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Quick Quotes from Songs About the Work Force

October 22, 1999
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Some memorable excerpts from 150 years of music about the world of work:

"I've Been Working on the Railroad"
Author Unknown
Date Unknown

"I've been working on the railroad
All the livelong day
I've been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away ..."

—The author and the origins of the song are unknown. Some trace it back to a "Louisiana Levee" song of African-Americans; others believe it is from Irish work gangs in the West. The verses about "someone's in the kitchen with Dinah" and "Dinah blow your horn" came later. Dinah may refer to a woman or a locomotive.

"Paddy Works on the Erie"
Author Unknown
Mid 1800s

"In eighteen hundred and forty-six
The gang pelted me with stones and brick.
Oh I was in a hell of a fix
While working on the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and forty-seven,
Sweet Biddy Magee, she went to heaven,
If she left one child, she left eleven,
To work upon the railway ..."

—The song talks about the immigrant experience working in America. The lyrics vary.

"Take Me Out to The Ballgame"
Jack Norworth & Albert Von Tilzer
1908

"Nelly Kelly loved baseball games
Knew the players, knew all their names
You could see her there every day
Shout "Hurray" when they'd play.

Her boyfriend by the name of Joe
Said to Coney Isle, dear, let's go,
Then Nelly started to fret and pout,
And to him I heard her shout:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd..."

—For all the songs about work, few things have resulted in more missed work than baseball, particularly the hoards of kids that play hooky with their parents on Opening Day. Ironically, the authors—though big fans—didn't attend their first game until decades after they wrote the song.

"Pick Yourself Up"
Music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields
1936

"Work like a soul inspired
Till the battle of the day is won
You may be sick and tired,
But you'll be a man, my son!"

—The uplifting song is from the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie Swingtime, and the song was performed at Ginger's workplace.

"Rosie the Riveter"
Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb
1942

"She's making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter ...

Charlie, he's a Marine.
Rosie is protecting Charlie,
Working overtime on the riveting machine ...
There's something true about,
Red, white, and blue about,
Rosie the Riveter."

—Rosie's image and the song were used to encourage women to take over jobs men were doing before the war.

"The Boxer"
Simon & Garfunkel
1968

"When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy ...
Asking only workman's wages I come looking for a job
But I get no offers ...

... In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him 'till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving

But the fighter still remains."

The boxer found a job, and Simon's didn't go too badly either. He sung this tune in Central Park on September 19, 1981, with an almost unbelievable 500,000 people joining in.

"Blue Collar Man"
Styx
1978

"Give me a job, give me security
Give me a chance to survive
I'm just a poor soul in the unemployment line
My God I'm hardly alive ..."

—Styx wrote this song amidst the high inflation and high unemployment of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It marked the beginning of a string of multi-platinum albums and sold-out concerts around the world. From the album "Pieces of Eight."

"Nine to Five"
Dolly Parton
1981

"They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter
You're just a step on the boss man's ladder
But you've got dreams
He'll never take away.

You're in the same boat with a lot of your friends
Waiting for the day your ship will come in
And the tide's gonna turn
And it's gonna row you away ..."

—Dolly must have been working a bit more than nine to five. She joined Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman in the hit movie of the same title, and her song was #1 in America in February 1981.

"Allentown"
Billy Joel
1982

"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
Chromium steel ..."

Joel had so many great lines from so many great work/life songs, including "Piano Man," which features a novelist, a waitress, a sailor, a businessman, and others. Unfortunately, some have criticized Joel for writing about work he's never fully experienced, including "Goodnight Saigon" about Vietnam, and "The Downeaster Alexa," about struggling fishermen.

"Ants Marching"
Dave Matthews Band
1994

"Driving along on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged, no time to exchange ..."

—An anthem about the frantic and impersonal work life of the 1990s, from the album "Under the Table and Dreaming" which numerous critics have cited as one of the best of the 1990s.

Add Your Own Favorites

SOURCES:
"I've Been Working," Bill Basham, Popular Songs in American History.
"Paddy" John Renfro Davis, Popular Songs in American History.
"Rosie" suggested by Kelly Dunn, Workforce, and by http://www.bigband.com.
"Pick Yourself Up," information from http://www.jitterbuzz.com
"Allentown" suggested by Nancy Wong, Workforce.

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