Workin’ For a Livin’
Labor Day is the perfect time to reflect on working Americans and how “work” is illustrated through music. As much as we’ve been pulled into the Oliver Anthony mania with his viral hit, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” we have to admit, he’s not the first to croon on this subject. “Work” has been the centerpiece of many songs throughout the years, but none of them seem to have made as much of a societal bang as Anthony’s—not because they weren’t great songs, but Anthony’s song really encapsulates so much collective emotion due to the moment in time. Along with the rural setting, the incredible guitar work, and a voice so authentic you can hear the pain, his song really hit home for so many people (white, black, democrat, republican, woman, man and just about any other divide you can think of). And a sampling of his lyrics below, shows how Anthony has united many of us on the subject of “work”:
I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away
The song "Rich Men North of Richmond" has notched over 42 million views on YouTube and recently made No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And even though Anthony is receiving incredible offers, he is turning them down, doubling down on his authenticity and integrity at a time when so many have sold us out.
Another major hit about work, was Donna Summer’s 1983 blockbuster “She Works Hard for the Money.” The phenomenon around this song was more about feminism, than “work” itself. But this number hit at the right time as well, with the increasing amount of divorces and more women hitting the glass ceiling as they tried to increase their position on the pay scale. The song became an anthem for all the single mothers trying to put food on the table for their families. The lyrics really paint a picture of a woman who doesn’t resent working hard, but she just wants to be shown the respect she deserves:
It's a sacrifice working day to day
For little money, just tips for pay
But it's worth it all
Just to hear them say that they care
There are so many other examples. The title of this very article was the title of Huey Lewis’ rockin’ “Workin’ for a Livin’! This song, released in 1982, was a fun romp with a bursting harmonica solo that would resonate with just about everyone in the crowd. His song, although stylistically much different from “Rich Men…” had some of the same sentiment with lyrics like:
Somedays won't end ever
And somedays pass on be I'll be working here forever,
At least until I die, dammed if you do, dammed if you don't
I'm supposed to get a raise week, you know damn well I won't.
These lyrics reflect Anthony’s line about working ‘overtime hours for bullshit pay.’ Essentially conveying that no matter how hard or long we work—even opting for extra hours—the system is rigged against us and we really can’t get ahead. Our existence is only to fund the lavish lifestyles of the elite—essentially, modern-day slavery.
Another big song about working was Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” (again, released in 1982). (Who can ever forget this song as the backdrop to the famous SNL skit with Chris Farley and Patrick Swayzee vying for a Chippendales Dancer spot?) This song was more about the rewards of the weekend after working a long week—essentially stating that you deserve time to strut yourself and perhaps attract some attention from the opposite sex. You worked hard—you deserve it (aahh…the 80’s!)
One of the earliest modern-day recorded songs about “work” was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “16 Tons.” The song was actually first recorded in 1946, but Ford’s 1955 version is the one that rose to fame.
You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
This song was a tribute to the coalminers before the onset of unions. And even though recorded almost 70 years ago, the essence is right in line with Anthony’s song of today.
We would be remiss to not mention a few biggies in this category. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” which became so big that a movie was made around the song! Also, country singer Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 anthemic hit, “Take this Job and Shove it”
And I've seen a lot of good folk die
That had a lot of bills to pay
I'd give the shirt right offa' my back
If I had the guts to say….
Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ here no more!
How many of us have never felt THAT urge?
Todd Rungren’s 1983 chart-topper “Bang the Drum All Day” provides a fun look at how the singer would much rather play drums than work. He sings,
Every day when I get home from work
I feel so frustrated
The boss is a jerk
And I get my sticks and go out to the shed
And I pound on that drum like it was the boss's head
Because I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drums all day
Maybe it’s not drumming that you’re daydreaming about at work, but the point is, working disallows us from what we’d rather be doing. Of course, we know we have to work, and we work hard. But nothing wrong with taking your frustrations out with a fun song—that’s so ‘Merica!
This Labor Day, we pay homage to all of those hard workers across this beautiful nation of ours. True Americans have grit and determination in their DNA—their blood, sweat and tears is what built this country. And even though, at times, many of us would rather ‘bang on the drums all day’ instead of busting our butts all day, we don’t mind working hard for our families while contributing to society. These days, though, it would just be nice if the ‘rich men north of Richmond’ weren’t taxing us to death, allowing us more time and more of our hard-earned wages to feel like we’re working toward something—not just survival. Thank you Oliver Anthony, for giving Americans a new anthem in this moment.