Tomorrow is Labor Day, the day we celebrate the American Worker. We celebrate it on the first Monday in September and it has come to mark the unofficial end of summer. In some parts of the country folks stop wearing white but down here where we have two seasons, summer and Christmas Day we wear white year round. Now, just where did I leave my Seersucker Suit? Yeah, right! There are lots of reasons I love Labor Day but up near the top of that list is all the great “working man” songs that pop up in my memory.
The first that comes to my mind is Roy Orbison’s “Workin’ for the Man.” It was released as a single in 1962 backed with “Leah.” It was a moderate hit here in the US peaking at #33 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts but made it all the way to #1 in Australia, #19 in Canada and #30 in the UK. In the song, Roy had the hots for the boss’ daughter and fortunately for him she felt the same way so she would sneak him some water. As the song goes on to say “So I slave all day without much pay And I'm just biding my time 'Cause the company and the daughter, you see They're both gonna be all mine.” So it looked like Roy was on his way to being the man.
Then there is “Chain Gang” recorded by Sam Cooke on January 25, 1960 in RCA Studio A in New York City. It was his first hit since “You Send Me” three years earlier. The inspiration for the song was a chance meeting with an actual chain-gang of prisoners on a highway. According to story, Cooke and his brother Charles felt sorry for the men and gave them several cartons of cigarettes. Sam was unsatisfied with the initial recording sessions of this song at RCA Studios in New York in January 1960, and came back later to redo some of the vocals to get the effect he wanted. Finally it was released on July 26, 1960. Who can forget: “That's the sound of the men, Working on the chain, ga-ang That's the sound of the men, Working on the chain, gang – Oooh Ahh.” This was my favorite work song when pushing the lawn mower around the yard. There were lots of covers of “Chain Gang” but in my humble opinion, none quite stack up to the original.
Another favorite working song is "Working My Way Back to You," made popular by The Four Seasons in 1966. Unlike so many of the Four Seasons’ Songs it was not written by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. It was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell. The song reached #9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It spent three weeks on the charts in the UK, at #50. It is the only Four Seasons’ hit to feature the group's arranger Charles Calello in the temporary role of bassist/bass vocalist, having replaced Nick Massi. This song is about a guy who really messed up and cheated on his girl; “When you were so in love with me I played around like I was free Thought I could have my cake and eat it too But how I cried over losin' you.” I wonder if he ever got her back!
Lee Dorsey’s classic “Working In A Coal Mine” was written and arranged by Allen Toussaint. The song concerns the suffering of a man who rises before 5 o'clock each morning to work in the harsh and dangerous conditions in a coal mine, five days a week, the only job the singer can land. The singer repeatedly asks the Lord, "How long can this go on?" He's too tired to have any fun on the weekends. Toussaint said that neither he nor Dorsey had ever been down a coal mine: "We didn’t know anything about a coal mine". He said of Dorsey: "He was very good to work with. Very inspiring because he had such a happiness about him. He loved what he was doing when he was singing. He was a body and fender man when he wasn’t singing and even at his peak, when he would come off the road at the end of a successful tour, he would go and get into his grease clothes, his dirty work gear and go and work on cars. Straightening out fenders and painting bodywork.” Coal Mine peaked at #8 on both the US and UK charts.
Some other great working songs include Bob Dylan’s “Workingman's Blues #2,” Canned Heat’s “Got My Mojo Working”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Working On A Dream”, Pete Seeger’s “I've Been Working on the Railroad”, Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend”, Elvis’ “Working on the Building”, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Working For MCA”, Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night”, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”, his son Julian’s “Keep the People Working”, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s “I've Been Working”, Tears for Fears’ “The Working Hour” and Ten Years After’s “Working In A Parking Lot”. The list is almost endless.
So as you head out to the beach or the lake to grill hot dogs and hamburgers this last weekend of summer, celebrate yourself, the working man or woman that keeps this country strong. You deserve it, this is your day! Oh MY!