No way to earn a living

Sep 24 2009 by Philip Whiteley Print This Article

He was looking for a job. Then he found a job. Heaven knows, he's miserable now. Quite what would cheer Morrissey up is a mystery to us all, of course, and the mere commencement of regular employment was never going to be equal to the task.

The Mancunian song-writer's travails with travaille are typical. I once read a review that observed that there are many songs about the telephone and all of them are sad. There are many about work. Nearly all of them are bitter where they are not caustic.

The themes have been that work is at least emotional enslavement; that commerce is dirty and only artists lead authentic lives. The following lyrics are typical:

"'Working nine-to-five

That's no way to earn a living" [Dolly Parton]

"And I'll never pine

For the bad days and the sad days

When we were working from nine-to-five" [Pink Floyd]

"Tired of doing day jobs, with no thanks for what I do

I'm sure I must be someone, now I'm going to find out who" [Eddie and the Hot Rods]

Much of the time, being at work is like being at school again. Music touches the free soul within us, so how can that spirit feel liberated if we are being told what to do? Perhaps music is more than that; perhaps it is the voice of the soul.

Johnny Marr, Morrissey's guitarist in The Smiths, testifies: "If you've got a certain vocabulary on the guitar, you know how to play what you feel. You can voice it without all the hassle of turning it into words and concepts … You don't have to translate to make your point. You don't even have to be making a point – it's turning your daydreams into sound."

And in which context is the mind most prone to daydream? Work is manic, a bore, a grind. It is the bad days and the sad days. We gotta get out of this place. It is slavery, and music is liberation. In many religious traditions, this duality is expressed as body and soul. Yet, as well as being opposites, work and music, like body and soul, are intimate with one another.

The history of music – at least, folk and pop music – is intertwined with that of labour. West African women sing as they pound the corn, and maintain the metre with each strike. The babies in their backpacks learn perfect rhythm at an early age. In the Hebridean islands of Scotland, there are songs composed by the weavers to accompany their time-consuming labour.

The song-writer draws upon the monotonous activity for material both while and by trying to escape it, or to make the working experience less arduous and more comforting. Music is also communal; the most intimate and emotional form of expressing solidarity, joy and mercy, as the slave workers in North America found with their field hollers.

In 1872, freed slave and vice-presidential candidate Frederick Douglass wrote:

"While on their way (to work), the slaves would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness … They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone … I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject."

The term 'The Blues', describing both existential ennui and a type of music, is derived directly from the working experience, and its style was probably the biggest single influence on what we would today consider to be rock or pop music. So the structure and syntax of the latest RnB single would be very different without the influence of slavery.

Curiously, the lyrical content of blues music rarely touches on work itself – as though it were too horrible a subject to commit to paper. If one looks at the words of 'classic' Delta or Chicago blues songs, the dominant theme is sex.

It was left to song-writers from later generations - and often more privileged backgrounds - to pen the most poignant observations of the plight of those condemned to hard labour.

Oscar Hammerstein II, grandson of the tobacco millionaire and theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I, composed the following legendary lines for Old Man River:

"You and me/Sweat and strain/Body aching and wracked with pain/Tote that barge/Lift that bale/Get a little drunk/And you land in jail." Without explicitly mentioning race or slavery, it is an impressive polemic.


Meet the New Boss

Philip Whiteley's new book, Meet The New Boss, an informative and entertaining look at the influence of literature, popular music and comedy on how we perceive work.

We will be exclusively serialising excerpts from the book over the coming weeks. Meet The New Boss will be published in March 2010.

Paul Robeson, in his performances, tweaked the lyrics to make the protest a touch stronger: "or show a little grit/And you land in jail".

Prison occurs frequently in popular song. For Jim Croce, at least, it seems to be a mere inconvenience - and preferable to a dead-end job: "Well I just got out of the County Jail/Doing 90 days for non-support/ … Now I got those steadily depressing'/Low down mind-messin'/Working at the car wash blues".

In general, lyrics portraying the bitter poverty, hardship and suffering of labourers or slaves tend to be penned by professional singer-songwriters. In addition to Hammerstein, examples are Sam Cooke (Chain Gang) and Bob Dylan (North Country Blues). Allen Toussaint, writer of Working in a Coal Mine, had humble beginnings, but spent his adult life in the music industry and never actually worked as a labourer in any form, though he did complete his national service.

Those who actually had experienced extreme poverty and discrimination, such as Big Bill Broonzy or Robert Johnson, tended to write about other aspects of life.

The listener, of course, does not know if the description is documentary or fantasy; auto-biographical or research. Regardless of source, the messages contain the power to be absorbed.


About The Author

Philip Whiteley
Philip Whiteley

Philip Whiteley, co-author of the Radical Shift blog, is a journalist specialising in management, particularly the areas of leadership, motivation and strategic human resources. He is also the Chairman of the Human Capital Forum.