by Sheldon Birnie
Well, friends, it’s no secret that life on the Hillbilly Highway can be a hard hustle, at best. Satisfying, sure, but this ain’t no cake walk.
Since god knows when, folks have been singing songs about their hard luck and their lots in life. All the way back to the beginnings of the ol’ Folkways Anthology tunes and beyond, folks have been lamenting their long hours, little pay, and mistreatment at the hands of landowners and authority figures. That proud tradition continues, unabated, into the present day.
Why is that? Well, because one constant of life lived earning your own dollar is that hardships abound, and will continue to abound in perpetuity. It is a common denominator if ever there was one. While some of their rhetoric might be heavy handed, the Occupy Movement’s 99 Percenter identity is one that has existed since Biblical times, if not long before that. There have always been folks at the top screwing folks below them, all the way down to the lowliest of positions in life.
And so we’ve got thousands and thousands of working songs out here on the Highway, where singers and pickers draw inspiration from their own lives slaving over the dollar before they got their breaks. Among the dozens and dozens of classics, perhaps Merle Travis’ “16 Tons,” made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, is the best example of how complex economic relationships of exploitation can be explained in a few simple lines. (For a contemporary, local example, check out G-Mac’s “Company Store.”)
Despite the brutal existence of the working man in a capitalist society, most out on the Highway stop short of calling for outright class war. Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man’s Blues” is perhaps the best example of a tune that explores the struggles of the working man, while still buying into the American ethos of “hard work = success.” Personally, while fond of Haggard’s original, I find Dylan’s exploration of the same topic in 2006’s “Workingman’s Blues II” a deeper, more sympathetic portrait of a proud life at the bottom of the economic machine.
And hell, we’re only scratching the surface here, friends. Fred Eaglesmith — perhaps Canada’s hardest working Highway rider, if not North America’s — has a ton of them himself, depicting the struggles of the farmer, the migrant worker, the waitress, the truck driver, the preacher, hell, just about any old job you could find cruising the blacktop.
While it can be tough to swallow a “hard work song” from some of these Nashville superstars these days — which, if you listen close enough, are often celebrations of middle-class values as opposed to working-class values — there is no doubt that getting to the top of that dung-heap took some long hours and a bucket or two of sweat. Or maybe just a ton of cash and the right connections. In the end, life on the Highway comes down to the same principals as life anywhere else; it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves, and the devil take the hindmost. Good luck out there, friends. We can all use it.