Americans have been observing Labor Day since 1894, through cycles of economic good times and bad times. Whatever the economic climate, though, almost everyone looks forward to the holiday — and the three-day weekend that comes with it.
To aid in the festivities, here are five songs by great blues and R&B artists on the subject of work: how hard it can be, and how delightful it can be to shirk it every once in a while. (Like on Labor Day, for example.)
Labor Day Blues And Grooves
Working in the Coal Mine
Working in the Coal Mine
from New Lee Dorsey [Bonus Tracks]
by Lee Dorsey
"Working in the Coal Mine" was written by the great New Orleans pianist, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint. He selected another New Orleans native, Lee Dorsey, to record the song, and when it came out in 1966, it reached No. 8 on the Billboard charts. As is the case with most of the Toussaint/Dorsey material, this song in aided in no small part by the great groove laid down by members of The Meters, who accompanied Dorsey on many of his recordings. In fact, this could be one of the greatest grooves ever recorded — by Dorsey, The Meters or anyone else.
"I'll Do Anything but Work" goes back to the early days of Ray Charles' remarkable, groundbreaking career. In 1948, Charles began his recording career on Jack Lauderdale's Swingtime label. The songs he recorded for Lauderdale between '48 and '51 (before he signed with Atlantic Records and took off like a rocket) show the strong influence Nat King Cole had on Charles' early work. In fact, the influence is so strong on this cut that if you didn't know it was Ray Charles, you might guess it was Cole. Still, derivative as it is, the song is good fun, and it's evident that the young Charles was in great spirits when he recorded it.
St. Louis Jimmy Oden's name doesn't come up much these days when people talk about great blues artists, but it certainly should. During his 40 years on the Chicago blues scene, he performed steadily, recorded a fine body of work and wrote many songs, at least one of which is a blues classic: "Goin' Down Slow," made famous in 1961 by Howlin' Wolf. "Hard Work Boogie" is another of Oden's compositions, recorded in the early 1950s and featuring his longtime friend and collaborator, Roosevelt Sykes, on piano. (Oh, and don't let his name fool you; St. Louis Jimmy was born in Nashville.)
The influence of Texas blues guitarist/singer Aaron "T-Bone" Walker on American music is incalculable. He was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar, and was acknowledged as an influence by guitarists from Chuck Berry and B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix and beyond. By the time Walker began working with Imperial Records, he'd already recorded much of the material for which he's now remembered (including "Stormy Monday," "T-Bone Shuffle" and "Mean Old World"), but he was still creating great music. "Too Lazy (To Work and Too Nervous to Steal)" is a fine example of a master musician just having a good time. If you're a fan of the sort of Texas blues guitar that reached its apex with Stevie Ray Vaughan, you have to give Walker a listen. This is where it all started.
Unlike the other artists on this list, who have all crossed over to that great Juke Joint in the Sky, Fruteland Jackson is still very much among the living. Born in 1953, Jackson dabbled in music all his life, but didn't get serious about it until the mid-1980s. He released his first CD in 1999, at age 46. Since then, he's become a self-proclaimed "blues activist," performing all over the world and conducting Blues in the Schools programs. "Blues 2.0" is a powerful, relevant and sometimes humorous updating of the early blues "field-hollers," songs sung by Southern slaves to accompany their work. When Jackson made this recording in 2003, it was obvious that there was a new voice in the blues — and that it intended to stick around for a while.