting with millions of lives along the way. And though this front man is now at rest, his song awaits when we turn on the radio, walk in a bar, or open a glove compartment.

In the company of saints and departed souls this November, we journey onward with gratitude for those who have gone before us and trust in the hope that, yes, for you and for me, there’s something good coming.

Rest in peace, Tom Petty.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


September 2017: Cut #19, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program, & Professor of the Practice in History


Track 3 from the LP Innervisions (Tamla/Motown, 1973)

Note: This installment of the Labor Song of the Month is dedicated to Fred Redmond(link is external), Executive Vice President of the United Steelworkers (USW), co-chair of the AFL-CIO’s Commission on Racial and Economic Justice(link is external), and chair of the board of the A. Philip Randolph Institute(link is external). Mr. Redmond recently lectured at the University of Notre Dame and met with students and young activists to discuss paths toward a fairer and more inclusive American workplace. Mr. Redmond got his first job in the mills and joined the USW in 1973, the very year Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” was released.

Stevie Wonder is flat out the greatest American musician of the 1970s (I’m talking about the field of popular music broadly conceived — pop, rock, r&b, punk, etc.). As both a singles artist and an album maker, as a vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist, Wonder simply had no peers, whether in terms of productivity or creativity.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I miss many things about the Obama presidency (public policy, human decency, family values, etc.), but on a very personal level I loved having a commander-in-chief cool enough to riff like a music geek. As Obama opined to Rolling Stone while on the campaign trail in 2008, “If I had one musical hero, it would have to be Stevie Wonder. … When I was at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Innervisions, and then Songs in the Key of Life. Those are as brilliant a set of five albums as we’ve ever seen.(link is external)” Obama already had my vote at that point, but that bit of wisdom insured that he would always get the benefit of the doubt from me. And he always will.

But back to the Master Blaster(link is external) himself, it’s high time he’s honored with a Labor Song of the Month. “Living for the City” is the third track on 1973’s Innervisions, an album brimming with beautiful balladry, melodic funk, rollicking rock, and searing social commentary

An epic story song, “Living for the City” profiles the misfortunes of a young black man pushed into the poverty-to-prison pipeline. The opening two verses set the stage:

A boy is born in hard time Mississippi/

Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty/

His parents give him love and affection/

To keep him strong, moving in the right direction/

Living just enough, just enough for the city

His father works some days for fourteen hours/

And you can bet, he barely makes a dollar/

His mother goes to scrub the floors for many/

And you’d best believe, she hardly gets a penny/

Living just enough, just enough for the city, yeah

This portrait of the protagonist’s parents points to the structural racism that long characterized the US labor market, with African Americans consigned to long hours, low pay, and backbreaking work as their lot in life, and black women in particular stuck with few options outside domestic work. Even a decade after the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed employment discrimination, Wonder sings of “hard time Mississippi,” suggesting something more permanent and pernicious  than the “hard times” Americans bemoan during periodic economic downturns.

But the song also captures the aspirations and assertions of the young activists of the freedom struggle, nodding to the black-is-beautiful movement, the familial dedication to education, and the insistent demand for economic opportunity :

His sister’s black, but she is sho ’nuff pretty/

Her skirt is short, but Lord her legs are sturdy/

To walk to school, she’s got to get up early/

Her clothes are old, but never are they dirty/

Living just enough, just enough for the city, um hum

Her brother’s smart, he’s got more sense than many/

His patience long, but soon he won’t have any/

To find a job is like the haystack needle/

Because where he lives they don’t use colored people/

Living just enough, just enough for the city

Like most pop music, the song’s lyrics need to be heard rather than read, not presented like poetry on a flat screen divorced from their delivery via Wonder’s velvety voice and accompanying instruments (all played by Wonder himself).

In the first half of the song you feel the characters’ pride and purpose build via the propulsive, intensifying keyboard and drums. Then, after a spoken-word interlude where the hero moves to New York to find work but immediately falls victim to police brutality and a corrupt criminal justice system, the song’s second half swells into near chaos, with Wonder’s words fighting to be heard above the din of synths signaling anger, disgust, and ultimately resignation. There was no promised land after all, no northern deliverance from southern nightmare. Once the protagonist is released from prison, he wanders the streets of New York, homeless:

He’s almost dead from breathing in air pollution/

He tried to vote, but to him there’s no solution

That’s bleak, yet it captures well the economic malaise and political mood of the mid-1970s, as the civil rights victories secured by laws bumped up against the harder social realities of neighborhoods, workplaces, and political systems resistant to change.

I’m tempted to close here with a declaration of the decline of socially conscious popular music, to lament today’s absence of artists speaking truth to power on the airwaves (or is it through the ethernet?). But as my daughters and students would surely tell me, that’s likely a crock of crap, as every pop culture generation has its equal shares of schlock and substance. Nostalgia is the most seductive of sentiments, no doubt, and a highly unreliable guide to historical analysis. Instead, then, let me take a different tack.

It’s amazing how fresh “Living for the City” — indeed all of Wonder’s 1970s output — still sounds four decades later. But it’s just as amazing — actually alarming —  how relevant the subject matter remains, as significant racial disparities persist in pay, employment, and our criminal justice system. As Bloomberg recently reported, “In 1979, the average black man in America earned 80 percent as much per hour as the average white man. By 2016, that shortfall had worsened to 70 percent, according to research … from the San Francisco Fed, which found the divide had also widened for black women(link is external).” Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the black unemployment rate is currently double the white(link is external), a figure that has remained consistent for years. Finally, our national nightmare of police-on-black violence has returned to St. Louis, where a white officer was again acquitted in the shooting murder of a civilian(link is external).

How much has changed here since 1973? Hard time America goddam, as Wonder’s fellow singer and activist Nina Simone(link is external) might respond.

In the song’s final stanza, Wonder switches from social storyteller to apocalyptic prophet, moving from third person narration to direct address:

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow/

And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow/

This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder/

If we don’t change the world will soon be over

“It ain’t nothin’ but a city,” Wonder concludes, reminding us that we have the power to effect change, as long as we “stop giving just enough for the city.” There’s our call for action, sung over forty years ago but speaking just as powerfully to us today. 

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


April/May 2017: Cut #18, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program, & Professor of the Practice in History


Track 4 from the LP Livin’ on a High Note (Anti-/Epitath, 2016)

“Who’s gonna do it if I don’t?” That pressing question opens and closes “Action,” the potent fourth track off Mavis Staples’ 2016 LP Livin’ on a High Note(link is external). As a call to arms, this song couldn’t be more timely, and it’s just one of the many fine songs on this fruitful collaboration between the 78-year-old gospel-soul-pop queen and producer-musician M. Ward, who commissioned fellow indie-rockers like Nick Cave, Neko Case, and Justin Vernon to write songs for the project. “Action,” submitted by Merrill Garbus of the band tUnE-yArDs, sounds like a Schoolhouse Rock(link is external) take on the Fight for $15(link is external). In other words, it’s awesome.

In the wake of the recent presidential election, “Action” is an appropriate theme for the emerging multi-front defense of the rights of our brothers and sisters in the black, brown, Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQ, and labor communities.

The first verse confronts the stakes: 

Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired/

They say my worry might get me fired/

What a terrifying time to raise our voices/

But see I’m not left with many more choices

A stark reminder that under American labor law workers have very few protections from being let go (and for any reason the boss sees fit), the lyrics speak to the palpable fear at many workplaces, especially in our era of social media, as employers have wide access to their employees’ beliefs and behaviors — even when they’re off the clock. At the same time, the lines betray a weariness pointing toward resistance, which the chorus confirms:

I gotta put it into action (Action)/

Action (Action)/

Doing it A to Z/

Until I set myself free (Action)

A call to speak up and speak out, “Action” is also musical testimony to what’s already happening across the country, as fast food workers, retail clerks, car washers, and Uber drivers are increasingly organizing and protesting for higher wages, better benefits, stable schedules, and job security. And some have been successfully deploying the long-criticized National Labor Relations Act, which offers legal protection for complaints by workers as long as they act in concert (rather than individuals), even if they’re not in a union or even trying to form a union. Whether this recently revived tactic can gain traction is an open question, but it’s a potent reminder that social change demands solidarity. As Ms. Staples implores in the song’s climax, “Don’t let this separate you and me!”

For those uninitiated into the greatness of Mavis Staples, she’s been forging links between popular music and political activism for over five decades, originally as the teenage lead singer of the Staple Singers, a family gospel group formed by her father Pops in Chicago in the early 1950s. Like many a working-class southern migrant who moved to the urban North and West not only to find industrial opportunities but also to found innovative music (that long list includes John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Buck Owens), Pops Staples, along with his children, took traditional southern song forms, plugged them into the city, and forged the electrified sounds that meshed gospel, blues, pop, and country into interracial rock and roll. Originally, though, the Staple Singers, performed more traditional gospel music, and they were an active presence at civil rights rallies throughout the 1960s (and favored performers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). When they achieved commercial success as pop artists in the 1970s, their songs continued to carry a political edge.

That’s when I first encountered Mavis Staples, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I have distinctly affectionate memories of songs like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” hits on top-40 radio that provided the backdrop to family car rides and neighborhood barbecues when I was growing up in the 1970s. But I didn’t know anything about the band, its political history, or the lead singer with the powerful voice. In fact, I didn’t connect Mavis Staples to those hit singles until 2007, when at age 68 she released We’ll Never Turn Back(link is external), an inspiring reflection on the black freedom struggle (past and present). One of my favorite albums of that year, We’ll Never Turn Back effectively mingled classic civil rights anthems alongside original collaborations with guitarist-producer Ry Cooder, and it inspired me to seek out her back catalog. Since 2007, Staples has released three more excellent studio LPs, two produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

“Action,” then, continues Mavis Staples’ long career of making connections — this time between gospel and pop, as well as between baby boomers and millennials. It’s the perfect song to motivate her audience to make connections, too — between thinking and doing, between individual freedom and solidarity, and between civil rights and labor rights.

That’s why I’m dedicating this Labor Song of the Month to my students who are graduating in a few short weeks into Donald Trump’s America, where human connections are being frayed and walls — metaphorical and real — are being built. Members of the Class of 2017, wherever you’re headed, I hope you speak up and out in the name of inclusion, dignity, and empowerment of the vulnerable. Who’s gonna do it if you don’t?

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


March 2017: Cut #17, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

David Ruccio, Professor of Economics, University of Notre Dame


Many of us are familiar with labor songs — from Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” (sung hauntingly by Reece herself(link is external), and, more recently, by the Dropkick Murphys(link is external)) to Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power in a Union(link is external)” [Note that these are both prior Labor Song of the Month entries — ed.] They have all been written and performed by individuals and bands on behalf of workers and their organizations.

But, of course, there are many other traditions of labor/protest songs around the world.

One of those traditions comprises songs performed by groups of workers themselves. In my travels, the most interesting can be found in Portugal: the “Cante Alentejano” (from the Alentejo region of southern Portugal), recently declared Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. With a repertoire composed by modas (songs), the polyphonic singing of “Cante Alentejano” is sung by choruses of workers based on three voices — the Point, the High, and the Second Voices — without any use of musical instruments.

Here is one example, “The Miners’ Hymn,” by the Choral Group of Aljustrel Miners:

The song starts: “In the mines of São João/La, la, la, la, la, la, la/Four miners died.” Click here(link is external) to link to the full lyrics. 

Perhaps the most famous is “Grândola, Vila Morena,(link is external)” a song broadcast on April 25, 1974, on the Portuguese radio station Rádio Renascença as a signal to start the Carnation Revolution that quickly overthrew the authoritarian colonialist government of Marcello Caetano.

There are, of course, many other examples — often using popular songs to protest existing labor conditions. I’m thinking, for example, of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect(link is external)” at Walmart. Then there’s “Do You Hear The People Sing(link is external)?” from  Les Misérables in the Wisconsin State House — to protest Governor Scott Walker’s changes to Wisconsin labor laws. And perhaps most famous, thousands of Chilean students (and thus future workers) performing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller(link is external)” to demand better, more affordable colleges and universities.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


January 2017: Cut #16, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Tara Horvath, Assistant Manager, Personnel and Accounting, Center for Social Concerns


Track 1 from the LP 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (RCA, 1980), as well as the soundtrack to the film 9 to 5 (1980; Colin Higgins, director)

Working 9 to 5/

What a way to make a living/

Barely gettin’ by/

It’s all taking and no giving

They just use your mind/

And they never give you credit/

It’s enough to drive you/

Crazy if you let it

The movie 9 to 5(link is external) was released in 1980 and starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, who also wrote and performed the title track from the soundtrack, which shot to #1 on both the country and the pop charts. As the short plot summary at is external) reads, “Three female employees of a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot find a way to turn the tables on him.” It is a facetious comedy of three female office workers coming together in solidarity to change their terrible working environment. After imagining comical methods of “doing him in,” a freak incident occurs — they “accidently” put rat poison in his coffee. They then kidnap the boss (conveniently, the poison did not kill him), pretend he’s been sent on assignment by corporate, and assume control of his department. Productivity leaps! They treat the staff with respect and encouragement and — surprise, surprise — people start working more efficiently and with enthusiasm.

As a young girl watching this movie over and over again, I absorbed the film’s lessons that the sexist treatment of women is wrong and that joining and working together for change is possible. Remember, this was the early 1980s, the era of second-wave feminism, a movement broadening the debate over a wide range of very important issues, including equality and safety for women in the workplace. It was valuable timing for me as a young girl then, and I still appreciate it as a working woman today.

For me this movie and song both symbolize strength and courage of women past and present. As I think of the sacrifices made during the women’s movements then and even today, I am humbled … and so very grateful. Their courage and strength have given me courage and strength.  

Unfortunately, the issue of equality is still relevant today. We must continue joining together to work towards equity for not only women, but every person. I say this not to minimize the importance of equity for women, but to recognize that when the equity of one is being threatened, we ALL are being threatened. It is no coincidence that I write this on January 20, 2017, as our new president is being inaugurated.

9 to 5, for service and devotion/

You would think that I/

Would deserve a fair promotion/

Want to move ahead/

But the boss won’t seem to let me/

I swear sometimes that man is out to get me

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


September 2016: Cuts #14 & #15, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program

[Note: For helping me work through some of the ideas in the following essay, I’d like to thank the undergraduate students in my fall 2016 course, HIST 30618/US Labor History, 1776-1945.]


Tracks 4 & 12 from the LP Lost Time (Hardly Art, 2016)

Tacocat(link is external) is a Seattle-based pop-punk quartet whose terrific 2016 LP Lost Time (Hardly Art) features a very candid — and often very funny — milliennial feminist perspective. With razor-sharp lyrics over crunching yet shining guitars, the album explores everything from mansplaining(link is external) to internet trolls, from girls who love horses to women who love Dana Katherine Scully of The X-Files. Since only two of the twelve songs top three minutes, you might think that this young band is in a big hurry to tell their stories. At the same time, though,, as the album’s title suggests, Tacocat has other, more pressing concerns about the clock — anxieties born of an economy that works Americans too hard and rewards them too little, producing Lost Time.

Work as a theme runs throughout the album. “Night Swimming,” for example, opens with the lines “Been stuck at work all day/Want to have some fun.” There’s nothing new, of course, about rock musicians raisin’ a fuss and a holler in the name of those having to work when they want to play. Eddie Cochran unveiled the original pop blueprint for workers’ alienation in 1958’s “Summertime Blues,” which has been covered by dozens of artists including The Who, Blue Cheer, Alan Jackson, Rush, Olivia Newton-John, Alex Chilton, Buck Owens, The Flaming Lips, and Joan Jett (to name only a few). Meanwhile, musicians like Bruce Springsteen have made a career out of singing about and for those born to work for someone else.

In another track, “You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit(link is external),” the employment relationship is deployed as a metaphor for a breakup: “Oh no, you’re not breaking up with me,” sings Emily Nokes. “Oh no, I’m breaking up with you, actually.” While the song doesn’t explore the parallels between work and romance beyond the title, it points to the erosion, even collapse, of the boundaries separating labor from leisure, work from home, and commercial from social relationships in contemporary America.

Confronting “the labor question(link is external)” more directly, the album’s two best songs, “I Hate the Weekend” and “Leisure Bees,” offer nothing less than millennial manifestos on the work/time conundrum that defines our era. “I Hate the Weekend,” in particular, challenges one of the American labor movement’s most important victories.

In Tacocat’s interpretation, weekends “were made for the working stiff/With a two day fun permit,” the “Work hard, play hard, business elite” who wreak drunken havoc in urban neighborhoods before returning to the office on Monday: “Homogenized and oh so bleak/Got a hall pass from your job/Just to act like a f***ing slob.” Though this could be read as an anti-worker rant (if you need a hall pass from your job, it must not be that great, right?), it’s more likely the complaint of a restaurant or retail worker forced to toil every Saturday and Sunday catering to the weekend revelers. Indeed, American workers, especially those in the hospitality sectors, are increasingly unfamiliar with such twentieth-century relics as the forty-hour work week, stable and predictable work schedules(link is external), and a clean separation of “work” from “life.” Alarmingly, many retailers require part-time employees to be constantly available(link is external) just in case their labor is needed, preventing not only a planned family vacation or personal day but even the acquisition of a second job. It’s one thing for better-compensated doctors and professionals to be “on call”; it’s quite another to require the same from low-wage workers. Despite the bouncy beat and melodic riffs, the lyrics express the anger of the young temps, waitresses, and baristas enduring crappy conditions, no job security, and little upward mobility.

If “I Hate the Weekend” betrays Tacocat’s confusion and hostility, then “Leisure Bees” is its more positive counterpart.

The final track on the album and the culmination of Tacocat’s exploration of our contemporary work-time conundrum, “Leisure Bees” is a millennial anthem of economic independence from competition, material acquisitions, and the call to “Work hard until you die.” “I Hate the Weekend” deploys first-person singular to suggest the isolation of the individual employee, but “Leisure Bees” addresses fellow worker bees collectively and directly:

The world is a hive/Work hard until you die/

But who is a queen/And is it worth the brave routine/

How can you find yourself/Pining away for somebody else/

How far can you fly/When you’re living the life

Singer Emily Nokes’s answer to these questions is emphatic:

If honey is power/

Who cares, cares about that/

Sometimes uncomfortable/

Is better than a doormat.

Her advice is to “Sleep in and take the bus,” enjoy “six dollar wine,” and “Travel the world and never stop/But still come out on top.” Ultimately, the band urges workers to reject the apian metaphor entirely in favor of the human: “Friends mean more than anything/Never feel the need to sting.”

Millennials have had it doubly hard, coming of age in the midst of a dismal economy(link is external) producing very few good jobs while being told they’re lazy, entitled, and ungrateful(link is external) for not expressing enough loyalty to a system that’s screwing them. Tacocat’s Lost Time is a tuneful repudiation of the world this generation inherits, and the chorus of “Leisure Bees” offers an alternative:

Take your time because/

It’s your time to take/

And the values that you want/

Are the ones that you can make.

Is it too much to wish that Tacocat’s call to arms become the soundtrack to a social movement of young working people challenging Americans’ priorities when it comes to our collective need for more sustainable, less consumerist, approaches to economic growth; stronger worker protections on pay, benefits, and sane scheduling; and investments in mass transit and public infrastructure that will promote community empowerment? Maybe, but the Fighters for $15(link is external), the Dreamers(link is external), and great rock bands like Tacocat give me hope.

And isn’t it about time?

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


April/May 2016: Cut #13, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Tom Kellenberg, Executive Director, Notre Dame Washington Program

Note: Notre Dame alumnus Tom Kellenberg (PLS, ECON ’80) directs Notre Dame’s study-in-DC program, where he teaches courses in law, public policy, and human rights. A graduate of Harvard Law School who has worked as a labor and employment attorney, Tom is also the executive director of International Human Rights Advocates (IHRA), a non-governmental, nonprofit organization that provides legal support, lobbying assistance, and government relations services to individuals and human rights groups in the United States and abroad. — DG


Few people outside the labor movement have heard of Florence Reece, who passed away thirty years ago at the age of 86. But in 1931, she penned the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”, one of labor’s most enduring anthems:

Come all you poor workers

Good news to you I’ll tell

How that good old union

Has come in here to dwell

Born a coal miner’s daughter, Florence Reece married a union organizer from the United Mine Workers of America and settled in Harlan County, Kentucky. At the time, the workers were engaged in an often violent struggle with the mine operators, backed by the local sheriff, John Henry Blair.

They say in Harlan County

There are no neutrals there

You’ll either be a union man

Or a thug for J.H. Blair

One night, several carloads of deputies arrived to arrest Sam Reece, Florence Reece’s husband. After being released, Sam Reece fled to the nearby mountains in fear for his life.  At home with her seven children, Florence Reece wrote this song set to the music of an old Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.”

Don’t scab for the bosses

Don’t listen to their lies

Us poor folks haven’t got a chance

Unless we organize

Through the years, “Which Side Are You On?” has been sung at countless rallies, and covered by many artists, each one burnishing the lyrics in their own personal way. One notable version was performed by Pete Seeger using a banjo with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” written on its head:

My personal favorite is the version recorded by Tom Morello (track 3 on the Union Town EP (New West, 2011)). Ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top fifty guitarists of all time, Morello has made a name for himself with several bands, including Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. But he also regularly performs at labor rallies and protests across the country as The Nightwatchman: 

With a simple three-chord melody, Florence Reece’s song captures perfectly each generation’s struggle to secure the basic rights of workers, including the right to unionize, the right to a living wage, the right to safe workplace, and the right to be treated fairly.

Across this great old nation

Tell me what you gonna do?

When there’s one law for the rulers

And one law for the ruled

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


March 2016: Cut #12, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Stuart Mora, Organizer, UNITE HERE Local 23 – Indianapolis

Note: Notre Dame graduate Stuart Mora, (HIST ’08), is a long-time supporter for the Higgins Labor Program. His senior honors thesis, “Notre Dame vs. The Teamsters: A Case Study of the Decline of the American Labor Movement,” won the Higgins Labor Program’s John T. Joyce Award for best scholarly or creative work by a student in 2008. He lives in Indianapolis, where he works for the labor union UNITE HERE, organizing and representing workers in the hospitality industry. – DG

The Avett Brothers, “Hard Worker”

track 6 from the LP Mignonette (Ramseur, 2004)

Prudence and frugality have their place. I was raised to be quite fiscally conservative and to ridicule those who spent their money “unwisely.” However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to question this paradigm. There is no one way to celebrate life; moreover, if you die with millions in wealth, what have you gained? It’s very clear in the Gospels that Love is valued over Wealth seven days a week and twice on Sundays.

Anyway, whether you agree or disagree, “Hard Worker” by the Avett Brothers is a throwback tune that I could imagine my ancestors singing as they sat around drinking a twenty-five-cent bucket of beer after working a hard day in the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century.

As a union organizer with UNITE HERE (the hospitality workers’ union), I love how this song captures what I often see with our members — get ahead just enough to celebrate life. God bless them for it. Here are two recent examples from my own relationships:

Marc, a 59 year-old, white dishwasher who worked for Sodexo at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, until just recently, is a gruff, lovable character who will cuss and scream one moment and have everyone laughing the next. Marc told me straight up: “I’ve never had anything. Every so often I’ve gotten a little ahead, so I took care of the bills and went out and did something nice for the family or had some fun.” His wife Marie, who is dying of kidney failure and a rare blood disorder, is the sweetest Appalachian woman you’d ever meet. Marie loves to play bingo on the regular, and she hit it big for $1,000 or something. When I showed up at their house, they had spent all of the money to get a nice Christmas tree and a mountain of presents so all of their kids and grandkids could come home and celebrate a nice Christmas together.

Willa, a black woman born in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, has worked for years in food service at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis), where she is also an outspoken union steward. She won a couple thousand dollars on a lotto ticket a couple months ago. When she told me the news, she greeted me with the biggest smile and a big hug. I asked what she was going to do with it. She said she’d spend a little on her grandkids, and then she was taking her sister to “the boat” (the casino) to have a good time.

Both Marc and Willa have worked since their teens, and they are incredibly well respected by co-workers and management for their work ethic, leadership, and mentoring of younger workers. They live simple, hard-working lives and are always ready to fight for what’s right despite having faced many, many trials and tribulations throughout their lives. I dedicate this song to them. May we never forget the simple dignity that all humans can find in hard work, whatever that work may be, and may we value the people who perform that work as full human beings every moment of every day of our lives. We are not machines; we are humans – and thank God for that! It’s truly a beautiful thing.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


February 2016: Cuts #9, #10, #11, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program

Amy Rigby, “Knapsack”

track 7 from the LP Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch, 1996)

Bottle Rockets, “Gas Girl,”

track 2 from the LP Bottle Rockets (East Side Digital, 1993)

The Silos, “The Only Story I Tell,”

track 10 from the LPThe Silos (BMG, 1990)

Though romance is American popular music’s most common subject matter, few labor songs come immediately to mind when the topic is love. In a special Valentine’s Day edition of the Labor Song of the Month, I offer you, beloved readers, a threefer. And in the spirit of the season, what follows is short on text but long on tunes. Find your sweetie and enjoy the music.

Two of my very favorite labor songs fall into the category of unrequited love-at-first-sight. In both Amy Rigby’s “Knapsack” and the Bottle Rockets’ “Gas Girl,” the object of affection is a worker the narrator encounters in the routine of everyday life.

Just one standout from Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby’s fine 1996 collection of songs about a single, working-class mom’s experiences with wage labor and love, “Knapsack” connects the two themes in a three-minute reverie on an imagined romance set amidst the late capitalist workplace (“He took my knapsack just inside the revolving door/It was a bookstore where I’d never been before/Wasn’t looking for anything more than a book/But I looked, isn’t that what eyes are for?”):

“Gas Girl,” a loud stomper typical of the Bottle Rockets’ no-frills approach to love and work in the American heartland, focuses on another service-sector worker emblematic of the contemporary American economy (“Well there’s a little gas station where I like to go/Tell you, there’s a little girl there I’d like to know/It’s a self-service station/So she don’t have to work too hard”):

Whimsical in the best sense, each is a wisp of a song – short on length, long on yearning, and self-deprecatingly funny in calling attention to the magic we all think we might make from the mundane.

But I would be remiss this Valentine’s Day in promoting only songs about unrequited love. What about love fulfilled? A third song from the ‘90s indie-rock universe, the Silos’ “The Only Story I Tell” is a heartfelt, blue-collar love letter from one overworked partner to another (“When we go/To work in the morning each weekday/And sometimes/When we work on the weekends too/We keep/Each other in our hearts all day long/And when we get home/That feeling in our hearts overflows”):

I cannot think of three better arguments for the continued existence of the two-minute pop song. And I cannot think of three better reminders of how much time we spend at work, how many workers we encounter every day, and how we could all use a little more love in our work lives. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


December 2015: Cut #8, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director, Higgins Labor Program

Los Lobos, “A Matter of Time”

track 2 from the LP How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash/Warner Brothers, 1984)

Americans typically associate the Christmas season with acts of generosity, mercy, and charity, a time to appreciate what we have while sharing with those who have less. This year, though, following months of mass violence at community colleges, churches, clinics, and government facilities throughout the country, and in the context of the international refugee crisis and terrorist attacks in Paris, those nobler impulses are competing with heightened feelings of anger, fear, defensiveness, and xenophobia. Attempting to capitalize on this growing wariness toward others, elected officials across the country attempt to reject applicants for asylum while Republican candidates for president demand higher walls on our borders and total bans on Muslim immigration.

Certain conservatives like to complain of an American “war on Christmas” by secular liberals hell bent on eliminating religion from public life, but the real danger to Christmas comes from those who reject the lessons of humility, inclusion, generosity, and mercy embodied in the story of an unconventional, very vulnerable couple forced by the state to relocate to an unfamiliar town and compelled by poverty to welcome a newborn child in the presence of strangers. If Christmas is indeed greater than shopping, Santa Claus, and spending time with family and friends, then we need to see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the faces of Syrian refugees, undocumented Mexican immigrants, and the jobless individuals seeking our help at busy intersections.

Thus, while it’s always a good time to enjoy the music of Los Lobos, one of America’s greatest bands of the past thirty years, it’s a particularly perfect moment to select them for December’s Labor Song of the Month. While not a Christmas song per se, “A Matter of Time,” the second cut off their breakthrough 1984 LP How Will the Wolf Survive?, resonates with themes of the holiday season, in particular this holiday season. By focusing on the moment when a family must separate in order to find employment, the song dramatizes the story of migration from the perspective of the migrant:

Speak softly, don’t wake the baby/

Come and hold me once more/

Before I have to leave

Because there’s a lot of work out there/

Everything will be fine/

And I’ll send for you baby/

Just a matter of time

The heartbreak of the song comes as much from the characters’ desperate hope and optimism as it does from the pain of saying goodbye. In under four minutes, this Los Angeles band of Mexican-Americans encapsulates the stories of separation, struggle, and hope that have pushed and pulled generations of people across the globe to migrate to the United States. As David Hidalgo croons, “And I hope it’s all it seems/Not another empty dream/There’s a time for you and me/In a place living happily.”

In essence, this immigrant’s American Dream is THE American Dream, no different than those articulated by indigenous Americans and given voice in the songs of Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Lucinda Williams, the Hold Steady, Jason Isbell, and Kacey Musgraves. From its shared roots in country and blues, American rock and roll has always embodied cultural fusion, the collision and collaboration of separate traditions and styles that create something vibrant, new, inclusive, and open-ended — just like, at its best, this country has beckoned peoples from around the world to construct a democratic republic of citizens committed not to an ethnicity or religion or race but to ideals of equality, freedom, and opportunity. For the past several decades, one could argue that those ideals have been expressed best in guitars, bass, and drums.

In their bar-band lineup, Los Lobos is an AMERICAN band through and through. By incorporating accordion and saxophone into their sound, by balancing ballads with rave-ups, and by singing mostly in English but sometimes in Spanish, they fuse the musical traditions of rural Mexico with the urgent rhythms of urban LA, and the particular stories of migrating Mexicans with the universal themes of American Dreamers (wherever they were born). If “folk music” represents our term for how ordinary folks in preindustrial cultures shared their concerns and questions about life, family, politics, religion, and death with other ordinary folks, then the best popular music still fulfills that function even in our own hyper-commercialized culture. On “A Matter of Time,” as on every other song on this phenomenal album, from “Our Last Night” to “I Got Loaded” to “Will the Wolf Survive?(link is external),” Los Lobos plays folk music, showcasing ordinary American people in motion — struggling, drinking, moving, dancing, working, and hoping.

Christmas is a time to give thanks for what we have, and, following the footsteps of Mary and Joseph, to find hope amidst the challenges confronting us. In that spirit, I am grateful for many things, including my colleagues at the Center for Social Concerns for their consistent promotion of an ethic of inclusion and solidarity in coursework and programming, for the Notre Dame administration’s decision to welcome and embrace undocumented students as equal members of the university’s family, for the bravery exhibited by undocumented students Brizzia and Maria Munoz Robles in making their stories public, and — not least — for artists like Los Lobos, whose music broadens horizons, builds bridges, and gets ordinary people to do extraordinary things like get up and dance together. I’ll leave the final words to them:

Believe in what you’re doing/

I know we can’t be wrong/

Don’t worry about us here/

It will be alright/

And we’ll be there with you/

Just a matter of time/

And we’ll all be together/

Just a matter of time

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


November 2015: Cut #7, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Tom Breiding, Singer/Songwriter; Trips Coordinator, Appalachian Institute, Wheeling Jesuit University

Note: Tom Breiding is a Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter and musician-in-residence for the United Mine Workers of America. He played a concert at Notre Dame in September 2015, and he graciously allowed use of his song “River, Rails or Road” for our Labor Song of the Month in October 2015. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Tom shares below his gratitude for the solidarity found in the labor movement. – DG

Billy Bragg, “There is Power in a Union”

track 7 (or Track 1, Side 2) from the LP Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (Go! Records, 1986)

In 2014, through my friends at Center for Coalfield Justice in Washington, Pennsylvania, I met a group of retired coal miners whose health care benefits were being terminated by Murray Energy. As is typical in such cases, these retirees didn’t work a single day for Murray. They, in fact, worked for Consol Energy, who sold a half dozen or so of their mines to Bob Murray. As part of this corporate sales agreement, Murray was obligated to pay the benefits of the Consol retirees through December that year, and as expected, he terminated the miners’ benefits the very day it was possible for him to do so. Although perfectly legal, this deal reeks of immorality.

With little-where else to turn, these Consol retirees have gone back to the company that they once trusted, the company that they served and helped to build, asking Consol to make good on a promise of health care after a lifetime of hard work and commitment.  Their pleas, by and large, have fallen on deaf ears. It isn’t a lack of money that will prevent Consol from keeping that promise; the company made plenty of money on the Murray sale, money its executives invested into the lucrative natural gas reserves of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Consol’s bounty is plentiful enough that it continues to spend millions each year for the naming rights of Pittsburgh’s hockey facility. Despite this, all these retirees have is a distant, faint hope that Consol’s CEOs will somehow find it in their hearts or consciences to give these miners what was promised to them. Why? Not because they aren’t committed, not because they aren’t vocal, not because they are small in numbers (there are approximately 3,000 former miners affected), but because these retirees are not organized. They are, and were, non-union coal miners.

Through my recent work with The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), I have witnessed firsthand the strength such retirees enjoy as union members. With their resources and great leadership, this union has survived and continues to bring power to the powerless in the Appalachian coalfields and beyond. In 2013, after years of public demonstration by the thousands in front of Peabody headquarters in St. Louis, the day came when Peabody’s leaders handed over 400 million dollars to keep at least part of their promise of health care to the 18,000 retirees they had tried to rob. Similarly, 208 Squaw Creek miners and their families have health care now because of the UMWA’s efforts, and today the union is petitioning Capitol Hill for legislation to hold coal companies throughout America responsible for the promise that the union bargained for more than sixty years ago: cradle to grave health care for coal miners and their families.

It is sad to see any hardworking Americans robbed of the benefits that they have earned, that they have worked for, and that they have been promised, but it is particularly sad for me to see so many of them with no voice, no means, and ultimately, little or no hope. On the other hand, I have seen few things in this world as uplifting and energizing as the leverage of the rank and file in the face of corporate might, through solidarity. Indeed, there is power in a union.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


October 2015: Cut #6, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program

Tom Breiding, “River, Rails or Road”

tracks 8 (acoustic) and 18 (electric) from the LP River, Rails or Road (AmeriSon Records, 2015)

Note: I first met Tom Breiding when he visited the University of Notre Dame in September 2015 to perform as part of an Appalachian music concert sponsored by our Center for Social Concerns (CSC). Since Tom and his wife Janet were eager to engage the wider Michiana community, I enlisted Tony Flora, president of the North Central Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, to take us on a South Bend labor history tour, which ended with Tom meeting with – and playing a few songs for – local labor activists and other folks at the Chicory Café. Thanks to the CSC, Tony, and the good people at Chicory for making Tom’s visit a great success. – DG

Tom Breiding’s “River, Rails or Road,” the title track from his great 2015 LP, is a testament to the negative impact of Big Coal on his beloved Appalachia. The song appears twice on the album, but the versions are so different that at first they seem like distinct songs, confirmation of the power of performance to shape the meaning of music.

Halfway into this excellent eighteen-cut set exploring coal cultures, generational cleavages, and contested landscapes, Breiding introduces the song as an acoustic ballad; he then closes the album with a rousing electric version. The former is resigned, mournful, and wistful; the latter is energized, angry, and a call to action. Each take is powerful on its own, but the potency increases in the presence of its alternate.

Acoustic version:

Electric version:

The lyrics detail the woeful consequences of energy corporations’ financial shenanigans on the lives of individuals (a man loses his pension) and entire communities (neighbors turn on each other), while the chorus describes how coal companies’ rapacious appetites have produced environmental destruction and forced people from the land:

They’ll take this town, Lordy me/

Piece by piece, tree by tree/

They’ll chase us out stone by stone/

Limb by limb, soul by soul/

River, rails or road

It’s only in the final verse-chorus that the versions veer in different directions. In the ballad, Breiding’s narrator unconvincingly dreams of taking back his town all on his own (“But if wishes would come true”). In the rocker, however, the narrator and his allies turns the tables on their nemeses, as the music crescendos: “But together me and you/We’ll take those corporate CEOs/I’ll tell you what we’ll do/We’ll take back this town, Lordy me/Piece by piece, tree by tree/We’ll chase ‘em out stone by stone …”

Both versions of “River, Rails or Road” speak truth to power by paying tribute to two sides of the Appalachian music tradition, one rooted in stoic resignation and the other in assertive resistance. These competing themes go deep into the region’s musical past, long before our first recordings, which date only to the 1920s. Resignation can be heard in traditional ballads about ordinary life (“Coal Miner’s Blues”) or horrible mine tragedies (“Explosion in the Fairmount Mines”), mournful tunes that documented the indignities of working-class life, giving voice to the hard, seemingly inescapable truths of poverty, disease, and unpredictable death. Resistance, on the other hand, features in the protest songs that rallied miners and their families to organize (“Come All You Coal Miners”) or denounced the violence that befell unionists (“Ballad of Barney Graham”), tunes that justified labor activism and envisioned a more just future. Rather than two separate worldviews, resignation and resistance figure as two sides of the same coin in traditional Appalachian folk songs; the ballads pay respect to grief and loss in the name of survival, while the protest songs channel that grief and loss into action in expectation of victory.

A mother lode of musical heritage, Appalachia has long provided a foundational source for American popular music, producing an outsized portion of the nation’s protest songs (“Which Side Are You On?”), performers (Dolly Parton), and legends (John Henry). Just as rivers, rails, and roads transformed Appalachian coal into the republic’s fuel, so they turned regional laments and protests into national stories of tragedy, longing, and resistance. Just after World War II, for example, Appalachia native Merle Travis moved to Los Angeles and turned Kentucky coal into Hollywood gold. An innovative guitar picker and songwriter, Travis popularized the genre with “Sixteen Tons,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and “Nine Pound Hammer.” Following that, coal mining music featured regularly on the pop and country charts throughout the rock and roll era, from Tennessee Ernie Ford’s cover of “Sixteen Tons” (1955) to Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” (1961), from Johnny Cash’s version of “Dark as a Dungeon” (1968) to Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1970). In the decades since, musicians have periodically discovered anew the rich cultural ore mined from Appalachia, introducing new generations to the region’s high, lonesome sound. For postwar folk revivalists it was Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), for baby boomers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), and for Gen-Xers like me, Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression (1990) and March 16-20, 1992 (1992). No doubt hip millennials are right now forging their own connections.

Unlike coal, it seems, Appalachian music is a renewable resource, and there’s no better evidence of that than Tom Breiding, a native of Wheeling, West Virginia, a one-time songwriter on Nashville’s Music Row, and currently musician-in-residence for the United Mine Workers of America. By recording two very different versions of “River, Rails or Road,” he showcases not only his own fidelity to the region’s musical heritage, but also that regional music’s continuing connection to modern American forms like rock and roll. In fact, while the acoustic version bears similarity to some of ex-Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell’s softer southern songs, the rousing electrified take would fit perfectly on an album by Minneapolis-to-Brooklyn bar band greats The Hold Steady.

The acoustic take of “River, Rails or Road” gives voice to the stoic resignation stemming from the insurmountable-seeming obstacles ordinary folk face when they confront the powerful; the electric one barrels past any doubts to proclaim the solidarity that can sometimes succeed against such odds. By including both versions on the same album, Breiding reminds us of not only the Appalachian musical legacy, but also the thinness of the line separating acquiescence from action. Even more, by recasting a soft, acoustic lament as a loud, electric anthem, he shows us that by adding a few band members and turning up the noise, we might just be able to take back this town. And maybe the country, too, Lordy me.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


September 2015: Cut #5, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Sarah Neuberger, “These Hands”

Winner of the Higgins Labor Program’s 2015 John T. Joyce Prize for the best intellectual or creative product by a Notre Dame student on work, workers’ rights and/or broader questions of class and political economy.

Note: A political science major at the University of Notre Dame, Sarah Neuberger (ND ’16) participated in the Center for Social Concerns’ Spring 2015 Migrant Experiences seminar led by seminar director Ms. Melissa Marley Bonnichsen. An investigation of “the cultural and social issues surrounding migrant farm labor through experiential learning,” the course included a spring break immersion trip to Immokalee, Florida, so students could explore firsthand the struggles of those who pick the nation’s tomatoes. Congratulations and thanks to Sarah for her heartfelt musical meditation on the pressing need for dignity for those who work in the fields. Check out her performance, commentary, and lyrics below. — DG

In this song, I wanted to capture the complexity of the social, cultural, and economic issues regarding migrant farmworkers in the United States’ tomato industry, the focus of my weeklong immersion experience in Immokalee, Florida. Before heading down to America’s Tomato Capital with eleven other students for the CSC’s Migrant Experience Seminar, my expectations were high—I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the life of a migrant worker in this country, to learn about the injustices that often take place in the fields, and to understand my role in the conversation about workers’ rights. I was not prepared, however, to have more questions in the car ride back to Notre Dame than I did when we first left. 

As a group of students with a passion for social justice and a desire to pack our week with learning, our goal was to gain a complete perspective of the tomato industry, and this was the challenge that gave me the most writing material. We met with field laborers, a diverse group who told us about the hardships they face in their demanding lifestyle but also about their love of working the land. We met with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization that works to create proper working conditions and fair wages but is disliked by those in charge of the industry. We met with crew leaders, bosses who earn their living by keeping workers in order and feel unjustly vilified. We met with the owners of Lipman tomato plant, businessmen who focus on maximizing efficiency and feel that the CIW’s demands are unnecessary and unfair. We asked the same questions and heard very different answers, and the lack of consensus made it even harder to sort through these difficult issues.
While meeting with the various groups throughout the week, I saw the opportunity for greater collaboration at each step of the process. Setting groups against each other does not seem to be effective in promoting the rights and dignity of workers, and that is what I wanted to convey in the song. Communication is essential in ensuring that needs of every person involved in the planting, picking, and processing of the food we eat are met. In understanding this collaboration, however, it can be easy to overlook a vital piece of the puzzle—consumers. So many issues arise from the fact that we do not think to question where our food is coming from and the process it takes to get to our plates. We demand perfectly round and flawless produce at the lowest price, but we do not understand the price of our demands and all that needs to happen for us to be able to eat an unblemished tomato. Shouldn’t we want to know more when we walk into the kitchen?
— Sarah Neuberger​

These Hands,” by Sarah Neuberger
One side of the story
Can make the world seem small
But we read the books, we watched the news
We prepared to learn it all
Will we think of a solution
To corruption and exclusion?
Are we of use here,
Or are we just an intrusion?
Did I come to a conclusion? 
I think it’s just more confusion
It’s hard when I don’t know
What is true and what’s illusion
Why can’t we see?
Unblemished fruit at the price of bruised men
These hands
Nourish us time and time again
There’s too many voices screaming
No room to compromise, 
No chance to give and take and take and give and work it out
What’s truth and what is lies?
‘Cuz we met a coalition
And they had a firm position
But the ones in the fields
Showed there was a contradiction
Can I make a proposition
I know I’m just a musician, but
Can one penny more
Really make a true difference?
Why can’t we see?
Unblemished fruit at the price of bruised men
These hands
Nourish us time and time again
Where’s the solidarity?
These are humans, not machines
So come to the table
Discussion’s what we need
If we stopped and thought about
This food we couldn’t live without
We could make a change
Together there would be no doubt
Isn’t it our mission
To give the recognition 
Why don’t we wanna know more
When we walk into the kitchen?
Why can’t we see?
Unblemished fruit at the price of bruised men
These hands
Nourish us time and time again
Why won’t we see?
Unblemished fruit at the price of bruised men
These hands
Sustain our country time and time again 

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


April 2015: Cut #4, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”

track 9 from the LP Give the People What They Want (Daptone, 2014)

There’s nothing subtle about Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” either musically (bursts of brass, propulsive percussion) or lyrically (the chorus is simply the song’s title repeated over and over). And therein lies its power.

A three-and-a-half-minute blast of old-school rhythm and blues, “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” is a compelling call-and-response denouncing the difference between how the world is supposed to work:

When I was a child I believed what they told me (every word!)/

To each one shall come what each one shall earn/

And if I worked hard nobody could hold me (hold me!)/

And cheaters will fail, that’s what we all learn (cheaters never prosper!)

and bitter recognition of how it really works:

I try to do right by all of God’s children (all of God’s children!)/

I work mighty hard for all I could afford (so hard! so hard!)/

But I don’t pretend for one single moment (no!)/

That what I get is my just reward (life ain’t fair, no!)

Sometimes protest songs work because they’re written in code, as when Chuck Berry turned the tables on racial injustice by slyly asserting the dignity, power, and sex appeal of African American men in 1956’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Others operate on multiple levels, as when Martha and the Vandellas issued their “invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet” in the midst of a summer of civil rights marches in 1964’s “Dancing in the Street”: “It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there!”

And then there are songs like Stevie Wonder’s 1973 “Livin’ for the City,” which reject ambiguity and nuance in order to speak truth directly to power (“His father works some days for fourteen hours/And you can bet he barely makes a dollar/His mother goes to scrub the floor for many/And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny”). “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” belongs to this last category, and its words sting like a punch to the gut:

Money don’t follow sweat/

Money don’t follow brains/

Money don’t follow deeds or reason/

People don’t get what they deserve

This is a pop song confronting head-on the American belief that hard work always pays off, a slice of throwback r&b calling out an economy that is just not working for most working people, and a jeremiad decrying the top 1% (the “man who was born with a fortune” who “lives from the sweat of other men’s labor”) in the name of the 99% (the “man who lives like a saint, who “works from daybreak to late in the night”).

There’s nothing subtle about the high unemployment, flat wages, and widening wealth gap Americans have experienced since the economy crashed in 2008. And therein lies the need for songs like “People Don’t Get What They Deserve.”

And did I mention that it has a good beat and you can dance to it?

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


March 2015: Cuts #2 & #3, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program

Merle Haggard, “Big City”

track 1 from the LP Big City (Epic, 1981)

Iris Dement, “Big City”

track 2 from the LP Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute to Merle Haggard (Hightone Records)

“Big City,” the opening cut from Merle Haggard’s 1981 album of the same name, is a classic country lament that will ring true to anyone who’s ever had to work for someone else and is desperate to escape:

Echoed by a plaintive fiddle, Haggard’s iconic voice, equal parts syrup and grit, seems to bear the weight of generations of Americans who’ve pulled up stakes in the quest to make a living, only to find themselves pining for something that will break the deadening routine:

I’m tired of this dirty old city/

Entirely too much work, and never enough play/

And I’m tired of this dirty old sidewalk/

Think I’ll walk off my steady job today

Tagged over forty years ago as “the poet of the common man” (the earliest mention I found was in an Augusta, Georgia, newspaper in 1972), Haggard built his career on a string of #1 country hits giving voice to ordinary Americans, some of whom, like in “Big City,” express a clear resentment of the wealthy:

Been workin’ every day since I was twenty/

Haven’t gotta thing to show for anything I’ve done/

There’s folks who never work and they’ve got plenty/

Think it’s time guys like me had some fun

But Haggard’s working-class narrator, here and elsewhere, is as suspicious of the government bureaucrat as the corporate employer, and in the chorus he longs to flee from both:

Turn me loose, set me free/

Somewhere in the middle of Montana/

Gimme all I’ve got comin’ to me/

And keep your retirement and your so-called Social Security/

Big city turn me loose and set me free

Many of Haggard’s best, most heartfelt songs are infused with a sense of resignation in the face of an unchangeable present (“A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”) or an unattainable past (“They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down”). The more upbeat “Big City,” on the other hand, posits the potential for liberation. The catch is that it’s the liberation of the lone individual, the independent American chafing at the confines of control, convention, and community. It’s the same escapist fantasy that sells lottery tickets, fills gambling boats, and promotes charter schools as the solutions to poverty in Haggard’s heartland.

If that makes Merle Haggard a working-class conservative, however, it doesn’t make “Big City” any less beautiful. It simply adds to the list of Haggard’s fine songs whose power derives from his uncanny ability to turn ordinary experiences and everyday emotions into three-minute reveries. On the other hand, when he has made overtly political music, the results have been less sure-footed, and, at times, reactionary. Even if he originally intended “Okie from Muskogee” and “I’m a White Boy” as satires (something he has inconsistently suggested over the years), these songs, plus “The Fighting Side of Me” and “Are the Good Times Really Over,” showcase an insular identity politics rooted in flag-waving, male privilege, and racism.

I’ll stick with “Big City,” whose big-tent working-class sensibility is confirmed by Iris Dement’s wonderful cover version from 1994’s Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute to Merle Haggard (Hightone Records):

When Dement sings, “I think it’s time girls like me had some fun,” it’s a reminder that all of us deserve both bread (higher wages, good benefits, job security) and roses (holidays, vacations, perhaps even a trip to Montana). After forty years of stagnant wages, decimated unions, and attacks on all forms of social security, we need to chart new paths to shared prosperity so that working men AND women canget somewhere today.

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.


February 2015: Cut #1, Higgins Labor Songs Playlist

Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program

Sleater-Kinney, “Price Tag”

track 1 from the LP No Cities to Love (Subpop, 2015)

“Price Tag,” the hard driving first cut off Sleater-Kinney’s new LP No Cities to Love, announces the return of the one of the greatest American rock bands of the past twenty years after a decade-long hiatus. And what a return it is:

“Price Tag” is a four-minute blast challenging the Walmartization of the American economy. Deploying the perspective of a wage-working mom, the song opens and closes with the unpaid labor essential to working families:

Scrambled eggs/For little legs/The day’s off in a rush
In the market/The kids are starving/They reach for the good stuff/
Let’s stay off label/Just ‘til we’re able/To save a little up

In between, the narrator toils at a retail outlet, no doubt at a wage insufficient to meet her family’s needs:

It’s 9 am/We must clock in/The system waits for us
I stock the shelves/I work the rows/The products all light up
The numbers roll/It’s time to go/But never fast enough

While the verses contrast the harsh reality of the long workday typical of most Americans — and in particular American women — with dreams of escape (“The next big win/The ship comes in/No more worry for us”), the chorus mercilessly, repeatedly, exposes the problem:

We never really checked/We never checked the price tag/
When the cost comes in/It’s gonna be high/
We love our bargains/We love the prices so low/
With the good jobs gone/It’s gonna be rough

With wages flat for the past forty years, and Americans continuing to work more hours than their counterparts in any other industrial democracy, we need to reassess our nation’s unsustainable reliance on ever lower prices and expanding consumer debt to keep working families barely afloat. Sleater-Kinney’s “Price Tag” diagnoses the problem precisely.

But politically engaged popular music’s power rests on the tunes as much as the lyrics, of course, and “Price Tag” represents a perfect combination of “words and guitar” (the title of one of my favorite Sleater-Kinney songs, from 1997’s Dig Me Out). The band has always effectively deployed polyphony (where two singers sing different words simultaneously), and here the results are bracing. As Corinne Tucker screams the cautionary chorus, Carrie Brownstein shouts the shopper’s justification (“I was lured by the cost/I was blind by the money/I was numb from the greed”), giving voice to the daily tension we face between thinking like a worker and thinking like a consumer, between looking out for oneself and looking out for the greater good.

“Price Tag” not only recognizes our current dilemma, however; it also points to a resolution, for there is no better example of sonic solidarity than the tight playing evident on this song and throughout the album. In an era of glaring inequality and isolating technology, we sorely need more solidarity in all realms – artistic, scholarly, and, most importantly, economic. Speaking of economic solidarity, check out some of the many organizations actively working to support and empower the real-life counterparts to Sleater-Kinney’s working mom:

Fight for $15(link is external)
Family Values at Work(link is external)
Restaurant Opportunities Center United(link is external)
AFL-CIO: Work and Family(link is external)
Retail Action Project(link is external)

Have an idea for a future Labor Song of the Month? Email Dan Graff.