I 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,
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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