Blue Collar Blues: Music And Class In The 60’s

It’s the weekend! And we’re proud to once again welcome  back our very special guest blogger John Walker Ross,  founder and curator of our favorite music blog The Round Place In The Middle. John joins us here every month and shares his always unique and curiously informative observations about MUSIC, LIFE and THE WORLD! And this month’s installation may be his best!

Please, sit back, take a moment and thoroughly enjoy John’s take on “Blue Collar Blues: Music and Class in the 1960’s”.

And Now, Here’s Johnny!  

Rock and roll spent its first decade-plus (starting with Fats Domino and 1950 to just to be clear) rising from the bottom. A scary blend of everything that the arbiters of Good Taste just didn’t understand, all coming together at once: African-American soul, hillbilly attitude and the beating heart of the previously overlooked urban laborers, forged an alliance that slipped the boundaries set by the guardians of entertainment with their clipped mid-Atlantic accents.

It’s an oft-told narrative, and for once, not far from the truth. Rock’s blue collar roots ran deep. Check blues, check country, check even the romantic fantasies of Tin Pan Alley, mostly dreamed up by Jewish immigrants and like-as-not crooned by their Italian neighbors, and you’ll find the laments of people who, if they didn’t make it big in music, movies or sports, were destined to do most of the work, see little of the money, and (like as not) die broke.

That sensibility often seemed to fade from the narrative as the halcyon 60’s progressed from folk hero (Dylan) to the British Invasion (Beatles and Stones) and then to the San Francisco Sound (Airplane and Dead) and beyond. The Beatles didn’t exactly play up their working class Liverpool roots. It’s true that Keith Richards’ father was a WWII vet and factory worker, yet Mick Jagger’s parents were both solid middle-class conservative teachers. Most of the other emerging bands similarly had their roots in the suburbs, college campuses and trendy downtown neighborhoods.

And yet, the Blue Collar Blues didn’t go away. Those who were bound to express them simply began wearing new uniform, emitting new sounds and finding new causes to trumpet. Although it might feel in retrospect that as the smoke cleared of the mid-70’s and the ideals of the 60’s either became Official Policy or faded with the sunset (hard to say which is more regretful) the new boss hurtling towards them (which the Reagan Administration and the ‘Greed is Good’ era embodied) seemed the same as the old boss, it was not the case. Nearly two decades of generation defining music, from the late 50’s to the early 70’s had stamped a permanent mark on the soul of the young Baby Boomers.

Not every song from the 60’s equally contributed to the rhythms of creative defiance. It is worth exploring a few that were especially defining.

“Big Boss Man”
Jimmy Reed (1960)
Pop #78, R&B #13

Did it ever get more basic than this? Jimmy Reed took the pretensions of earnest folk music and tossed them out the window. This really did sound like it had been handed down for hundreds of years and preserved as a secret language. But underneath the rough exterior, Reed was as polished a talent as Pete Seeger. From the standpoint of this little survey, he cast a spell as visionary as any the decade had to offer. That there was once room for this in the Hot 100 is as mind-blowing as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo and testimony to how big Rock and Roll America once was. Reed’s record was a ghost in the 60’s Pop Machine. It inspired a decade’s worth of superb covers (Elvis, Charlie Rich and a surprise to be named later) and a line of similar-themed records that peaked with Roy Oribison’s “Workin’ for the Man” and Joe South’s “Down in the Boondocks,” a big hit for Billy Joe Royal, best heard in South’s own version which sounds like it was dug from the same crumbling earth as Reed’s original.

“Hully Gully Callin’ Time”
The Jive Five (1962)
Pop #105 (Bubbling Under)

The Five’s Eugene Pitt was one of the era’s great lost voices. His group’s two big hits (“My True Story” and “What Time Is It?,” both fabulous) barely hinted at his gifts. Dance numbers had a strange and interesting history in the early 60’s, sometimes stomping all over class lines, sometimes defining them. The Olympics’ “Hully Gully” began with the line “There’s a dance spreadin’ ’round like an awful disease.” That was hardly going to play with the Manhattan social set the way “The Twist” did the year this sequel was released. When it comes to secret languages, its hard to beat this, which, of course, has no specific reference to Capitalist economics, Marxist theory, or any other socio-economic issue. But when Pitt reaches the moody arrangement’s crescendo (already spectacularly doleful for a dance number) and calls out “Do the Frank Sinatra,” it resonates both as the unlikeliest source of 60’s soul and a simultaneous call to the barricades.

The Beatles (1963)
Not released as a single (Best heard on The Beatles Second Album)

At which point you might need a scream of release and how would you beat this? John might have preferred to sing about an imaginary world of no possessions as he got older, but he was never quite as convincing as he was here, on a rare instance where the Beatles actually sounded like they had sprung from dingy Liverpool caverns where the Brit hoi-polloi dared not tread.

“Soldier Boy”
The Shirelles (1962)
Pop #1, R&B #3

Long before Soulja Boy, there was the far more divine Shirelles. A chart-topping smash, devoted to the reality of the draft and the girls left behind. Plenty of middle-class and other suburban kids could relate. But I think everybody knew in which neighborhoods the Solider Boy was likeliest to receive that letter that began “Greetings.” (Best answer record: “Toy Soldier” by the 4 Seasons, from whom we will hear more shortly. Best follow-up: the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand”))

“Dawn (Go Away)”
The 4 Seasons (1964)
Pop #3

The 4 Seasons were the era’s poets of working class angst and glory. Their principle lyricists, Bob Guadio and others, built scenarios for Frankie Valli’s spectacular tenor that etched the basic divide in expectations and discontent between the wage-earning class and its betters in acid. Big hits like “Rag Doll,” “Big Man in Town,” “Let’s Hang On” “Workin’ My Way Back to You” rolled in and out of deep cuts like “Beggar’s Parade” to create a milieu as intimate and arresting as any provided by the era’s “serious” artists. But the pinnacle was here, on a record that would have been the group’s fourth #1 in eighteen months (built on a decade’s worth of sweating it out in mob-infested Jersey night clubs) had it not been for the arrival of the Beatles. Angst and glory? Try immersing yourself in the interplay between the pouring rain of the poor boy telling the rich girl to “go away I’m no good for you” and Buddy Salzman’s thunder-and-lightning drums, to which I once upon a time broke more rulers than a poor boy could afford. (Best prequel: Dion’s “Donna the Prima Donna” about a girl who wishes she had Dawn’s problem!)

“Five O’clock World”
The Vogues (1965)
Pop #4

A great combination of Tin Pan Alley dreamworks and factory floor realism, recounting an endless cycle of backbreaking work and the illusion that an escape is waiting at the end of the day. After which, the cycle will begin again. Because the Vogues and rock and roll were young, the uplift in the stomping arrangement is real. Because they were from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a town then built around one of George Westinghouse’s factories, and several of them had already been “soldier boys,” the hint of melancholy is just as real.

“Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)”
Del Shannon (1965)
Pop #9

Del Shannon’s mighty voice had one message and one message only: This doesn’t happen to rich people.

“It’s My Life” (1965)
The Animals
Pop #23

Eric Burdon sounded angry from the beginning. Here, he speaks in working class tongues. Once you decipher the lyric, it’s the definitive version of the gonna-get-rich-for-revenge motif.

“Poor Side of Town”
Johnny Rivers (1966)
Pop #1

An answer record to both “It’s My Life” and “Dawn” and a natural #1. Fatalistic as a Calvinist tract, but with a melody you could hum all day long.

“Branded Man”
Merle Haggard and the Strangers (1967)
Country #1

This list and a few more besides could consist entirely of Hag’s working man anthems. The twist in this one is its oblique link between the factory system (never mentioned) and the prison system (which is almost, not quite, right there in the title). However long it is from the bottom of the ladder to the top, it gets longer once you’ve been in jail.

“Ode to Billie Joe”
Bobbie Gentry (1967)
Pop #1, Country #17, R&B #8

Bobbie Gentry’s master class in Southern Gothic works on such a multitude of levels it’s easy to miss the definitive portrait of a sharecropper’s existence that provides the framework. Gentry was long gone from the Mississippi Delta when she cut this in Los Angeles in 1967. But she remembered every small detail (including the time of year for chopping cotton). That background of the community where Emmett Till’s body had been found a decade earlier doesn’t just provide a physical and psychic space for the tragedy-rooted-in-mystery of Billie Joe McAllister’s demise. It suggests that neither tragedy nor mystery could have happened anywhere else. After the 1950’s, I’ve found no evidence of any record scoring so high on the Pop, Country and R&B charts at once. If that’s true, one need not wonder why.

“Stand By Your Man”
Tammy Wynette (1968)
Pop #19, Country #1

Tammy, married five times, was once asked if she could really have meant this. “I didn’t sing it for me,” she said. “I sang it for all the women working in shirt factories who didn’t have my choices.” There’s nothing I can add to that.

“Let’s Work Together”
Wilbert Harrison (1969)
Pop #32

Was it inevitable that someone would marry the age’s Utopian visions to a blue collar blues? Make paradise sound like it could only be achieved the old-fashioned way, by the sweat of the brow? Nah, not inevitable. But it wouldn’t have been as perfect any other time.

“Fortunate Son”
Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
Pop #14 (later #3 as the B-side of “Down on the Corner”)

In the age of the Angry Young Man, the angriest young man of them all, John Fogerty, came across as an Old Testament Prophet. He was never angrier than here, where, as vocalist, lyricist, melodist and bandleader, he married all his themes into a single blast of rage at what used to be called the military-industrial complex. If he had known how much more it would eventually include than industry and the military he might have burst into flame on the spot. It still sounds like he might at any minute.

“Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs”
Charlie Rich (1969)
Country #41

“The new house plans we’ve had so long, I guess will gather dust another year.” Here, fatalism reaches a pinnacle from which it cannot retreat. The song was written by Rich’s wife, Margaret Ann, who hung with him through the hard times in real life just like in the song, which inspired her husband’s finest vocal outside of “I Feel Like Going Home,” which took fatalism to its logical extreme. What it’s like to be stuck, married or not. The couple in the song stayed married forever. Back in the real world, Rich found his dream of massive success in the decade to come and it turned out prosperity was the one thing his marriage could not withstand.

“Big Boss Man”
Nancy Sinatra (1969)
Not Released as a Single. (Best heard on her magnum-opus-of-torch LP, 1969’s Nancy)

The infamous twist on a cover of Jimmy Reed (see above). The darling child of Hollywood, Nancy starts out with a striking variation on the central theme. Call it working girl uses sex to tease the Boss. Then, in the middle, she takes a turn, shifts the lyric and the tone. “I’ve gotta get myself a Boss Man” she sings and suddenly, the girl who was waiting at home for a million working stiffs, the one standing by her man, is in it for herself, wants it all, and sounds like she’s found a way to get it. The unkindest cut of all? Or just reality asserting itself from another of its insidious angles?

Wouldn’t we all like to know.


  1. W O W Bravo, John! You most certainly touched all the bases with this piece. Great research allowing me the opportunity to string together some music history in a way that I hadn’t previously considered.
    I appreciate the time and effort put into your work. The clips provided (some of which I’ve never seen) are an added bonus. Thank you.

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