workingmanblues

A Song for the Workingman: How Blue-Collar Anthems Have Evolved Over Time

From John Henry to private dancers, musicians are constantly shifting their view of working stiffs

How do we judge the strength and character of a country’s workforce? There are the usual statistical indicators (unemployment rates, consumer confidence, the stock market), but let me suggest a different metric: the kinds of songs that are written about the working life.

Since America started recording music a century ago, performers have sung about labor, whether it be toiling in the fields or punching the clock at a factory. We’re all such different people in so many ways, but the one thing that connects most of us is that we have a job — and that we probably hate that job. That’s why songs about working have always been popular. But the kinds of jobs we have — and the economic realities around that job — have shifted over time, which has meant that workingman anthems have similarly had to adjust to changing eras. Case in point: A song about a railroad man probably meant more in 1928 than it does in 2019. 

With that in mind, I’ve put together a timeline of iconic blue-collar anthems, dissecting the songs’ themes as well as their specific take on this mythic figure of the workingman. As you’ll see, musicians often celebrate the Average Joe — sometimes, because they worked the same bad jobs as their audience before making it big — while lamenting how much harder it’s getting for working-class families in recent years. (You can hear the class warfare bubbling through many of these tracks.) This overview doesn’t pretend to be a collection of the best workingman songs, but it’s a portrait of how songwriters view everyday labor — and how listeners frequently turn to music to make their working lives seem less onerous.

“Spike Driver Blues” (1928)

What’s the Song About? If workingman songs have a patron saint, it’s probably John Henry, a mythic 19th-century figure who, although exaggerated thanks to numerous tall tales, probably actually existed. Everyone from Johnny Cash to Drive-By Truckers has paid homage to the so-called “steel-driving man” who helped build the nation’s railroads, but this rendition of the traditional ballad “Spike Driver Blues” is among the most haunting. Performed by country-blues musician Mississippi John Hurt, and collected on Anthology of American Folk Music (which features another John Henry tune, “Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand”), “Spike Driver Blues” is a sad, defiant song about wanting to avoid Henry’s fate of dying doing backbreaking work. (The legend states that Henry took on a steam drill to see which could drive more efficiently. Henry won but died shortly thereafter.) “This is the hammer that killed John Henry,” Hurt sings. “But it won’t kill me / But it won’t kill me / But it won’t kill me.”

What Does It Say About the Workingman? The folk ballads of the 1920s often celebrated or lamented the plight of the common man, so it’s little surprise that John Henry was such a lyrical fixture. There remains something epic and tragic about Henry’s man-versus-machine battle — the story is a tribute to good ol’ fashioned strength and determination, which often finds itself at odds with technological advancement. But he’s also a political symbol. As music critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus once wrote, John Henry songs are “an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity.” Singing about John Henry is to celebrate the ultimate noble underdog — the proud worker who takes his labor seriously.

“Maggie’s Farm” (1965)

What’s the Song About? In his early days, Bob Dylan adapted traditional folk ballads to honor working stiffs and the marginalized in tunes like “House Carpenter” and “He Was a Friend of Mine.” According to biographer Robert Shelton in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter followed a similar template for this Bringing It All Back Home standout, drawing inspiration from “Hard Times in the Country” (“a rural protest song about the tough life of a tenant farmer with an exploitative landlord”) and “Penny’s Farm” (also about a mean landlord) to come up with an anthem about being fed up with your boss.   

What Does It Say About the Workingman? “Maggie’s Farm” works as an antiauthority kiss-off to a lousy job you’re happy to quit, but at the time of its release, it was also an embodiment of the counterculture, which wanted nothing to do with “straight” society. For Dylan, working on Maggie’s farm is just another form of conformity that he’s trying to resist: “Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them.” Years later, the song still feels defiant — a refusal to play by the rules. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008 as a change agent, he praised “Maggie’s Farm”: “It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric.”

“Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)

What’s the Song About? The pinnacle of workingman music, Merle Haggard’s country hit came about, according to David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, because the songwriter wanted to have an anthem for average Americans akin to his pal Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” The narrator of “Workin’ Man Blues” has a wife, nine kids and a backbreaking job. But you’ll never hear him complain: “Might get a little tired on the weekend / After I draw my pay / But I’ll go back workin’ / Come Monday morning I’m right back with the crew.”

What Does It Say About the Workingman? There’s a prideful, up-by-your-bootstraps integrity to the song’s no-nonsense protagonist that’s made this a beloved classic — especially for strong, stoic types who aren’t partial to people who whine a lot. The “Workin’ Man Blues” narrator despises welfare and is determined to work hard “long as my two hands are fit to use,” and there’s also an anti-hippie vibe to the song, dismissive of those who want to quit and “do a little bummin’ around.” If “Maggie’s Farm” was for blue-collar workers who’d had enough of their shitty job, “Workin’ Man Blues” celebrates the guys who “keep my nose on the grindstone.”

“Working Class Hero” (1970)

What’s the Song About? Fresh from putting the Beatles in his rearview mirror, John Lennon released Plastic Ono Band, which included this snarling acoustic number that flips the bird to conventional society. “Working Class Hero” examines how, from birth, we’re trained to feel insignificant by our institutions — family, school, work, religion — and left scared and distracted by modern life. “A working class hero is something to be,” he sings sarcastically, suggesting that the idealized “common man” is really just a sucker who’s been beaten down by life and made compliant.  

What Does It Say About the Workingman? Lennon was disdainful of picket-fence life, viewing those who aspired to such an existence as being brainwashed. “They think they are in a wonderful, free-speaking country, they’ve all got cars and tellies and they don’t want to think there’s anything more to life,” he once said. “They are prepared to let the bosses run them, to see their children fucked up in school. They’re dreaming someone else’s dream, it’s not even their own.” “Working Class Hero” is a dim portrait of blue-collar workers who are “doped with religion and sex and TV,” slaving away at meaningless jobs and trapped in small lives. Not surprisingly, Tommy Moore, a drummer who worked with Lennon pre-Beatles, later recalled, “Lennon once told me he’d commit suicide rather than get a conventional job.” 

“Take This Job and Shove It” (1977)

What’s the Song About? Written by David Allen Coe and popularized by country singer Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job and Shove It” is about the narrator deciding to quit abruptly — after all, “My woman done left / And took all the reasons / I was working for.” The truth is, though, he isn’t actually quitting — he’s just fantasizing about what it will feel like to tell his stupid boss that he’s outta there.

What Does It Say About the Workingman? “Take This Job and Shove It” wasn’t just a massive hit; its title became a national catchphrase. (A couple years after the song leapt up the charts, there was a movie of the same name, which featured Paycheck and Coe.) To this day, articles about the best (and worst) ways of quitting a job use “Take This Job and Shove It” as their headline — an indication that people still think of that phrase when they’re stuck in a horrible gig. The line was dreamed up by Coe who, reportedly, was asked in an interview if he’d ever consider being a fireman: Coe’s response was “They can take that job and shove it.” A bit hacky but undeniably catchy, “Take This Job and Shove It” became a way for a lot of disgruntled employees to spend a few minutes fantasizing about telling off their superiors as they walk out the door. As Paycheck sings, “I’d give the shirt right off my back / If I had the guts to say / Take this job and shove it / I ain’t working here no more.” 

“Factory” (1978)

What’s the Song About? Bruce Springsteen admitted in his memoir (and subsequent Broadway show) that, despite all the songs he’s written about the workingman, he’s never really had a 9-to-5 gig. Nonetheless, this Darkness on the Edge of Town track captures the drudgery and danger of a factory job with uncommon poignancy. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Factory” paints a picture of a man who does the same thing every day: wake up, grab your lunch from the fridge, head off to the job, come home. The guy just sounds like another cog in the machine.

What Does It Say About the Workingman? This piano-driven ballad focuses on the toll that blue-collar work takes — the unnamed man is losing his hearing and perhaps his mind. (The narrator, who’s the man’s son, observes, “End of the day / Factory whistle cries / Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.”) But unlike a lot of previous workingman songs, “Factory” is all about the psychological damage, which gets passed along to the man’s family in physical ways. At the song’s end, the narrator notes, “You just better believe, boy / Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight” — an implication that this factory worker is about ready to explode around his loved ones.

“9 to 5” (1980)

What’s the Song About? Dolly Parton is one of country’s most beloved figures, but in 1980 she had her biggest pop hit with this title cut from the popular workplace comedy, which starred her alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Lyrically, “9 to 5” is a pretty straightforward lament about why working sucks — your boss is an idiot, the hours are a grind, it’s hard to get ahead — but what made it instantly novel is that, for once, it was a woman singing about the workingman blues.

What Does It Say About the Workingman? Technically, “9 to 5” (and the accompanying movie) isn’t really about blue-collar life. (Parton works in an office.) But this zeitgeist-y sensation tapped into an era in which women were increasingly integrating into the workplace, facing sexism and limited opportunities. The narrator complains about feeling exploited — “They just use your mind and they never give you credit / It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it” — while underlining the economic disparity between bosses and employees that would become rampant thanks to Reagan’s disastrous trickle-down policies. Few punk bands have written lyrics as politically astute as this: “It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it / And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet.” 

“Working for the Weekend” (1981)

What’s the Song About? From the O’Jays’ “Livin’ for the Weekend” to Janet Jackson’s “Escapade,” there have been plenty of songs that celebrate saying goodbye to the work week. But none is as iconic as this Loverboy smash, a giddy salute to blowing off some steam on the weekend. What’s in store? Uh, a little bit of everything: “Everybody’s working for the weekend / Everybody wants a little romance / Everybody’s goin’ off the deep end / Everybody needs a second chance.”

What Does It Say About the Workingman? Where “Working Class Hero” criticized the small-mindedness of traditional day jobs, “Working for the Weekend” became an anthem for the people whom John Lennon mocked — they’re perfectly happy to be distracted from their sad lives by a little fun. The song came to guitarist Paul Dean when he was walking around on the beach on a Wednesday afternoon, realizing that nobody was there because it was a workday. As he put it, “[M]e being the musician, I’m out working and my work is, ‘Okay, what am I going to do for inspiration and where can I find it?’ So I’m out on the beach and wondering, ‘Where is everybody? Well, I guess they’re all waiting for the weekend.’” “Working for the Weekend” is unabashedly party-hearty rock, and the classic 1990 Saturday Night Live skit featuring Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze as aspiring Chippendales dancers gyrating to the song only amplified its cultural cachet — and its eternal cheesiness.

“Private Dancer” (1984)

What’s the Song About? Tina Turner’s Private Dancer was her comeback after years out of the limelight, and its title track was among its standouts, casting the singer as a “private dancer” who entertains her male clients. “You don’t look at their faces,” she tells us. “You don’t ask their names.”

What Does It Say About the Workingman? “Private Dancer” is one of the few great songs to talk about the life of a sex worker from that person’s perspective. (By comparison, we have a ton of songs by men about sex workers.) Ironically, “Private Dancer” started out the same way: Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler wrote the song but decided that it would be much better coming from a woman. “The song is about prostitution,” Turner wrote in her autobiography My Love Story. “I never had to stoop to that in my life, but I think most of us have been in situations where we had to sell ourselves, one way or another.” Turner connected to “the sadness of doing something that you don’t want to do, day in, day out,” which gives “Private Dancer” its elegant, melancholy air — although it reinforces the cultural notion that all sex workers are miserable or compromised. Nonetheless, “Private Dancer” at least tried to imagine that these women had an inner life that had nothing to do with the dude that they’re gyrating in front of.

“Everyday Struggle” (1994)

What’s the Song About? On his groundbreaking debut Ready to Die, the Notorious B.I.G. painted the grim picture of a drug dealer who’s weighed down by myriad problems — “Baby on the way / mad bills to pay” — while staring down a court date for assault. Plus, his friends are dying, and everyone around him treats him like a criminal. No wonder he’s drinking too much as a way to forget his fucked-up life.

What Does It Say About the Workingman? On the same album, Biggie laid out the dire job possibilities for guys like him who were young, poor and black: “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Ready to Die straightforwardly illustrated the criminal life, in the process creating another form of workingman anthem. Unlike the proud portraits of blue-collar existence espoused by Merle Haggard and others, “Everyday Struggle” was an unapologetic, unromantic vision of surviving along the margins, where racism and poverty made attaining the American Dream far more difficult. (Keep in mind: This wasn’t pure fiction for Biggie, who understood the drug-dealing life, getting into the game as a tween.) And as the nation’s middle-class continues to erode, popular culture started presenting white antiheroes — like Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Ozark’s Marty Byrde — who learned, like Biggie’s stressed-out narrators, that sometimes crime has to pay when more legitimate occupations fail you. 

“Bright Future in Sales” (2003)

What’s the Song About? As this Fountains of Wayne song kicks off, the main character is hungover and trying to remember what happened the night before. “Bright Future in Sales” is a deceptively poppy look at a corporate drone who’s probably an alcoholic and most certainly half-assing his job. “I’m gonna get my shit together,” he swears, “‘cause I can’t live like this forever.” In the meantime, though, maybe he’ll have one more scotch and soda.

What Does It Say About the Workingman? Welcome Interstate Managers is practically a concept album about dead-end office jobs and going-nowhere young professionals. It was inspired by the misadventures of the band’s principal songwriters, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, who seemed to be channeling the national angst over the dot-com bubble’s bursting in the early 21st century. (“I think that a lot of our music is informed by the fact that both Adam and myself spent so much time in cubicles,” Collingwood said around the album’s release.) “Bright Future in Sales” paints the modern workingman as a dude in a shirt and tie who participates in too many conference calls and attends too many office parties. Long gone are the days of factories and other blue-collar jobs: Everyone’s now working in the same anonymous, hideously-lit office slowly going mad while trying to sell stuff that nobody really needs. Maybe you’ll get that promotion, or maybe you won’t. It’s a soul-crushing, deceptively cushy nightmare.

“Looking for a Job” (2006)

What’s the Song About? Singer-songwriter Todd Snider often chronicles hard-luck cases — burnouts, criminals, losers — and here he plays an ex-con who’s stumbled into an unenviable job hanging drywall for a real jerk. But our hero isn’t going to put up with it: In “Looking for a Job,” he turns the tables, telling his boss just how little he needs this thankless work. “I was looking for a job when I found this one,” he sings. “Don’t need the work like you need the work done.”

What Does It Say About the Workingman? Globalization and automation may have wiped away blue-collar jobs in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still need day-laborers. “Looking for a Job” twists that reality into a dark joke as we learn just how grave the narrator’s life is — but also, perversely, how cocky he is. “I’m sharing a room with two guys over at the Motel 6, boss / Sending every dime I make here home to my ex-wife,” he announces. “Just did two years and 28 days / With a little better aim, I’d been in there for my life.” He may be unhappy, he may have nothing, but he knows that this rich guys needs him to do this menial labor. And that, in a way, is a kind of power. “Watch what you say to someone with nothing,” he warns the rich dude. “It’s almost like having it all.”

“This Fucking Job” (2010)

What’s the Song About? The hard-working narrator of this Drive-By Truckers rocker sees little light at the end of the tunnel. Where earlier blue-collar anthems at least offered the prospect of quitting or taking pride in the job, “This Fucking Job” is a litany of desperation and disappointment: “Workin’ this job / There’s nothin’ left but to hate it / I won’t get as far as my daddy made it.” And the song only goes from bad to worse: He eventually loses the job and discovers how much more in dire straits he’s in now.

What Does It Say About the Workingman? DBT front man Patterson Hood wrote “This Fucking Job” just before the economic collapse of 2008. (“People are losing jobs and it scares the shit out of me,” he wrote around the release of The Big To-Do, which contained the song.) The finality of this song’s woes are crushing, speaking to a world in which men and women can’t hope to do as well as their parents did — the idea of upward mobility is a dead as the dodo. In the past, musicians viewed regular jobs as drudgery or creatively unfulfilling, but “This Fucking Job” suggests, in today’s economy, they’re a leaky life preserver people cling to in order to barely survive. Forget the noble common man — forget, even, the doomed dignity of John Henry. The workingman personified by Drive-By Truckers doesn’t even have a hammer to his name.