The Common Good

Working Class Heroes: A Playlist for May Day

A playlist for the working class: Ten songs in honor of May Day and workers everywhere.

John Lennon, "Working Class Hero"

This song from John Lennon's first post-Beatles solo album, 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is about working class folks being "processed" into the middle class or the "machine," according to what Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in an interview the same year the album released. "A working class hero is something to be," is the song's mantra and refrain.

 

Bob Dylan, "Maggie's Farm" 

Commonly viewed as Dylan’s first foray into electric music and away from traditional folk-rock, this 1965 song has been interpreted by audiences and critics variously as an anthem for the working class, a political diatribe and a repudiation of the folk-protest-music scene. On “Maggie’s Farm,” he reworks the classic folk tune “Penny’s Farm” (a 1920's song about dishonest landlords mistreating rural farmers) into a new tale lamenting modern oppression in its various forms.

R.E.M., "Finest Worksong"

From R.E.M.'s fifth studio album, 1988's Document, is a musical portrait of a disenchanted worker. Michael Stipe sings,

Take your instinct by the reins/Your better best to rearrange/What we want and what we need/Has been confused been confused (blow your horn)/Your finest hour (blow your song)

Dolly Parton, "9 to 5"

She jumps out of bed and stumbles to the kitchen, pours herself a cup of "ambition"... it's Dolly Parton, with her classic song about the working woman. The song was also the theme for the 1980 film of the same name starring Parton alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, which, at the time, was considered pretty edgy material for its commentary on equal pay, worker's rights and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Pearl Jam, "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town"

You can picture her in your mind. Maybe you know her. Maybe you are her. An elderly woman working day in and out waiting on customers at a diner in small-town America. Of the song from the band's 1993 album Vs., Eddie Vedder (lead vocalist) said this, "It's kind of about a lady, and she's getting on in years, and she's stuck in this small town. Small towns fascinate me: You either struggle like hell to get out, to some people want to stay 'cause then they're the big fish in the small pond, and then others just kind of get stuck there." Yep, Eddie and his bandmates nailed it.

Titus Andronicus, “A More Perfect Union”

This heavy New Jersey band begins their second LP with an excerpt of Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., and it’s a perfect introduction to a song about taking a stand against the oppression of rights and freedoms. As it builds, the anthem makes you want to shout along with first in air: “Shouting the battle cry of freedom / Rally around the flag, rally around the flag / Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on.”

Patti Smith, "Free Money"

Smith says she wrote this song from her 1975 album Horses for her mother. "She always dreamed about winning the lottery," Smith said. "But she never bought a lottery ticket! She would just imagine if she won, make lists of things she would do with the money – a house by the sea for us kids, then all kinds of charitable things." Every night before I go to sleep/Find a ticket, win a lottery,/Scoop the pearls up from the sea/Cash them in and buy you all the things you need....

Rush, "Working Man"

This song hails from the legendary Canadian rock band Rush's eponymous debut album in 1974. Geddy Lee sings: I get up at seven, yeah,/And I go to work at nine./I got no time for livin'./Yes, I'm workin' all the time./It seems to me/I could live my life/A lot better than I think I am./I guess that's why they call me,/They call me the workin' man.

Billy Joel, "Allentown"

This song from Joel's 1982 album The Nylon Curtain is his ode to blue collar America. Joel, who grew up in working-class Long Island and originally wanted to write a song called "Levittown," after the town next-door to his hometown of Hicksville, but the themes weren't coming together. That's when he remembered Allentown, Pa., which, along with a neighboring town of Bethlehem, were suffering mightily in the early 1980s after the decline of the steel industry.

Jackson Browne, "The Pretender"

For all the "happy idiots" out there who "struggle for the legal tender," Browne recorded this song for his 1976 album of the same name. Who is the pretender? Well, it's a little bit Browne himself, a little bit a lot of us out here in the 99 percent (and above.) The songwriter says, "Maybe it's a lot of people of a certain generation who've embraced a very material lifestyle in place of dreams that they had that sort of disintegrated at some point." Say a prayer ...

Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for The Orange County Register and former Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Joshua Witchger is the former web assistant for Sojourners.

 

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