Building fires that’ll burn until morning: Songs about work

For many Americans, Labor Day is for movies, barbeques, reading, and catching up on grading — if you’re not in the service sector. Several songs on this list have, ah, creative definitions of service too.

Spandau Ballet – “Musclebound”

Set to a light funk bottom, this early Spandau Ballet tune celebrates bottoms. And the kind of tough leather “that’s strapped to the skin.” “Work til you’re muscle bound all night long” — uh huh.

Gary “U.S.” Bonds – “Out of Work”

Twenty years after “A Quarter to Three,” the Jacksonville singer barked through a rollicking Bruce Springsteen-produced number in which backup singers Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt taunt him and the chorus turns into a manacle with each go-round (Springteen’s “Working on the Highway” from 1984’s Born in the USA is a frantic sequel).

Heaven 17 – “Crushed By the Wheels of Industry”

Thanks to Glenn Gregory’s histrionic delivery and the backup vocals chirping WORK WORK WORK, this 1983 British electro-pop hit sounds like the prefatory number in a Brecht musical for the New Romantic era.

Merle Haggard – “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”

The nervous rhythm and Haggard’s enthusiasm and conversational cadences are at odds, and that’s the point: this Carter-era country song puts a smile on its face to full the public.

Alan Jackson – “Little Man”

This country scion couldn’t have a picked a more momentous year to release the fourth single from his High Mileage album: five months from the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act’s most important provisions, sixteen months from the signing of the Commodities Future Modernization Act. Jackson’s audience wasn’t expected to pay attention, though. It did, however, understand that Johnson’s hardware and Morgan’s jewelry store have closed: “the big money shut em down
And killed the little man.”

Drive-By Truckers – “This Fuckin’ Job”

The opening riff and drum salvo could have come from an AC/DC album, and the track could have been tougher, but welcome to the Drive-By Truckers after 2007. Still, the chord change auguring the “Nobody told me it’d be easy” section makes it all worthwhile, as the character played by Patterson Hood realizes he’s at his daddy’s job til the grave.

Lee Dorsey – “Working on the Coalmine”

Devo emphasized the harmonies when it covered this Alain Toussaint-composed hit in the late seventies, but Lee Dorsey’s unsettling good cheer is definitive. Whistling while you work is a kind of anesthetic.

Donna Summer – “She Works Hard For The Money”

Delighted that she got the eighties’ best synth hook, Donna Summer flaunts her technical virtuosity and artistic smarts — instead of filling the length of the line she leaves four notes of Michael Omartian’s riff alone, the better to imprint itself in the audience’s imagination — for the purpose of celebrating a cleaning lady who mourns her lot but takes pride in her work. After three years of disappointments “She Works Hard for The Money” was manifesto and validation: the whole point of steady work as our masters define it.

Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign – “Work from Home”

I better get a contemporary hit up in here. Less of an irritant than Rihanna’s “Work,” this top five hit by the American quintet from earlier this year reverses the usual metaphor: Fifth Harmony are in charge, which means they design the schedule. And the punishment. “I’m gonna get you fired,” they murmur. “I’m gon’ give you a promotion.” Decide already — Ty Dolla wants overtime.

Sam Cooke – “Chain Gang”

Chrissie Hynde ripped off the ooh ahhs for the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” twenty years later and kept the rue, but nobody could surpass the pathos with which Sam Cooke imbues the line “My work is so hard.” Slavery, Jim Crow, and separate but equal — it’s the late twentieth century and nothing’s changed. The most chilling song on the list.

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