Whistle While You Workby Kimon de Greef / 01.05.2013
Although it happened more than 125 years ago on a distant continent, the Haymarket Affair — later commemorated as International Workers’ Day — shares bizarre and unsettling parallels with South Africa’s very recent past. On the evening of the 4th of May 1886, over a thousand protesting workers gathered in a Chicago public square to support a nationwide strike in favour of shortened 8-hour days.
The rally began peacefully and the city Mayor even went home early: nothing tremendously exciting was going on. But then an incendiary speaker took the stage, the crowd began to prickle, and the cops moved in with orders to cease and disperse.
Panic and mayhem set in. A handmade bomb with a metal case and a dynamite core was flung. One policeman was killed instantly and a further six died of their injuries later. Then gunshots started and the protestors fled through the dark as the bullets of the law rained upon them. Five minutes later the square was empty, with only the dead and wounded remaining.
It is still not known how many protestors died or suffered injuries. Many avoided medical attention, fearing reprisal or arrest. Describing the aftermath as “wild carnage”, the Chicago Herald estimated that at least 50 had fallen.
South Africa has 12 official public holidays and shares May Day (which falls on the 1st of the month, not the 4th) with more than 80 other countries around the world. The guns and homemade weapons are more powerful today, and the faces of all the major industries have changed. But Labour Day is as relevant as ever before, and you don’t need to be a left-wing activist to appreciate its historical significance. Here are ten exceptional songs about work and working to mark the occasion.
Bob Marley – Rat Race
Robert Nesta Marley doesn’t need an introduction. This recording comes off his classic live album Babylon By Bus. The vocal harmonies from backing trio the I-Threes — one of whom was Rita, his wife — are sublime and ride the groove just right.
“Don’t forget your history/ know your destiny / in the abundance of water the fool is thirsty.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Inglan Is A Bitch
Dub poet LKJ gave a powerful voice to England’s embattled immigrant community during the Thatcher era. Watching him perform live—he continues to tour at the age of 60—is a fascinating experience: his lyrics bristle with anger but he barely moves as he delivers them, standing erect in a dapper suit and hat like a delegate addressing the League of Nations. This track became an anthem for thousands of South African expats living in London during apartheid.
“Dem seh dat black man is very lazy / but if y’u si how mi wok y’u woulda sey mi crazy.”
Lee Perry – Justice For The People
Dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry was a lunatic genius who gave birth to modern remix culture by transmuting straightforward reggae rhythms — played by legendary studio band The Upsetters — into whirling swamps of reverb and hypnosis. Here an angry Mr. Scratch rails against oppression, poverty and the cost of living, invoking divine justice over distorted crowd noises and a meditative bass groove.
“They got us like a yo-yo, wheelin’ on a swing / they got us like a puppet, swingin’ on a string … ”
Misty In Roots – Food, Clothes and Shelter
A lot of roots reggae revolves around themes of poverty and dispossession, and this cut from 1980s British icons Misty In Roots is no exception. The simplicity of the message is underpinned by a bare dub bassline. This song can make you travel: one minute you hit play, next minute it’s done, and you don’t know where you went in between.
“Food, clothes and shelter / all the poor man asking for.”
Dub Kweli – Garvey Gets By
Talib Kweli’s classic rap meets reggae hero Burning Spear’s distinctive wail in this on-point mashup by beat connoisseur Max Tannone. I enjoy this version more than I do both originals, which is rare in this era of instant and frequently dubious blends.
“Work ’til we break our back and you hear the crack of the bone.”
Burning Spear – Social Living
Here is Burning Spear again, free of any intergenerational hip hop flavours, lecturing on the benefits of social living to a heavy dub soundtrack. Early communes were built on strong socialist and communist ideals and proposed an alternative model to the individualistic every-man-for-himself rat race of Western capitalism. But if you’ve ever lived in a student house you’ll know that social living also takes hard work.
“Takes behaviour … to get along.”
Nina Simone – Work Song
Nina Simone’s got a spooky voice. Sometimes it sounds like she’s singing two separate vocal lines, one pitched low and one high, at exactly the same time. ‘Work song’ is also two things at once: a happy, jazzed-up slab of big band swing and pure blues tale of hard labour in a Southern prison gang. (Did you know her real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon?)
“Been workin’ and workin’ / but I still got so terribly far to go.”
Curtis Mayfield – Pusherman
There are many ways to make money. Criminals are businessmen too. Smugglers, hustlers, poachers and pimps have to budget and strategize just like everybody else if they want to rise above the ranks of small-time crooks and become individuals of power and influence. So here is Curtis Mayfield with his delicate whip of a voice paying tribute to an economy that runs just out of sight but is everywhere, all the time. You don’t need to be a buyer to believe him. He is your pusherman.
“Solid life of crime / a man of odd circumstance / a victim of ghetto demands / feed me money for style.”
Leon Huff – Tight Money
So much fine funk is premised on vocals that should come across as cheesy and inane but manage to sound transcendental instead (as examples: “get up on the down stroke”, “stay on the scene like a sex machine” and “play that funky music white boy”). But as long as the bassline swings like it does here and the electric keys stab like flaming arrows straight from The Archangel James Brown’s purple crossbow… who gives a damn if they’re being fed a steady stream of clichés?
“Tight money / money’s tight / people goin’ crazy / it ain’t right.”
John Lennon – Working Class Hero
John Lennon wrote some of the most honest and relevant lyrics of all time but it can be easy to overlook his genius because he was in the Beatles, whom people tend to take for granted. Every single line of this anti-establishment lament drips with venom. It is bitter, cynical and true.
“They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool / til you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules.”
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