Saturday, September 21, 2013

A working class hero is something to be just turned 64, and so it was natural, I suppose, that several people (beginning with my sister) sang to me or quoted the Paul McCartney song (credited to Lennon-McCartney) “When I'm 64”. It was recorded in 1967 when McCartney, now 71, was 25 (his father had just turned 64 the year before, perhaps when he wrote it). It's a light, fun song with a good melody, discussing a seemingly far-off future centered around a stable and loving relationship, with children and “grandchildren on my knee”. So I found myself walking around singing it and was struck by the lines “every summer we could rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight (if it's not too dear); we will scrimp and save...”. Although he had already achieved a lot of success and money, McCartney's positive vision of a far-off future was a decidedly working-class one, natural based on his background. And it's good, and right, and much more likely to be something his fans could hope for than images of wealth and luxury such as the older Sir Paul was able to enjoy. It spoke to and speaks to the people.

All the Beatles came from working-class backgrounds, and far from being ashamed of it, were proud of where they had come from, who their fan base was, and, while enjoying their wealth (and often using it to support good causes) never portrayed themselves as better than the people they had come from. This is expressed most explicitly in John Lennon's anthem “A working-class hero is something to be”. While the concept of “class” is a consciously more English than American one, consistent with their history of aristocracy (we talk more of “socioeconomic status”) the reality is that today class (measured as the probability that someone will stay in the same socioeconomic group as their parents) is more entrenched in the US than it is in Britain. Still, Britain has a Labor (“Labour”) Party, consciously acknowledging the working-class. It has a powerful legacy; in the late 1940s, it led to the creation of the National Health Service, guaranteeing access to medical care for all its people, while the US labor movement sought to use bargaining for health insurance through union contracts as a way to enhance itself. This was fine when most Americans were in unions, or even employed in jobs with health insurance, but has created some problems since. Many other British singers have advocated even more assertive working-class values, most notably Billy Bragg, but also Dire Straits and many others.

This is not to say that there is an absence of such working-class consciousness among US performers. Clearly, the exemplar is Bruce Springsteen who, 3 days younger than me, also is just turning 64. His songs do not general espouse an overtly political message but rather tell the stories of people like those he grew up with, who work in factories, get laid off, get pregnant young, get divorced, have drinking problems, have fun in lots of ways, and mostly are defined by an economic uncertainty about the present and the future. Whether a vacation in a cottage on the the Isle of Wight (or its US equivalent) is what they look forward to – perhaps it is a bass boat at the lake – but their visions of retirement are generally not Palm Beach or skiing at Gstaad.

Springsteen is of course not the only US rock musician to consciously sing of working-class roots, but other American musical traditions. American folk music, whether of English/Scottish/Irish roots though the Appalachians, or African roots through slavery and the African-American experience, or the more recent Spanish language (but of many cultures), or all of the many ethnic and language groups that make up this country, has always told the story of the people, and the people have always been mostly workers. The descendants of these traditions are still vibrant not just in the small bin labeled “folk music” (with Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs, and others), but “rhythm and blues” and “country music”, all of which tap into the experiences of regular people for their strength and their identity. The blues are certainly about poor and working people, and so is most of country music. Sometimes folks like Billy Bragg record songs that are explicitly political (“The Internationale” or “The Worker's Flag”), or tributes like “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night”, based on an earlier paean by Alfred Hayes to a working-class hero, Joe Hill, who didn't get rich but was, rather, hanged for his songs about workers. But, mostly, these songs are about people who work hard and, if they're lucky, are just making it.

In a recent article in Salon, “Millenials hate Bruce Springsteen”, EJ Dickson tries to show them why they are wrong. This is not my focus, but rather it is on some of the comments on the article (and I recognize that finding moronic comments on almost anything posted on-line is easy pickings!) which suggested that Bruce “pretends” to sing about workers, but was a phony because he had “made millions”. Sure he has, but he hasn't forgotten where he comes from hasn't stopped thinking about them and their lives, and that is a good thing. What would be a bad thing would be for him to have changed his loyalty to defend the folks of his newly-acquired social class. As some have. Frank Sinatra, a working class kid from Hoboken, was a New-Dealer, who sang (and made a film of) the progressive patriotic “The House I Live In” and opposed HUAC, but later became a Reagan Republican. Even Sir Paul no longer writes about workers. It is OK to be a class traitor like FDR, to defend regular folks from those who run everything and need no defending, but not the other way around.

As John Lennon wrote, “A working-class hero is something to be”!

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