Other than the fact that most people don’t read this column until Monday, here I am laboring over Labor Day weekend. Ergo, there are songs about jobs, work, and dreaded politics. I am a primarily apoltical person and I like to keep my column apolitical as my true aim is musical satisfaction. So I have presented all sides and it’s basically open to your interpretation unless I divulge info in a song’s explanation. So you can do all that if you even listen to the words — the music should carry you no matter what. And away we go...
Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.
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1. "Work to Do" — The Average White Band (2:57)
A lovely groove behind a man telling his woman that work comes first if they want a roof over their heads. I believe it was originally done by the Isley Brothers but this is a pretty darn good version and a bouncy opener.
2. "The Farmer Feeds Us All" — Ry Cooder (3:26)
I always hoped that SOMEONE sang this at every Farm Aid concert because it says it better than any other song I’ve ever heard. Ryland is an excellent documentarian of music like this and we all have benefited from that, so why not Farm Aid?
3. "Only in America" — The Drifters (1:58)
This is the rarely heard original version. Written by songwriters Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil, this song was first recorded by The Drifters. Written during the era of segregation, its lyrics were originally a pointed criticism, as exemplified by this chorus:
Only in America, land of opportunity
Can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me
Only in America, where they preach the Golden Rule
Will they start to march when my kids go to school.
Atlantic Records had a problem with the lyrics, so Leiber rewrote them, turning the song into a satire on patriotism. The Drifters refused to release it because the new lyrics did not reflect their own beliefs; plainly they had missed the satire. Mann and Weil were also upset with the changes, which led to them taking more control over how their songs were recorded. According to Songfacts, the original lyrics may have been written by Cynthia Weil alone, but she and Mann took the song to Leiber and Stoller for help making the lyrics more palatable to radio stations. This eventually begat the ironic Jay and The Americans version that went top ten in 1963, whitewashed with no hint of satire. Happy Labor Day!
4. "On Broadway" — Jimmy Scott (3:30)
If you are not aware of Jimmy Scott’s unusual vocal prowess, lemme fill you in. Jimmy was a jazz vocalist whose singing voice sounded exactly like that of a female jazz diva, with no apparent falsetto. Many bets were lost in my crowd when wagers were made that the listener couldn't identify who the artist was on a Scott track. This is one of my favorite Jimmy Scott performances and the recording, playing, and mix is sublime. If you are a first-timer, you will surely be shocked. Jimmy is in his mid-80s and still plays clubs!
5. "Rat Race" — The Drifters (1:57)
I still don’t understand why this isn’t the music played over the opening credits on Mad Men, but I guess I’m in the wrong line of work. Well, The Drifters have reappeared for you again and the arrangement on this Leiber-Stoller production couldn’t be better. They didn’t mind THIS lyric and who in New York City would? Ironically, it was recorded on the same 1963 session as the previous “Only In America.”
6. "Workin' in the Coal Mine" — Lee Dorsey (2:19)
A rare Allen Toussaint production sans his trademark piano playing, but a big hit nonetheless. A perfect lyric for Labor Day Weekend. Not wasted on me is that the last thing you hear in the fade is Dorsey singing, “How long can this go on?” By the way, Dorsey was a trained auto mechanic and worked at the garage whenever he wasn’t playing music gigs, with a bad leg and all, to his dying day. Truly a Lion of Labor Day...
7. "20 Dollars" — Angie Stone (3:33)
From 2001’s Mahogany Soul album comes this track that says, "No, I can’t lend you 20 dollars til you get your check next week / 'Cause all I got is 20 dollars and my kids have got to eat," or something really close to that. The track is sampled from the intro to Al Green’s song “Simply Beautiful.” Angie started out co-writing with R&B dervish D’Angelo and was briefly in the '90s group Vertical Hold. This is the best poor folks Labor Day song.
8. "(At the) Carwash" — Howling Diablos (3:14)
This is the title song of their 2005 album and this is a blues scorcher. This is a guy who takes pride in his work — he washes a lotta Cadillacs, but does Chevys as well. I like this track a lot. It shuffles around nicely and I believe what the guy is singing/saying. A good contribution to Work Weekend.
9. "Take This Job and Shove It" — Johnny Paycheck (2:35)
This classic country commotion remains timeless and will always work for the disgruntled employee. As in most real life, the singer doesn’t have the nerve to speak the title and so reaches the majority of country fans with horrendous day jobs. I actually got to back Johnny up once when he sang this and another favorite “Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got.” He seemed to be a good lad and I enclose this with my usual recommendation.
10. "Say It Ain't So, Joe" — Murray Head (4:12)
As usual, the best for last. This came out in 1975 on Island Records and knocked me right out. The self-titled LP had at least two more great ones on it and was produced magnificently by ex-Yardbird bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. It’s amazing to recall how high Murray could sing. Roger Daltrey covered it a few years later, but this version is, so far, untouchable. I thought it fit the Democrats in a few Presidential elections and I’m sure the Republicans would wanna grab this nowadays, but what do I know? I’m a music lover and this track overflows with much to love. See you next week...