On Snowden, Poverty, and Working Class Songs

I just got back from Pennsylvania, and then I went to see Billy Joel the other night, so this song is a relevant one these days.

Musicians of all stripes have long been interested in the working class. You hear it in rock:

And folk, and country:

It’s nothing new, and the theme is often linked to a songwriter’s own experience. Maybe he or she grew up poor, or later suffered through the poverty of part-time jobs that supplemented poorly paying artistic work. As such, artists are given wide berth to speak to the working class, because most listeners assume these tales are told authentically. It doesn’t matter if the singer now lives in luxury, with gleaming tour buses and a cache of assistants at the ready, because they still remember that existence.

What happens, though, when a working class life becomes the norm for pretty much everyone?

Anybody who’s gone through university and come out jobless in the last decade straddles a line between a sort of upper class intellectual capital and lower class material wealth. They also straddle the line between what is now being branded as a sense of entitlement and a reasonable expectation that if you get training in a certain field and work your way up, that you should be able to live above the poverty line. In other words, if you got to go to school, shut up, because you chose to be a smarty pants and lay around philosophizing for four (or six, or eight) years, and now you’re paying the price.

But it is a reasonable expectation, no? Maybe Billy Joel says it best:

“Well, we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all ...
... 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
They threw an American flag in our face”

Instead, most post-college graduates are now thinking this:

Where the “company store” is the bully of a student loan lender.

I’ve had a lot of jobs that paid at about the poverty line, as a way of keeping myself alive through, and after, graduate school:

-Sweater folder at a women’s apparel shop
-Cat sitter (to the tune of $2/hr. after paying subway fare)
-Music assistant at a campus radio station
-Waitress (where I once dumped a tray of cokes on a woman’s lap)
-Gourmet takeout food server
-Dirty floor mat roller upper at a grocery store
-Secretary at a beer warehouse
-Bookstore shelf stocker
-Intern at a high-circulation home decor magazine
-Some sort of financial transaction data enterer (I don’t really know, because this job was on London time, so I worked from 4 am to 12 pm and spent most of it wacked out)

...you get the idea. Some of these jobs I ran to after teaching a university class, morphing from barely-getting-by professor to cat sitter, or some such transition that kept me in my rightful place – ever-thankful, never critical.

Indeed what is “one’s place” these days? The more we find out about government spying, and google tracking our whereabouts, buying habits, facebook friend stalking, and library catalogue searches, the less likely we are to want to do anything online. One plans a brief trip down to Pennsylvania to talk about coal mining, and suddenly one worries that recent tweets or searches for “Pete Seeger McCarthy Hearing Transcript” will be thrown in one’s face at the border. It doesn’t help that the government can’t even get itself together enough to not accuse its various branches of spying on each other. Who are we to trust?

Yet here we sit in a world where freedom of expression is encouraged by the very thing that is being used against us to track such expression. That’s compounded by the glut of college graduates and post-graduates steeled against the world with piles of education and media savvy, and a total reluctance to employ the tool that may have been invented for the very purpose of big brothering us. So instead of fighting fire with fire, by broadcasting their thoughts for changing the world, and fighting for social justice through blog posts and interactive discussion, this new highly educated generation is flattening their online identities into a one-dimensional series of cat videos, food pictures, and upworthy articles. For to speak out before one is stably employed would be economic death. To speak out while one is stably employed, well, you might as well volunteer for the next round of layoffs. This way, the quick Google searches conducted by potential employers is met with stock photos in place of real profile pictures, carefully edited facebook posts, and cautious re-tweets.

What does this do, in the end, to our artistic expression? Aside from becoming one more thing we must work on in the endless crossing off of the to-do list, it makes us scared of speaking out in our chosen expressive form. We measure the necessity of artistic expression and critique against its potential backfire; it is what may keep bread from appearing on the table. Bit by bit, we lose our next Guthrie, our next Seeger, our next Springsteen.

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Comment by Sue Rarick on March 18, 2014 at 6:33am

Back in the 1920's my grandmother had to be fluent in ancient Greek, Latin and a foreign language to get into NYU's grad school. In the 1940's my mom needed to be fluent in Latin and a foreign language to get into NYU grad school. In the 1960's I needed to be fluent in a foreign language to get into NYU grad school..... Do we see a trend here?

Something's never change. Dear old dad decided to take up wandering as a career and left Mom with 4 of us and no money. While a PhD in music may fine on paper it does little when looking for work. We ended up in the poorest neighborhood in the city while Mom went back to college to get her teaching certificate while holding down a full time job as a file clerk (steady hours that allowed her to attend college). The plus side is that in order to get to college I had to join the military and the GI Bill cut down on my loan obligations later on. The second plus is that with all going on with Heatlth Care today I get free care at the VA which today is associated with major teaching colleges around the country (Vanderbilt here in Nashville). My primary care doctor is paying off her government loans by working at the VA.

Today we have global communications and have to be careful what we post because of present or future employment. Back when I was growing up it was a local community yet you still had to be careful because employers "KNEW" that anyone from Little Dublin or Straight Street were thieves and would rob you. As someone from that area you knew you had to speak proper when looking for a job and you had to drop your neighborhood slang. You had to play the game. The details are different but the game is still being played.

Look at the social restrictions the people you named worked under. Going back further in time look at the even stricter social restrictions the artists of those days worked under and still, they created great artistic works. The only artist I can think of that had total autonomy during their lifetime was Michelangelo and he had the political savvy to play the Pope against the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Artists have generally had to work around social restrictions.  


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.