A few days back I posted the liner notes of the CD I burned as homework for Professor Mark Naison’s Fordham University course on the American working class, when he invited me to take a session and reflect the course in music. Here’s an addendum, four cuts I hadn’t given the students in advance, but showed instead, projected on the classroom’s large video screen.
First I have to say that, though fun, it was pretty daunting, packing the history of the US proletariat in music from the 1929 Crash to the present into an hour and a quarter presentation, especially since the CD was about that long.
I opened by doing a little categorization, saying that the songs I had picked fell into four categories, rough and over-broad, perhaps, but useful.
Work songs—songs that are sung as part of the labor process itself
Songs about working—songs that are about the labor process itself and/or the social relations in a particular job, often about its hazards
Songs about working class life—this can get pretty broad; I mean, technically, “Maybelline” is a song about working class life and so is “Rockaway Beach.”
Songs about working class struggle—Mark had already spun ‘em some Woody Guthrie, and I didn’t lean too heavy on these
So where I had included a recording of work songs by menhaden fishermen from the Virginia/Carolina coastal waters, I showed this nifty short clip of railroad gandy dancers. The men who heaved the hugely heavy rails onto the crossties and positioned them used songs to enable them to coordinate their collective efforts and avoid any excess in the killing exertion they were putting out.
Later in the talk, I used another visual to underline the point about women making up more and more of the workforce. This trend I introduced on the CD with the wartime “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet” about the everyday Rosie the Riveters and later followed up with Lorettta Lynn’s “The Pill”—showing how improved (and now threatened) birth control technology permitted fuller participation in paid work.
To cap that point off, I showed the video to an ‘80s disco hit where the heavy duty production doesn’t undercut but rather reinforces the humanistic and feminist message.
Another aspect of the changing face of the working class in this country is the huge influx of immigrants who have taken their places at the bottom of the “pyramid scheme of dirty jobs,” as this song succinctly points out.
I could have done some union song to wind up, but instead I picked this final tune, with its short true-life introduction. It is the story of a ship, a coastal freighter called the Mary Ellen Carter, which sinks. When her owners claim the insurance and abandon her, the crew scheme to raise her and salvage her to sail once more. Stan Rogers’ inspirational song reflects the determination and creative power of the working class and our ability to overcome our exploiters:
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
(P.S. Yeah, I know Stan Rogers is a Canadian. Sue me.)