This week, Alex Ogg's selection of songs inspired by economic woes. Of course, there are many more "broke" songs, but these address downturns in the economic cycle in a specific way, if not always intentionally.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
1. Merle Haggard — "If We Make It Through December": The 1973 single is Haggard's story of a daddy who can't "afford no Christmas cheer" and dreams of relocating to California. "Got laid off down at the factory / And there things are not the greatest in the world / Heaven knows I been workin' hard / I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl…"
David Gray — "Nightblindness": An unlikely choice, perhaps, but doubtless due for a revival to accompany news features on dealing with ruinous credit card bills due to the pained question it leaves hanging mid-song. "What we gonna do when the money runs out?"
3. Woody Guthrie — "Dust Bowl Refugee": Almost anything from the Guthrie canon, especially those about the rural poor, might be appropriate. "From the south land and the drought land / Come the wife and kids and me / And this old world is a hard world / For a dust bowl refugee…"
Marvin Gaye — "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)": See also Gil Scott Heron's 'Whitey's On The Moon' for a coruscating rebuttal of economic priorities during the space race. "Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the Have-nots / Money, we make it / 'Fore we see it, you take it…'"
5. BB King — "Recession Blues": Typical of the blues, it's all about his girl leaving him, really (with recession as contributory factor). "Since the recession I'm losing my baby / Because the times are getting so hard…"
Pizzicato Five — "Recession, La Depression": It's in Japanese, so I'm trusting to an online interpretation here. How is the Yen holding up? "We've been going through quite a recession these days / The world is going through some crisis, I tell you…"
7. Otis Rush — "Double Trouble": Another fairly straightforward but nonetheless rousing nailing of the domestic American economy in troubled times. "I lay awake at night can't sleep just so troubled / It's hard to keep a job, laid off and havin' double trouble / Hey, they say you can make it if you try / Yes, in this generation of millionaires, it's hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear…"
Skids — "Working For The Yankee Dollar": Can we have this? Just as a way of acknowledging how toxic Sterling has become? On the other hand, you've got Peter Tosh's 'The Day The Dollar Die.' Anyone game for a list of popular songs using currency speculation as metaphor? No? "And all flags and Yankee mags which embroidered all the meaning / In an oversight, forgot the fight, which never bore elation…"
9. Donna Summer — "She Works Hard For The Money": Disco was never noted for being a natural vehicle for protest, but Summer's tribute to the working waitress (one presumes) is noteworthy. "It's a sacrifice working day to day / For little money, just tips for pay…"
The Carter Family — "No Depression In Heaven": First recorded by the Carter Family in '36, 'No Depression' birthed an entire genre of music. "For fear the hearts of men are failing / For these are latter days we know / The Great Depression now is spreading / God's word declared it would be so…"
11. Billy Joel — "Allentown": Joel's Springsteen-esque lyric about a Pennsylvanian town hit by the recession. "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…"
Young Jeezy — "The Recession": Carolina rapper who caused a bit of a stir during the election campaign when he made some positive noises about John McCain (quickly retracted). In terms of topicality, his 2008 album of the same title was bang on the money though. "It's a recession - everybody broke / So I just come back to give everybody hope…"
13. The Specials — "Ghost Town": The unsurpassable audio document of the last UK recession. Or should that be second to last? "Government leaving the youth on the shelf / This place, is coming like a ghost town / No job to be found in this country / Can't go on no more / The people getting angry…"
John Mellencamp — "Down And Out In Paradise": "Dear Mr President"--Mellencamp takes his protest to the White House. "Can't draw unemployment for some unknown reason / My kids are hungry / I've got four mouths to feed / I go out everyday lookin' for suitable employment / Do you think there's something you could do for me?"
15. Guy Drake — "Welfare Cadillac": 'Welfare Cadillac' is an American pejorative for benefit fraudsters. Richard Nixon asked Johnny Cash to play it at the White House in 1972. Cash declined. See also "Public Assistance" by Agnostic Front for the same sentiment in an entirely different musical setting. "The Salvation Army cuts their hair and gives them clothes to wear on their backs / So we can dress up and ride around / And show off this new Cadillac…"
Bruce Springsteen — "My Hometown": A thinly veiled attack on the grim urban decline caused by Reaganomics. Probably. "They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks / Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back / To your hometown…"
17. Eric Clapton (and sundry others) - "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out": Originally written by Jimmy Cox in '23, and one of the great Depression era songs. And ain't it the truth, still. "In your pocket, not one penny / And as for friends, you don't have any…"
Simply Red: — "Money's Too Tight To Mention": That Hucknall fella, he's not just for romancin' yer lady. But the Valentines' original was better. "I been laid off from work / My rent is due / My kids all need / Brand new shoes…"
Bob Dylan — "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall": Written during the Cuban missile crisis, this has enough grim portent about it to soundtrack fiscal Armageddon too. As for the lyric? Well, let's hope it doesn't get to that stage, Bob. Oh, hang on, it already has. "I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children…"
Ry Cooder — "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?": Another of the great Depression era songs, originally recorded in 1929 by Blind Alfie Reed. Springsteen covered it recently, too. "When we get our grocery bill, we just feel like making our will / tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?"
23. Steely Dan — "Black Friday": Stock market problems, of course, aren't anything new. "Black Friday" invokes the 1869 gold crash. Leaving broke investors to wash up in Muswellbrook, Australia (pronounced wrongly, apparently, in the song), to feed kangaroos. "When Black Friday comes / I'll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor…"
Jimmy Witherspoon — "Money's Getting Cheaper": The blues shouter ponders dietary considerations in a financial crisis. "Well, politicians are telling folks / To cut out on their meat / Why can't they cut the price / And let the people eat?"
25. Tennessee Ernie Ford — "Sixteen Tons": Performed by everyone from Eric Burdon to Johnny Cash, and notable for invoking the 'company store' scam that was the bane of the industrialized working class. Author Merle Travis wrote it about his miner father. "You load sixteen tons an' what do you get? / Another day older, deeper in debt / St. Peter don't you call me cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the company store…"
Harry Chapin - "The Day They Closed The Factory Down": A nod both to outsourcing for cheap labour and industrial accidents with a $10 pay-off. "So they're talkin' of the changes the closing brings about / Talkin' of the hard times and the young folks moving out / Yes, they're talking as if talking can make everything all right…"
27. Rainmakers — "Government Cheese": While this song by Kansas's Rainmakers displays some similarities to "Welfare Cadillac" in disparaging the unemployed, the song was inspired by the real-life handout of dairy products to the poor during the Reagan era under the Temporary Emergency Food provisions. "Give a man free food and he'll figure out a way / To steal more than he can eat 'cause he doesn't have to pay / Give a woman free kids and you'll find them in the dirt / Learning how to carry on the family line of work…"
10cc — "Wall Street Shuffle": Replete with references to John Paul Getty, the Rothschilds and Howard Hughes, "Wall Street Shuffle" also acknowledges where a fall in the Dow might land you. "You've gotta be cool on Wall Street / When your index is low / Dow Jones ain't got time for the bums / They wind up on skid row with holes in their pockets…"
29. The Clash — "Lost In The Supermarket": Not specifically a recession song per se, but who isn't monitoring their shopping trolley these days? "I can no longer shop happily / I came in here for that special offer . . . I save coupons for packets of tea…" And the winner is…
Bing Crosby — "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?": Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney's Depression epic acknowledged the achievements of the working man from the railroads to heavy industry before being thrown on the scrapheap when judged surplus to requirements. A socialist, Harburg also wrote the lyrics for the film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz, using the opportunity to express support for Roosevelt's 'New Deal' reforms. "They used to tell me I was building a dream / And so I followed the mob when there was earth to plough / Or guns to bear / I was always there right on the job / They used to tell me I was building a dream / With peace and glory ahead/ Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?"
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