Friday, June 01, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Honest Work"

I hereby inaugurate a new regular Friday feature: Pop Songs That Say Something. Why? Well, for two reasons. First, as I've confessed before, I'm actually a pretty dull, MOR-type when it comes to popular music--but at the same time, I'm quite willing to defend the pop song as potential vehicle for great craft; that within that "profoundly synthetic, repeatable, contained" four-minute song, you can find art. And with art comes meaning, and in this case specifically lyrical meaning: as pretentious or overwrought as some pop lyrics are, you can sometimes find, conjoined with the melody that carries, a message of surprising insight and poetry. Or at least so I tell myself, since I've tended to privately remember and quote to myself various pop song lyrics endlessly over the years. And since I have them in my head, why not put them up on the blog? What's what I do with everything else.

(Of course, the second reason is that every other blog has some sort of weekly feature; why shouldn't mine?)

"Honest Work" comes off of Todd Rundgren's 1985 album A Cappella; I've never been a major Rundgren fan, but I was turned onto him and this recording in particular by a college friend named Bob Ahlander, who founded a fairly successful a cappella group of his own at BYU back when we were both there in the early 90s. They never recorded "Honest Work," but they did sing it at some of their very earliest performances, and I treasure an old demo tape I have of their group, which includes this song. If you've never heard it, track it down and give it a listen; it is the most understated song on the album, and it captures the rough, inward, self-defeated despair that our meritocratic world has generated in the hearts of workers as well as any song I know. (I always think of the feverish capitalist dreams of certain techno-libertarians when he gets to the line "They see a world where everyone / Is rich and smart and young.") Enjoy.

I'm not afraid to bend my back
I'm not afraid of dirt
But how I fear the things I do
For lack of honest work

My family is lost to me
They could not bear the hurt
To see the state their boy is in
For lack of honest work

I hold no blame for anyone
'Twas I who did arrange
To pay my union dues so I'd
Not have to learn or change

And when I was replaced, 'twas I
Who started down the hill
And drank away my savings 'til
I couldn't stop myself

The prophets of a brave new world
Captains of industry
Have visions grand and great designs
But none have room for me

They see a world where everyone
Is rich and smart and young
But if I live to see such things
Too late for me they come

I know I'm not the only one
To fall beneath the wheel
Such company can not assuage
The loneliness I feel

So many are resigned to be
Society's debris
But I will be remembered for
The life life took from me

For I'm not afraid to bend my back
I'm not afraid of dirt
But how I fear the things I do
For lack of honest work


empiricus said...

I've only heard it a capella: it's a regular part of the repertoire of the boys' choir at my daughter's high school. I always find it touching, in a non-saccharine way. I rather like that the choir leader picks some songs with meat on them.

I look forward to the regular feature.

Anonymous said...

Cool feature. I look forward to more.

Withywindle said...

Maddy Prior covers this song. It's quite good.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks all; and thanks for the recommendation, Withywindle. I'd never heard of Maddy Prior, but googling her now, I see that she's part of a musical scene--British folk--that I've only recently gotten into (a friend of mine sent me some Martin Carthy recordings a few months ago, and got me interested). I really need to buy some Steeleye Span.