The first steps for a day to celebrate the Labor movement dates back to 1882. New York City was ground zero for the need to honor the women and men with filled the jobs that keep the lights on, the hweel oiled and the food on our tables. A day was dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers, initially celebrated with parades. A yearly date was put in place by President Grover Cleveland to thank the men and women whose contributions aided the strength, prosperity, and well-being of their country. Labor Day 2014 continues to honor the workers who are the cornerstone of our worlds. At the time of its origins, fighting for your rights as a worker was dangerous not only due to losing a job, but possibly losing a life as the U.S. military got involved alongside local thugs hired to break the strike.
We celebrate Labor Day in pretty much the same way we do everything at the Alternate Root, with music. We have selected 30 American Roots artists to discuss various professions that make up the rungs on the ladder of success. The rights and plights of workers vary little through the centuries and our list dates back to a gripe in 1960 from Jimmy Reed as an irritated employee calling out the “Big Boss Man’ and the list features hot topics of today when Hard Working Americans introduce 420-friendly farms. Since Labor Day is experienced on a non-labor day, we close out the list with Carlene Carter getting help from family as Helen Carter, Anita Carter, June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash join in a chorus and a promise that “I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow”.
“Blackland Farmer” - Hard Working Americans – Hard Working Americans honored all workers on the self-titled debut album. The band celebrates the farmer with a new business model as they ‘smell of that sweet leaf blowing through the corn’.
“I Wanna Grow up to Be a Politician” - The Byrds – Every child is told they can grow up to be president. It is quite a job to take on though The Byrds would like to take a shot at a new career, so they polished up the resume went looking for a podium.
“Fortune Teller” - Alison Krauss and Robert Plant – A career in fortune telling puts you in a long line of tradition. The “Fortune Teller” shingle has been hanging out since the day after love said ‘hey, wanna play a game’.
Listen and buy “Fortune Teller” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss from AMAZON or iTunes
“Lookin’ for the Time (Workin' Girl)” - Nanci Griffith – Often called the oldest profession, prostitution has really never gotten a fair deal. For those seeking services, they literally come and go. A true guilty pleasure that is often used, seldom discussed.
“Big Boss Man” - Jimmy Reed – Those in charge are rarely looked at as employees though they have to answer to someone. Jimmy Reed had a hit with a 12-bar blues tune in 1960. The songs groove, and its message, have not aged a day.
“Daddy Was a Skywriter” - Cory Branan – There is a lot of pressure writing words in the sky. You need to be a really good speller and hope that the wind does not hit the delete button. Cory Branan sings of a dad that took on the profession.
“Fingernails” - Joe Ely – No grooming code exists in the records for the Musician’s Union, so Joe Ely has no worries in keeping his ‘Fingernails” long. In the tune, Joe has the job of piano man. He needs to keep his on beat, so he ‘keeps his fingernails long so they click when I play the piano’.
“Cumberland Blues” - Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead embraced Roots music, envisioning the move as putting the band back into a blue-collar audience. They sing to the new crowd on Workingman’s Dead, leading off with a shout out to the men heading down into the mines.
“Junkman (I'll Be Your Twilight Lover)” - Genya Ravan with Ian Hunter – Trash collectors stay away from our sight, and even when they are there, they are not there. Genya Ravan keeps the blues bite from her former band, Ten Wheel Drive, as she admits that the junkman had it right, and she should have paid closer attention.
“Operator” - Jorma Kaukonen - The telephone operator does not get as much love with new technology giving number and names at the touch of a button. Jorma Kaukonen (Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane) snags a tune from his old SF buddies, the Grateful Dead. “Operator” is from The Dead’s American Beauty album, the track originally written and sung by Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan.
Street Corner Preacher - Amos Lee – Preaching is a calling and a profession. You think is a long way to the top in rock’n’roll? Try selling a god to a world up to its eyeballs in saints and saviors. Amos Lee introduces a recently released convict who can’t get a job with a record, so he improvises.
“Personal Manager” - Albert King – It is always good to have a back-up career and bluesman Albert King polished up his resume. Albert has good attention to detail, and he is pitching himself as the guy for the job. Sign his contract and “all of your worries are over for you’. Mr. King multi-tasks, not only is he angling for the “Personal Manager” position but is looking to be ‘your milkman in the morning’. What dedication.
“Bootleggers” - Sara Petite - One of the biggest contributions that occurred when alcohol was made illegal was that the act immediately made good citizens into criminals. Times and laws have changed but hey, a job is a job. Sara Petite is schilling moonshine. The first drink is on her but ‘hey man, that second one ain’t free’.
“Born with a Hammer in My Hand” - The Roys – We take for granted the fact that the United States was at one point connected east to west with only rail lines. In the age of machines working for men, The Roys go back to a time when men did the work of machines….really big machines. Every nail was hammered in with a human hand.
“Dr. Rush” - Bobby Rush with Blinddog Smokin’ – Okay, so Dr. Rush technically does not have a diploma. First of all, the good doctor B does not need any stinking piece of paper. Secondly, he is fixing hearts in trouble on a love line…….tune in to the Rush Hour.
“Racing in the Streets” - Emmylou Harris – An engine needs to be fixed and for the first few decades of the automobile, the profession was handled by company experts. Fewer cars allowed for special care. More people needed more cars and the grease monkey was invented. He is the guy who drives with his buddy in Emmylou Harris’ version of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Racing in the Streets”.
“Yellow Submarine” - Buddy Miller – A story in a story, the narrator of “Yellow Submarine” was not the captain, but he knew him well enough to tell his tale and sing his chorus. Buddy Miller gives the song a new life, re-working it for Let Us in Americana, with A-List Roots artists contributing to the music of Paul McCartney.
“Kansas City Star” - Roger Miller – The need for TV news and weather people has created a thriving profession. Talking heads are everywhere and when Roger Miller becomes a “Kansas City Star” he hits it big, becoming the ‘number one attraction every supermarket parking lot’.
“Playing in the Devil's Electric Band” - Honey Don't – Getting a job is hard enough. Honey Don’t know they are compromising themselves but to them ‘it’s just a job and I do well but everybody say I’m gonna burn in hell’ as they tune up for “Playing in the Devil's Electric Band”.
“Railroad Man” - The Wild Rumpus – From father to son and on to his son, being an engineer is a family business for the “Railroad Man” in the song from The Wild Rumpus.
“Roving Gambler” - Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones – Professional gamblers get a tv show, a lot less the waist-coated wearing, paddle-boat hopping Maverick brothers and more about having a job as long as you are winning. It is still dangerous but mostly you only get killed in the ratings. Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones lock in harmony on the first note and stay attached as they move around like the “Roving Gambler” in the song.
“Millworker” - James Taylor – Millwork is a tedious job, and the woman character that James Taylor inhabits has a tough life. Daydreams are the only things that take her away from long days knowing that ‘mill work it ain’t easy, mill work isn’t hard, mill work isn’t nothing but an awful boring job.’
“Tired Worker's Song” - Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers – Union men were joined in a common goal, better lives for the workers. Labor Day itself celebrates men like the one that Zoe Muth is having trouble separating from the guy that has become an anchor for her.
Listen and buy “Tired Worker’s Song” by Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers from AMAZON or iTunes
“Shepherd's Song” - The Black Lillies – Like many jobs that are in the background of our lives, shepherds were no more than an extension of their flock for the years that they were human fences. Without a shepherd there can be no claim of free range.
“Too Many Cooks” - Buddy Guy – Food has its own channel and becoming a chef is a hot job property, filled with lots of folks holding sharp objects. Buddy Guy has had enough, and he wants to trim things down in the kitchen to ‘me and you’. For Buddy, there are just “Too Many Cooks”.
Listen and buy “Too Many Cooks” by Buddy Guy from AMAZON or iTunes
“Working Girl's Guitar” - Rosie Flores – I can’t speak from a female perspective but for me, the field has leveled for gender in music, certainly in Roots music. Rosie Flores is a working girl and the stage is her office. This is not her song, though, and the star is the guitar.
“Truck Driving Man” - The Bottle Rockets – The men who move things we buy from place to place pass us if we are on the road for any longer than ten minutes. We owe our thanks, and The Bottle Rockets show support for the men and women who make sure our shelves are stocked and our gas is available.
“Sheetrock Hanger” - Rod Picott – You can be good at a job and is still does not make it any easier. At best, dangerous jobs only get better because once you get hurt a couple of times it doesn’t seem as bad. Something else that doesn’t change is the pay scale for the welder in Rod Picott’s tale of a 20 year job as a “Sheetrock Hanger”.
“I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow” - Carlene Carter with Helen Carter, Anita Carter, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash – We close out the list with a wish from The Alternate Root for a great day off before labor begins again.
You must have the Adobe Flash Player installed to view this player.