Love it or hate it, we’ve all got to work. Work is such a big part of our lives that many songs have been written on the topic. Of the hundreds and hundreds of songs out there about work, one thing stands out – the overwhelming majority of them are about how much work stinks! Whether they’re complaining about the job itself, or about the way that modern society is set up to force us to work forever, songwriters have written about work passionately, angrily, with hope, in despair, but seldom with a smile.
Here are some of the best lyrics about work, some we can sympathise with and some that are truly inspiring.
‘Working in a Coal Mine’ by Lee Dorsey
“Lord, I’m so tired/ How long can this go on?”
This classic Allen Toussaint R&B song is one of the many songs out there about coal mining, possibly one of the most demanding and dangerous jobs on the planet. The Lee Dorsey version is by far the most well-known and the lyrics here highlight the depressing thing about jobs that are this physically demanding:
Cos I’m on call in the mornin’
Oh I go by the coal
But when Saturday goes around
I’m too tired for havin’ fun
So even when you do get a day off you’re too tired to get out of bed! While you’re sitting at your computer thinking just how lucky you are that you’re not working down a coal mine you might want to check out another great version of this song by the Muppets.
‘9 to 5’ by Dolly Parton
“Workin’ 9 to 5/ What a way to make a livin’”
Dolly Parton wrote this classic work song scraping her long nails against a washerboard to get that rhythm that sounds like people marching to work, where they’re stuck from 9am to 5pm. Her main complaint? That workers’ efforts aren’t fairly rewarded:
They just use your mind
And they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy
If you let it
The song lyrics made such an impact that ‘9 to 5’ was made into a film too, starring country legend Dolly Parton herself.
‘Toil is Stupid’ by Devo
Toil is stupid
I heard a man say
He burnt himself out
On a 12-hour day
Here’s a rare track by Devo that talks about a man who worked so hard he went mad. Toil is another word for hard work, and burning yourself out means that you run out of energy, like a candle or a fire burning until there is no flame left. Working in a power plant, he loses control of his sanity one day, shuts down the plant and runs away. The repetitive rhythm of the cool synth tune drives home the repetitive nature of the working day, over and over, the same thing. Devo’s lyrics about work are a warning that repetitive work like this can be bad for your mental health!
‘Soup is Good Food’ by the Dead Kennedys
“Machines can do a better job than you…”
One musical genre that is packed full of anti-work songs is punk. And one of the most political punk bands wrote this inspiring song about why you should quit while you can. Rather than just complaining about the work itself, about the work being boring or the hours being long, the Dead Kennedys take a look at the bigger picture. Why are we all forced to work? Is it fair? Are we treated fairly by the people and companies that employ us? The Dead Kennedys’ answer is a resounding “No!”
The unions agree
‘Sacrifices must be made’
Computers never go on strike
To save the working man you’ve got to put him out to pasture
This is a song full of clever and angry lyrics, mostly sung from the point of view of the nasty employers who are replacing human beings with cheaper, more efficient machines and computers – “We’re sorry/But you’re no longer needed…”
‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell
This song, written by a young Jimmy Webb, has been called one of the best songs of all time, and the first ever existential country music song. Its lyrics are simple and subtle, but very moving. Talking about a man who works mending telephone lines around Wichita in the USA, working far from home, there is a strong sense of loneliness and longing for a break:
I know I need a small vacation
And also for love:
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
Both are hard to find when you’re alone and working in the middle of nowhere, and we can all relate to that feeling of loneliness at some time, no matter where we work.
Songwriters also dream about escaping work, in all different ways. From the punky Ramones, who know that they don’t fit in with the 9 to 5 way of life, to the folk singing Roches Sisters who imagine a serious businessman’s inner dreams of escaping to the countryside, flying free like a bird.
Whether you really can afford to quit your job and run away is often a case of luck. Most people never can. But the Beatles have some words of comfort for all of us. With ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, they’ve had a hard day, they’ve been working like dogs, but having someone who loves them to welcome them home every night makes them forget about all of the negative aspects of work.
They’re telling us that it’s possible to escape, every day, even if you physically can’t, so long as you have the love of friends around you.