Column: Music

by Devin Iler

Songs of Sweat and Struggle
Work and struggle are two sides of the same coin, and one of the strengths of music is its ability to reflect the themes of hardship through its lyrics. In the heyday of the Mississippi steamboat, black roustabouts struggled to make ends meet. Their job was to unload and load the boats as quickly as possible whenever they came to port. When the boat would dock for the night, the roustabouts weren’t allowed to sleep on the boat and most couldn’t afford to pay for somewhere to sleep, so they either slept in the streets or, if they were lucky, shacked up with women. This tradition is well documented from the early days of the blues, when legends such as Robert Johnson constantly sang of their sexual prowess—it wasn’t just bravado and chest-thumping; it was a conscious effort to ensure they wouldn’t be sleeping in the rain. If they could get just one woman to fall for the act, at worst they’d have shelter and some food, and at best…well, you get the point. The black workers on the steamboats sang about the same themes; talking about women, one song says: I went to the landing / I folded up my arms / I never missed my dog (his woman) / Till the boat was gone. 

However, one of the occupational hazards of the roustabout was that all this sleeping around went both ways. Gone for months at a time, their wives would often entertain the “temporary man,” known as the kid man. One song (referring to the boat whistle as a rooster crow) goes: Say, why do that rooster crow so long ’fore day? To tell the kid man that the real man is on his way.

As hard as times were for the steamboat roustabouts, coal miners may have had it worse. “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis (made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford) portrays an incredibly sad existence. The bitter chorus explains: You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store. For countless decades coal mining has been one of the deadliest professions out there; these coal workers were certainly being worked to death. Entire families were sucked into working for the same company; it was a form of modern slavery. Perhaps the only way to get out was by being “really, really, really, ridiculously good- looking.” Derek Zoolander’s family, remember, was stuck working for the coal mines.

With World War II, millions of women flooded the workforce in order to support the troops abroad. After the war ended and men returned to the workplace, some two million women lost jobs, but the “Rosie the Riveter” experience altered our society, and women were eager to remain in the workforce. Once feminism swung into full force in the 1960s, women found their way back into the workforce in droves, but things were a constant struggle for them. The average pay even until 1980 was two-thirds that of men, and with more and more single working mothers, times were tough. The song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton (from the 1980 movie of the same name) reflects these sentiments: the chorus proclaims, Working 9 to 5 / Barely getting by. To be sure, women were proud and ambitious, but working and surviving was rough.

Well, what about today? We seem to celebrate and parade tough and dangerous occupations with shows like The Deadliest Catch or Dirty Jobs. Maybe times have become easier—and our culture more supportive. Certainly, Britney Spears’s “Work Bitch” would have us believe this. You want a hot body? / You want a Bugatti? / You want a Maserati? / You better work bitch. Tell that to the roustabouts and coal miners, the women struggling to feed their children as their husbands are gunned down in Normandy, The Ardennes, and Bataan. Britney—maybe they just weren’t working hard enough to afford fancy cars. Excuse us while we question if you’ve ever held a real 9 to 5 job. Bitch.

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