Others may have their own choice for the year’s best song, but I don’t know that I’ve heard a song as powerful as Jason Isbell’s “Elephant.” Note: this is not a song that will make you feel happy. It is about cancer. Be warned.
An appropriate song to end this exploration of labor and song is this piece on deindustrialization, Tom Russell’s “U.S. Steel.” I hope you enjoyed this set of labor music.
Sure it might be a cliche, but Charlie Haden at least believes that the people united will never be defeated. Besides, we need more leftist jazz.
Talib Kweli on what working people have to do to get by.
Richard Thompson on love and strikes.
Run-DMC reminds us of the hard economic times of African-Americans during the Reagan years.
The legendary cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin with a comedic song about the very unpleasant work of castrating farm animals.
Blind Willie McTell on the perils of agricultural work and nature in the American South.
This fine Labor Day, I want to run a series of posts remembering the great history of work and the lack thereof in American music. For the first post, here’s some Dave Alvin. A former member of The Blasters and X, Alvin has a long history of writing about unions and work in song during his long solo career. Here’s an early example, “Brother on the Line.”
Also from his first solo album is “Jubilee Train,” a good example of remembering how great the New Deal was for the American working-class.
During the Bush years, he wrote “Out of Control,” which he would dedicate live to the Dick Cheney economy:
Finally, on his latest album, Alvin wrote one of the best songs about working people in the last several years, “Gary, Indiana 1959″ about the 1959 steel strike:
It’s also worth remembering that today is anniversary of the Rock Springs Massacre, so this is a good time to remember that the history of American work is very much also the history of immigration and racial oppression.
This is super cool. Old news, but I didn’t know about it and I assume most of you didn’t either.
Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his career documenting folk music traditions from around the world. Now thousands of the songs and interviews he recorded are , many for the first time. It’s part of what Lomax envisioned for the collection — long before the age of the Internet.
Lomax recorded a staggering amount of folk music. He worked from the 1930s to the ’90s, and traveled from the Deep South to the mountains of West Virginia, all the way to Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. When it came time to bring all of those hours of sound into the digital era, the people in charge of the Lomax archive weren’t quite sure how to tackle the problem.
“We err on the side of doing the maximum amount possible,” says Don Fleming, executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity, the nonprofit organization Lomax founded in New York in the ’80s. Fleming and a small staff made up mostly of volunteers have digitized and posted some 17,000 sound recordings.
“For the first time, everything that we’ve digitized of Alan’s field recording trips are online, on our website,” says Fleming. “It’s every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music.”
Lomax’s recordings were so great. He had such a great ear to what was wonderful in the enormous varieties of mid-20th century folk music, the forms of which are sadly almost all gone today. I have a couple of albums from the Southern Journeys series on Smithsonian and think they are great. Here’s a couple examples: