Celebrating the American Worker

A Labor Day Listening List

Even since Captain John Smith told the men and boys of Jamestown that “he that will not work shall not eat,” the name “America” has been synonymous with “hard work.” From the intrepid adventurers who settled the original 13 colonies; to the revolutionaries who fought a war for independence; to the hardy souls who won the West, forged the industrial revolution and rebuilt a nation after an economic depression and two world wars, the American spirit has always been defined, at least in part, by its willingness to sweat. Simply put, Americans get things done.

Or do we? The last 18 months have gone further to challenge that image than the previous 60 years, as the various pandemic measures imposed by “concerned” leaders have sometimes seemed geared at making the so-called “Protestant work ethic” disappear once and for all. You don’t want to work? No problem. Uncle Sam will take care of you. As for all you struggling businesses and small-time landlords, figure it out. Work is so last century, anyway.

Considering some Americans’ current aversion to labor, celebrating Labor Day might seem a bit disingenuous this year. Yet, while there are certainly those who are taking advantage of the times, and while it’s always possible to debate the merits of the labor movement or point to the holiday’s socialist roots, there is no better time than now to recognize those who built this country and those who still want to do so. While their government may be doing its best to cultivate in them a spirit of dependency, they are having none of it. They continue to punch the clock, piece together the rent or mortgage payment, put supper on the table, help the kids with their homework and fall into bed dead tired every night only to wake up ready to do it all again. For some of them, their labor requires a level of sacrifice most of us will never have to know. And yet they do it, because they said they would.

Our country has significant differences on how best to enable productivity while protecting workers, and some mock the whole idea of the “Protestant work ethic.” Nevertheless, hard work is something worth celebrating. Martin Luther said, "God doesn't need your good works, but your neighbor does.” The statement encapsulates the truth that our work, whatever it is, is the way we honor God by loving and serving each other.

So, whether you’re spending the day on the job today or relaxing with friends and family, here’s a playlist to accompany your Labor Day observance. It celebrates the best of America’s workers: the dedication, the sacrifice, the resilience, the self-reliance and the tireless and unwavering commitment to care for one’s own that built this country.

In these songs you’ll hear about the single mom rearing three children alone (“Millworker,” James Taylor); the fisherman with “people back on land who count on me” (Billy Joel, “Downeaster Alexa”); the man who is determined that today will be his “last time in the unemployment line” (“Blue Collar Man,” Styx); the farmer praying to hold on to his way of life (“Amarillo Sky,” Jason Aldean); the miner who knows all too well that “there’s plenty of men to die” (“Rox in the Box,” The Decemberists); and everyone who is chasing a dream of any kind (“Underdog,” Alicia Keys). The selections range in tone from bleak to resigned, hopeful to lighthearted, earnest to ironic. But what ties them all together is the message that there is honor and purpose in hard work.

To everyone who is working their butts off right now, wondering if what they’re doing is worth it, wondering if America is worth it, this playlist is for you. Thank you for keeping the lights on, the trains running and the bad guys away. Somewhere in one of these songs you’ll find yourself, and when you do, I hope you’ll consider yourself thanked.

A Labor Day Listening List

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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