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Top 10 Songs About Unemployment

The U.S. Labor Department reported last week that unemployment has climbed to 8.9% — much higher if you include those who have given up looking for work. Pretty bleak numbers, and of course, numbers don’t tell the story.® selected ten songs tell it all — the frustration, the anger, the despair. These songs reach all the way from the Great Depression to the current crisis, from steel mills and auto assembly lines to coal mines and farms, and show in ways statistics never can that some things about job loss are timeless.

10. Unemployment J.J. Cale

Just the bare basics of unemployment in this song — beating the pavement, compromising on pay, settling for any kind of honest work. “You won’t have to pay me overtime…You just tell me what time and where at.” First loss: expectations.

9. Allentown Billy Joel 

Factories close, young people move on, towns dissolve. As Joel puts it, “Every child had a pretty good shot / To get at least as far as their old man got / But something happened on the way to that place.” Casualty of hard times: the American Dream.

8.  Johnny 99 Bruce Springsteen

If we haven’t seen an increase in crime yet, maybe it’s coming. Springsteen’s protaganist can’t find a job, loses his home to the bank and has “debts no honest man could pay.” End result: acts of desperation that lead to jail.

7. Cafe On The Corner Sawyer Brown

“Johnny 99″ that crime doesn’t pay, but for the farmer in this song, ”Neither does farmin’ these days.” The local cafe is now staffed by men who long for the fields. People who lose careers may find other work, but the habits and rhythms of a lifetime are gone for good. Price paid: sense of belonging and place.

6. Computer Took My Job Maurice John Vaughn

When 20 years on the job are no match for a computer and “your best just ain’t good enough,” self-worth is compromised. This classic blues song makes the point that the unemployed aren’t asking for a handout — they just need a job. Wanted: self-respect.

5. Shuttin’ Detroit Down John Rich

Rich’s recent release speaks to the class antagonisms that result when “DC’s bailing out the bankers as the farmers auction ground,” and bosses collect bonuses while assembly lines grind to a halt. Another cost of unemployment: political unrest.

4. Blue Collar Man (Long Nights) Styx

This powerful song expresses not just the urgency of the job seeker — “Make me an offer that I can’t refuse / Make me respectable, man” — but also the raw determination to get out of the unemployment line, whatever the odds. It’s too close to desperation to be a  song of hope, but it’s got the essential American ingredient: refusal to quit.

3. Fred Jones Part 2 Ben Folds

This timely song about losing a newspaper job crystalizes that moment when it all slips away: “Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper / A man’s here to take him downstairs / And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.” No party, no parting, just a box of belongings and an escort out of the building. The emotions of getting fired: shock and loss.

2. Brother, Can You Spare A Dime Bing Crosby

Perhaps the quintessential song of the Great Depression, these lyrics are the cry of a generation that raised skyscrapers, built railroads and won a World War, but found themselves left with breadlines and despair. “They used to tell me I was building a dream / With peace and glory ahead / Why should I be standing in line / Just waiting for bread?” It reminds us: this is how bad it could get.

1. Don’t Give Up Peter Gabriel

You may want to grab a hankie before listening to this heartbreaking duet by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, but that’s not why it’s our choice for the most important song about unemployment. Gabriel voices the despair of the man who has lost his place: “I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name / But no one wants you when you lose.” At each turn, Bush offers the comfort of love: “You’re not the only one…You still have us…We’re proud of who you are.” When the world is crumbling around you, family is the best and sometimes only refuge. And that’s the final characteristic of unemployment: what’s left is sometimes what matters most.


3 Comments so far

  1. Theosticles on May 12th, 2009

    Small misquote in ‘Allentown’ -
    The correct lyric is -
    “Every child HAD a pretty good shot”……..
    Not – “Every child HAS a pretty good shot”………..
    I know – it seems like nitpicking, but I think it changes the intention of Joel’s lyric from the past tense to the present.
    Just my two cents. Theo

  2. Lauren on May 12th, 2009

    Theo, you are absolutely right. That’s a transcryption error on my part. It may be just one letter, but I agree, it does change the intention. My apologies.

    Nitpick anytime — I appreciate the correction and have made the change in the text.

    Hope you liked the list other than that. It’s a selection from our newest category in the main database, Work: Out Of Work – unfortunately, all too timely.

  3. Enid on May 26th, 2009

    I really enjoyed this selection of songs, and your descriptions of them. These gems enrich the American Songbook – thank you for reminding me of them.

    Especially appreciate your emphasis on hope and determination…

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