The 20 Greatest Songs About Work?

The list is here.  Number one is Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” followed by Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.”  “Atlantic City” would not have been my Springsteen pick but overall the list is better than expected.  There is, however, an odd under-representation of folk music, see for instance this list.

Why are the service sectors underrepresented on such lists?  There is “Dr. Robert,” “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” “Police and Thieves,” and many others from the more stagnant sectors of the economy, although arguably police productivity has risen quite a bit.

For the pointer I thank the estimable Chug.


Any list that doesn't include, "Heigh Ho Heigh Ho, it's off to work we go" from Snow White, is a bad list.

This man speaks truth.

"Wild Sex In The Working Class" by Oingo Boingo

I just won the thread. You're welcome! :)

Robbie Fulks was a surprising and welcome addition to this list.

For service sector jobs they should have had Fountains of Wayne's Bright Future in Sales.

No Depeche Mode? (No guarantee on the link - )

But the lyrics apply to the sort of world this blog exists in -

'The handshake
Seals the contract
From the contract
There's no turning back
The turning point
Of a career
In Korea, being insincere
The holiday
Was fun packed
The contract
Still intact

The grabbing hands
Grab all they can
All for themselves
After all

It's a competitive world
Everything counts in large amounts

The graph
On the wall
Tells the story
Of it all
Picture it now
See just how
The lies and deceit
Gained a little more power
Taken in
By a sun tan
And a grin

The grabbing hands
Grab all they can
All for themselves
After all

It's a competitive world
Everything counts in large amounts

The grabbing hands
Grab all they can
Everything counts in large amounts'

This song was the dawn of MTV, a truly magical time for music.

"Millworker" by James Taylor

And for those who harken back to the glory days of rock, Summertime Blues recommends itself. -

'"Summertime Blues" is a song co-written and recorded by American rockabilly artist Eddie Cochran. It was written in the late 1950s by Cochran and his manager Jerry Capehart. Originally a single B-side, it was released in August 1958[1] and peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 on September 29, 1958 and number 18 on the UK Singles Chart. It has been covered by many artists, including being a number-one hit for country music artist Alan Jackson, and scoring notable hits in versions by The Who and Blue Cheer.'

The Who live -

'Well, I'm a'gonna raise a fuss,
An' I'm a'gonna raise a holler.
I've been working all summer
Just to try and earn a dollar.
Well I went to the boss
Said I had a date
My boss said "No dice, son, you gotta work late"

Sometimes I wonder what I'm a'gonna do
There ain't no cure for the summertime blues

Well my mom 'n' poppa told me
"Son you gotta earn some money,
If you want to use the car
To go riding next Sunday."

Well I didn't go to work
I told the boss I was sick
"Now you can't use the car
'cause you didn't work a lick."

Sometimes I wonder what I'm a'gonna do
Cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

Gonna take two weeks
Gonna have a fine vacation
Gonna take my problems
To the United Nations

Well I went to my congressman
He said, quote: "I'd like to help you son,
But you're too young to vote."

Sometimes I wonder what I'm a'gonna do
Cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.'

Add "Bell Boy" and "The Dirty Jobs"

Having recently seen the Who's "Quadrophenia and More" tour...AMEN!!!

In my mind, from the same era as Summertime Blues:

Get a Job

Then there is Billy Joel talking about labor, but in a much more American 80s way, back in the age of Reagan - 'Allentown.'

'"Allentown" is a song by American singer Billy Joel, which first appeared on Joel's The Nylon Curtain (1982) album, accompanied by a conceptual music video. It later appeared on Joel's Greatest Hits: Volume II (1985), 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert (2000), The Essential Billy Joel (2001), and 12 Gardens Live (2006) albums. also was featured in Hangover II (2011) "Allentown" is the lead track on The Nylon Curtain, which was the seventh best-selling album of the year in 1982. The song reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100,[1] spending six consecutive weeks at that position. Despite the song placing no higher than #17 on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart, it was popular enough to place at #43 on the Billboard year-end Hot 100 chart for 1982. The video, directed by Russell Mulcahy, was also in heavy rotation on MTV during 1982 and 1983. The original airing of the song featured partial male nudity in the opening of the song as steelworkers showered in their locker-room; the scene was edited from subsequent airings on MTV.

Upon its release, and especially in subsequent years, "Allentown" has emerged as an anthem of blue collar America, representing both the aspirations and frustrations of America's working class in the late 20th century.'

German link to video -

'Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown
But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to stay
Well we're waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we're waiting here in Allentown
But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away
Every child has a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our place
Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be getting very hard to stay
And we're living here in Allentown.'

I suppose it's hard work to come up with the list everyone agrees with and it's far from bad. I'm surprised a number of other names didn't make the list as well as not seeing as many blues/folk entries.

No 'John Henry' would be my example of fail in this category.

Yup, surely one of the most iconic labor songs ever ... it did make the folk music oriented top 10 list that Tyler linked to.

Link to nice version of "Millworker":

What about "Pimpin' Ain't Easy":

(Absolutely, positively, NSFW)

"It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" won an Academy Award.

This one is about both working (under the table) and collecting unemployment at the same time, which I suppose is preferable to the ethic of "5 More Years", also from 1983 in Thatcher's Britain.

And here I was, expecting UB-40

Other nominees:

Rolling Stones/"Luxury"

Pink Floyd/"Money"

"Money" too -- but in retrospect I'm wondering if "Welcome to the Machine" wouldn't be an event better choice.

"James River Blues" by Old Crow Medicine Show ( which falls into the folk music category, but they're not really as widely iconic as the lists are (though they should be and could be yet).

By far the best is

Nor should anyone be permitted to forget Homer and Jethro's version of "Sixteen Tons" . . .

A very US-centric list.

Here's a song by the Australian Bruce Springsteen equivalent, Jimmy Barnes "Working Class Man":

(Ironically) It's actually written by an American for a US film, but it's been adopted as an Australian classic.

Great imagery from Australia's steel industry - but more evocatively later in the song, of Sugar Cane burn offs in Queensland.

I remember that song from the American movie "Gung Ho."

Dan Reeder's Work Song ... NSFW but just about covers the subject.

I guess R.E.M.'s "Finest Worksong" is not one of the finest worksongs.

"Take this Job and Shove It."

Proud Mary.

And if school work is also work, Steely Dan's "My Old School", or Rod Stewart's "Maggie May". It's about desire versus obligation, freedom versus oppression.

Car Wash. Never really convinced this song was about work; just as I was never convinced "Fame" was about high school.

George Michael, "Everything She Wants": "If my best isn't good enough / Than how can it be good enough for two? / I can't work any harder than I do" I think there are days like that.

Billy Joel, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant", the part about Hackensack. Maybe his best song, for my money.

Springsteen must have something, Dylan, too. Eagles? (Theirs is about hotel management. In fact, almost certainly the best song ever about hotel management.)

Well, I've said fairly little about work, a lot about my formative years...

Dark As A Dungeon- Merle Travis


"Wir steigern das Bruttosozialprodukt" by Geier Sturzflug

(German. Quote:"Now we go back to work. Now we'll raise the GDP")

Don't forget "Which side are you on?" originally by Florence Reese, but covered by a countless many including Pete Seeger, but most recently by Ani DiFranco.

If you are feeling generous, go buy my brother(and starving artist)'s graphic novel rendition of the song/story:

"I Wanna Be A Lifeguard" by Blotto and "Welcome to the Working Week" by Elvis Costello both should have made the list.

So it turns out musicians hate work. Good to know.

Most people are dissatisfied with their work.

I'd wager musicians and songwriters like their work more than most.

But there are some great songs about working as a musician, A Hard Days Night is an excellent example.

BTO seems to have agreed ;-)

An odd under-representation of country too, especially considering that work is such a prominent theme in the genre.

Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues" is my favorite. Johnny Cash also did a good cover of the song.

This comment may not be exactly on topic, but I find Tyler's comments introducing this thread to be interestion, especially his link to the folk songs. As a Libertarian, I assume he is against collective action. Shouldn't he have explained that the coal miner loading the "Sixteen Tons" ought to be thankful for his job, rather than bitter about being exploited. I understand that the folk songs relate to a different period than now; but still, I wonder whether if Tyler had been living in, say, the 1890's when workers had no unions and no unemployment insurance and no workers compensation, would he have been a bleeding heart liberal?

Personally I would probably have been accused of being a Red in the 1890s, and a Leveller, or worse, in the 1600s, but times change. What woud a modern libertarian be called in fourth century Rome? What would a modern leftwing Democrat be called? I just watched Pierre Moscovici, the Socialist Finance Minister of France talk about the need for "entrepreneurship", of course he has evolved, but what would someone in la France of 1955 think of that? Or 1935?

"As a Libertarian, I assume he is against collective action."
Another person clueless of what it means to be a libertarian. Libertarians are against initiation of force, not against people working together.

That XTC song - think it's "earn enough for us" off Skylarking.

Billy Joel: The Downeaster Alexa

She Works Hard for the Money.
My Baby Takes the Morning Train.
Bang on the Drum.

"Wanted Dead or Alive" by Bon Jovi or "Turn The Page" by Bob Seger - while about the grinding work of a concert tour - also relate well to an on-the-road work/lifestyle so many people have now.

I believe that every great rock band has at least one song about being a rock band, and it's usually in the key of disillusion. "Turn the Page" is a great example. So is "Maggie's Farm."

Van Morrison -- Cleaning Windows

Tom Waits -- I Can't Wait To Get Off Work

Don't Like To Work - Yeah Bop Station

"Lawyers, Guns, and Money" is about an idle rich man who merely needs help in a jam; it has nothing to do with labor. Likewise, "Doctor Robert" is not from the medical professional's point of view.

While non-menial work can be taxing indeed, it is not poetic. Besides, to quote a noted economist, albeit not Tyler and Alex's favorite, "A long day following a plodding, increasingly reluctant team behind a harrow endlessly back and forth over the uninspiring Ontario terrain persuaded one that all other work was easy."

+1, though I have always considered the protaganist of Lawyers, Guns, and Money, to be more of what one would call a "boy". Especially considering he is petitioning his father to "get me out of this". Now "Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner", is about a man genuinely committed to his work.

I couldn't have said it better.

What about bob Seeger, "I feel like. A number."

Solidarity Forever, by a mile. Runner up: Last Night I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill.

Below is an interesting blog post about work from musician Jens Lekman from Gothenburg Sweden. He keeps a good blog, but you can't direct link so I'll just paste the passage.
September 8th, 2011

I picked up Belle & Sebastians green album yesterday for the first time in a long time, and heard Stevie Jackson sing "What's the worst job yooouu've had?". And I thought : now there's a topic of the month. Thanks Stevie, I was kinda struggling.

Well, Stevie, let me tell you. I think being a plumber was one of the worst jobs. The city wanted more plumbers so they created these imaginary plumbing jobs where I got to walk around with some real plumbers who'd gone to plumbing school and make coffee for them. I think there are nice plumbers but these guys hated a lot of stuff, women, immigrants and gays mostly. I told them I wanted to be an artist and they told me I didn't necessarily have to show up anymore.

The bingo parlor wasn't too bad, it was mostly just quietly depressing. The place was warm and everyone was welcome, the homeless, the lonely and the chainsmoking grannies. I called out the numbers and walked around selling tickets. Came home reeking of tobacco and sweat.

I worked at a medical center once, that was also one of those made up jobs - the county council wanted more men to work in healthcare. Mostly I was mastering the coffee machine but occasionally I got to hang out with the audiologist. It inspired me, I liked examining peoples ears. I applied for audiology school several times but never got in.

Most of the jobs were boring but they were fine once you got into the routine. A few however wore you down mentally and physically. Marketing research wasn't the worst but after working there for almost a year I started having horrible nightmares and felt constantly stressed. Your job was to call up people and discuss what brand of cornflakes they prefered, if they didn't want to (and most people didn't) you had to persuade them. You became an intruder in their home and they would treat you with their finest hostility. At the end of the phonecall you were left with a feeling of guilt and disgust. Telemarketing was the same thing but on commission - meaning you worked your ass off, dealt with the darkest of human hatred all day and didn't make any money at all. And then the body started aching from sitting in the same position by the not very ergonomic chair and desk. My neck and right arm were constantly hurting.

The disabled taxi service job saved me. It was another phone job but people would call me and not the other way around. The chairs were nice, the boss would listen to you, everyone was nice there. I miss those days. Then there were some cleaning and dishwashing jobs. It was what it was. And there you go, my curriculum vitae. Now tell me about yours.

There's been a lot of debating here in Sweden the last months about the "shitjobs". Young people being used, working themselves to death for very little or no money at all. Suggestions have been made to lower the minimum wage so that we can create more shitjobs that you can't make a living from. Karin WanngŒrd from the Social Democrats goes out to criticize the shitjobs but is instantly met with a wave of angry responses from the right: Who are you to decide what a shitjob is?

So who is to decide and what is a shitjob exactly? There seems to be some confusion. On Discovery Channel yesterday there was a show called Dirty Jobs where a man was trying different jobs that would be seen as unpleasant or dirty - cleaning sewers, collecting owl vomit, a lot of jobs that had to do with animal or human feces. These are, as the title suggests, dirty jobs. Not bad jobs, just jobs that might not be very attractive.

But when your job does damage to your body and your mind, when you can't make a living from it and you have no rights, well, I would call that a shitjob.

Here's a very good article in swedish about this.

Little Feat - Willin' (

Todd Snider - Looking For A Job (

The Band - Get Up Jake (

Grateful Dead - Casey Jones (

Jamey Johnson - Can't Cash My Checks (

Jackson Browne - The Loadout/Stay (

Not quite the same, but this is a list of Bollywood hits on "life of the common man":

If anyone has a list of Bollywood songs about work, I would appreciate a link.

I should say with video--of course.

Rush's Working Man but no Merle Haggard's Working Man? Nerds.

And Elvis Costello's Welcome to the Working Week should be in the top 3 .

Since being an astronaut is a job, I guess "Space Oddity" by David Bowie would count.

Warren Zevon had a few songs about jobs.

"The Factory":
I was born in '63
Got a little job in the factory
I don't know much about Kennedy
I was too busy working in the factory

We got a kid that's two,
we got another one due
We get by the best we can do
The factory's got a good medical plan
And cousin, I'm a union man
Saying, "Yes sir, no sir, yes sir, no sir Yes sir, no sir, work"

"Jungle Work" is about working as a mercenary.
"Mr. Bad Example" is about a con man who works at many jobs and rips people off in all of them.
"The Envoy" is about Philip Habib and the job of being an Envoy to the Middle East.

I got a part-time job at my father's carpet store
Laying tactless stripping and housewives by the score
mr. bad example

I've Been Working on the Railroad


Out in the Streets - Bruce Springsteen

Badlands - Bruce Springsteen (so many by Springsteen)

Allentown - Billy Joel

9 to 5 - Dolly Parton

Bang the Drum All Day - Todd Rundgren

Taking Care of Business - BTO

Dead End Street - The Kinks

A Well Respected Man - The Kinks

Hard Day's Night - Beatles

Money - Pink Floyd

Maggies Farm - Bob Dylan

And the timeless:

Volga Boatmen

How about the Grateful Dead's Cumberland Blues:

"Make good money five dollars a day
Make any more might move away... (modulate to minor key)

I lot of poor men got to walk the line
just to pay his union dues"

"Maggie's Farm" is a song about "work" in the same way that "Blowin in the Wind" is a song about the weather or "The Mighty Quinn" is a song about Inuit fishing rights. "Maggie's Farm" is pretty clearly an allegorical protest song, and the most logical interpretation I've heard is that it's Dylan telling us he's leaving the protest folk movement behind. It doesn't belong on this list.

Except that singing protest songs *was* Dylan's job. And, as of Bringing it all Back Home, he quit.

When I listen to my students somebody should write a really depressive song about call centres:

"160 calls" or something like that

There are any number of great examples by Phil Ochs, but at a minimum I would have included "Automation Song" from _All the News that's Fit to Sing_.

Similarly Schooner Fare did some good work in this department, including "Salt-Water Farm" and--for slightly more off-beat choices--"(The Ballad of the) Mary L. McKay" and "Powder Monkey."

Erie Canal

Peg & Awl - traditional. Here played by Bruce Molsky with a little intro referencing some of the other "work songs" that have been mentioned. Pete Seeger also has a great rendition. The song's about an artisan shoe maker who's replaced by industrial machinery that can peg 15 shoes in the time he's pegged one.

Several years back I was on a long late-night plane trip full of business people, many in suits. Most everyone was hunched over in his/her seat trying to get rest.

The guy next to me (in the middle seat) put on headphones but didn't quite correctly insert the connection into his laptop. He started blaring 'Taking Care of Business' which everyone could hear, but I didn't tell him because I thought the song was so appropriate to the situation. The person on his other side told him about the loud music and he corrected the connection. He then asked me if I'd heard anything and I told him no :)

Styx Blue Collar Man (as the first commenter on the link noted)

Also, Maggie's List (not Farm)

Plus I'm glad to see Sam Cooke on the list.

Vogues...Five O'CLOCK World
George Jones...Bartender Blues Written by James Taylor

Paperback Writer - Beatles

Easy Wind - Grateful Dead
I been balling a shiny black steel jack-hammer,
been chippin' up rocks for the great highway,
live five years if I take my time,
ballin' that jack and a drinkin' my wine.

For a Springsteen song, I'd pick "Promised Land":

"Working all day in my daddy's garage
Driving all night chasing some mirage..."


"I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart..."

"The Future's so Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" by Timbuk3 (ahem) marginally fits since it is about a person starting off on a work career. "50 thou a year will buy a lotta beer"...

'So it turns out musicians hate work. Good to know.'

Dave Frishberg;
I want to be a sideman
Just an ordinary sideman
A go along for the ride man
Responsibility free
I wanna fill behind the vocal
Double on flute
Jam on the blues
I wanna go and join the local
Buy a dark suit
Start payin’ dues
I want to maintain my book
In neatly numbered order
I wanna listen to Lester Young
On my recorder
I want to play while the people dance
I wanna press my own coat and pants
I wanna ask for an advance
I wanna be a sideman

But, how did Ol' Man River not get mentioned; Tote dat barge, lif' dat bale, get a little drunk and land in jail.

You're missing the rich seam of Irish folk songs about work.

'Don't forget your shovel if you want to go to work.' Christy Moore

'McApine's Fusiliers' Dominc Behan, the Dubliners

'Nothing but the same old Story' Paul Brady

I nominate John Prine's "Carwash Blues."

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