The figure of the workingman is commonly depicted in American music. Songs about blue-collar life, celebrating the working class hero, filter through the sweat, dirt, and back-breaking routines to make our work days that much more tolerable.
Here are some hard-working songs as you celebrate your time off this Labor Day.
10. “Working Man Blues” – Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard songs are real and honest. “Working Man Blues” is no different, depicting a man doing backbreaking work for his family.
I’ve been a workin’ man, dang near all my life / I’ll be workin’ long as my two hands are fit to use, he sings in the first verse. The narrator of the song is trying to provide for his wife and nine kids. Without complaint, he sings Might get a little tired on the weekend / After I draw my pay / But I’ll go back workin’ / Come Monday morning I’m right back with the crew.
9. “Badlands” – Bruce Springsteen
No list of working songs is complete without a Bruce Springsteen classic or two.
Firing off an anthemic sound, “Badlands” tells the story of an angsty young man who is seeking a better lot in life. He sings about having dreams and not letting moments pass him by. The narrator is a working man, singing Workin’ in the fields till you get your back burned / Workin’ ‘neath the wheel till you get your facts learned, but he’ll keep pushing until these badlands start treating him good.
8. “She Works Hard For The Money” – Donna Summer
Inspired after meeting a restroom attendant named Onetta Johnson, who was exhausted from working long hours, Donna Summer wrote “She Works Hard For The Money.”
“I was at Chasen’s at a party for Julio Iglesias and I went to the ladies’ room with my manager,” the singer recalled, “and there was a little woman… a little lady sitting there with her head tilted to the side and she was just gone—she was asleep. And I looked at her and my heart just filled up with compassion for this lady, and I thought to myself, ‘God, she works hard for the money, cooped up in this stinky little room all night.'”
Johnson even agreed to be photographed for the album’s back cover, her and Summer in matching waitress outfits.
7. “Money for Nothing” – Dire Straits
Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits was inspired to write “Money for Nothing” after a visit to a New York City appliance store.
The musician explained the store had a wall of televisions all playing MTV and there was a man delivering boxes to the store who stopped to watch. Complaining that these artists on MTV get money for nothing while he has to work all day, Knopfler got his inspiration for the song’s first-person narrative.
We gotta install microwave ovens / Custom kitchen deliveries / We gotta move these refrigerators / We gotta move these color TV’s while the rockstars get Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.
6. “Take This Job and Shove It” – Johnny Paycheck
We’ve all fantasized about quitting that job and telling that boss we’re hitting the bricks. Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” is the perfect anthem for the drained worker.
I’d give the shirt right offa’ my back / If I had the guts to say / Take this job and shove it / I ain’t working here no more
5. “Working in the Coal Mine” – Lee Dorsey
“Working in the Coal Mine” has a pretty catchy tune for a song so bleak. The narrator works long hours all week in a coal mine where the conditions are harsh and the work is dangerous. Come time for the weekend, the worker is so tired and downtrodden, he can’t enjoy his time off.
The singer repeatedly sings Lord-a, I’m so tired / How long can this go on?
4. “9 to 5” – Dolly Parton
It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it / And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet.
While this Dolly Parton hit is about office work and not about blue collar employment, the icon speaks some serious truths about all manner of work. Written at a time when women were often exploited in the workplace, “9 to 5” has the ability to reach anyone that has ever felt taken advantage of or given limited opportunities in their professional lives.
They just use your mind and they never give you credit / It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it
3. “Workin’ For A Livin” – Huey Lewis & The News
Huey Lewis wrote “Workin’ For A Livin'” while working as a truck driver. The song is semi-autobiographical about all the jobs (from busboy to bartender) he worked before finding success as a musician.
Somedays won’t end ever and somedays pass on by / I’ll be working here forever, at least until I die / Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t / I’m supposed to get a raise next week, you know damn well I won’t, the frontman sings in the rollicking tune.
2. “Factory” – Bruce Springsteen
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life / The working, the working, just the working life
Focusing on the toll that blue-collar work takes on the body, “Factory” tells a heart wrenching story about early mornings, long days, and the struggle for survival. Beautifully composed and driven by piano, this Springsteen ballad paints a dark, but real portrait of factory life.
1. “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” – Styx
Styx guitarist and singer, Tommy Shaw, wrote “Blue Collar Man” about a friend’s experience being laid off from the railroad. He recalled “He was having to go stand in line at the unemployment office. It just drove him nuts, because he’s like, ‘I wanna work! I don’t wanna be standing around here, asking for a handout…’ It really bugged him, and that was the inspiration for that song.”
It’s a high energy track with feisty guitar licks, mirroring that frustration.