(Warning–this is a long post, so get yourself something to drink, sit down and enjoy!)
Labor Day is one of those holidays that has lost some of its original meaning. Originally established to honor those who labor, it had strong ties to the union movement in this country. I would venture to say that unions are controversial these days. Some see them as an important factor in establishing decent working conditions, benefits and pay for workers. Others blame them for closing businesses and industries with their demands and contracts. In any case, the holiday has become a transition from summer to fall, from vacation to school, marked by picnics and special sales.For my part, I’d like to add a word or two in praise of those who labored to build this country and who work to keep it going today.
Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, my favorite singer/songwriter (much to the chagrin of my daughters, who consider him hopelessly old school) has had a remarkable career. He began singing publically as a child, and moved into the folk/songwriter area around 1960. Marty Robbins’ hit “Ribbon of Darkness” is a Lightfoot tune. Lightfoot broke into a wider audience when Ian and Sylvia recorded his “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me.” Peter, Paul and Mary later covered both songs. I first became aware of him around 1965 when he released his first solo album, “Lightfoot!” and have followed his career since then. He is still performing 62 concerts a year all over North America. His voice isn’t what it used to be, but he has one of the tightest bands around, with some members 30 year veterans. The band lost extraordinary guitar player Terry Clements to a stroke a few months back.
Some of Lightfoot’s more popular songs were “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970– to my way of thinking the best pop song every written about failed love), “Sundown” (1973), and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976–an over six minute recording about the loss of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in a Lake Superior storm in November, 1975. It had considerable radio airplay in spite of its length and subject matter). His catalog includes over 237 recorded songs. Not too shabby.
Early in his career, Lightfoot celebrated workers who built Canada, and workers in general. He wrote about go-go dancers (“Go-Go Round”), truck drivers (“Long Thin Dawn,”), textile mill workers (“Cotton Jenny”), laborers (“Early Morning Rain” and “Steel Rail Blues”), bush pilots (“Flying Blind”), singers (“Hangdog Hotel Room”), miners (“Boss Man” and “Mother of a Miner’s Child,”), and numerous songs about ships and sailors (“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Triangle,” “Ghosts of Cape Horn,” “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” “Marie Christine”).
In two songs, Lightfoot sings specifically about the contribution of workers to building up the country. “Crossroads” is first-person account of a young man who worked all kinds of jobs.
All up and down this country at labor I did toil
I slumbered in the moonlight and I rose with the sun
I rambled through the canyons where the cold rivers run…
And I worked the Quebec mines
And on the golden prairie I rode the big combines
I sailed the maritime waters of many a seaport town
Built the highways and the byways to the western salmon grounds…
When the wild majestic mountains
Stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
As to this verdant country they came from all around
They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
And they built the mines, the mills and the factories for the good of us all
The railroad men grew restless for to hear the hammers ring
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day
And many a fortune lost and won and many a debt to pay
They saw an iron road running from the sea to the sea
Bringing the goods to a young growing land
All up from the seaports and into their hands
From the eastern shore to the western strand
We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails
Open her heart let the life blood flow
Gotta get on our way ’cause we’re moving too slow
Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun
Living on stew and drinking bad whiskey
Bending our backs til the long days are done
Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun
Laying down track and building the bridges
Bending our backs til the railroad is done
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have) opened up the soil
With our teardrops and our toil
2 responses to “A Salute to Laborers on Labor Day”
Amen to all those sentiments. (Except for The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald..I absolutely DETEST that song..) Perhaps it's because I have plumbers and roofers and farmers and railroad workers, etc. in my more or less immediate family, but I couldn't agree more.
Thanks,Mary. My background is working class as well. BTW "Wreck" was named worst pop song ever by Dave Barry.