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:
One of the unsung legends of country music. More known as a producer than performer or songwriter, but he was everywhere in country music for 50 years. “Let’s All Help the Cowboys Sing the Blues” is probably best known because of Waylon Jennings doing it on his seminal album Dreamin’ My Dreams, but it’s a Clement song.
He also produced most of Townes Van Zandt’s early records. Some thought he overproduced them but I have no problem with adorning someone with a rough voice like Townes with a higher level of production, even including the string section on “Kathleen.”
Since the hippie post has so many people up in arms (and I’d like to mention that myself and an occasional LGM commenter and unionist who shall remain anonymous managed to have a lovely Eugene evening while avoiding all hippies, a real accomplishment), here’s a little followup in my head.
I want to get the crabs and sleep on Owsley’s floor.
If you haven’t already listened, I heartily recommend the Jason Isbell Fresh Air episode. There’s some fantastic stuff; Isbell gives a very good interview, and even covers Don’t Let it Bring You Down. As for the new album… it’s not really my cup of tea. Isbell’s greatest strength is marrying interesting, insightful lyrics to genuinely good rock songs, and that’s not what this album is about. I like that people like it, and after a few listens I can appreciate why people like it, but I don’t see myself including it in the mix all that often. But that certainly won’t stop me from seeing Isbell in Lexington on August 22.
Here’s a Stereogum list of the 10 best Townes Van Zandt songs. I’ll offer my own 10 best, which look pretty different. Between about 1997 and 2002 or so I was in a huge Van Zandt stage, which soon morphed into following Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, and so many others of that generation and genre. Today, I don’t listen to Townes all that much, maybe an album every 3-4 weeks. That said, I think I’ve heard them all about 4000 times. So here we go. These are not really in any meaningful order, because that order would probably change tomorrow. Sure he couldn’t really sing and he really couldn’t play the guitar. The amazing amount of substances he put into his body during his all too short life helped none of these things. But he’s one of the top 5 songwriters of the last 50 years. I’m terrible at discussing individual songs. I find it almost impossible to write about without slipping into cliche. But these are 10 pretty awesome ones.
1. “Tecumseh Valley”
3. “Don’t Take It Too Bad”
4. “Poncho and Lefty”
7. “Dollar Bill Blues”
8. “Why She’s Acting That Way”
9. “Snowin on Raton”
10. “Two Girls”
If I could have expanded this to 15, would have included “Tower Song,” “Waitin’ Round to Die,” “Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls,” “Pueblo Waltz,” and maybe “If I Needed You.”
If you are looking to buy particular albums, I’d go with Our Mother the Mountain, the self-titled album, and Live at the Old Quarter, probably in that order.