Barbara Aiello

Oliver Anthony’s Working Class Anthem – A Labor Day Lament

In the early 1900’s my grandfather died. I never met him but his untimely death was the talk of the neighborhood for years – so much so that I felt I knew him.

Zayde (as I probably would have called him) worked in the trades as did most of his immigrant contemporaries. “If you come to Pittsburgh you either work the mills or work the mines,” the men would say. Zayde worked the mills, namely the Carrie Blast Furnace in Rankin, a rundown steel town on the Monongahela River.

Like so many mill workers, Zayde often drank his pay. That’s why his two older daughters, Annabelle and my mother, who Americanized her name from Hannah to Helen, raced to the mill gates every pay day in order to intercept their dad before he hit the bars.

On this particular February night, as the shift whistle blew, a storm dumped several feet of snow on the area – so much so that the girls did not arrive at the mill gate in time to confiscate the cash. In temperatures hovering near zero, the girls looked for their father in all his favorite haunts. Nothing.  Zayde didn’t make it home that night. He passed out drunk on a park bench and froze to death in the snow.

I hadn’t thought of Zayde for years but what brought him back to me was Oliver Anthony whose song, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is an anthem to the world’s “boots on the ground” workers, many like my Zayde, who worked like a dog six, sometimes seven days a week and had precious little to look forward to:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day/Overtime hours for bullsh– pay/So I can sit out here …and drown my troubles away”

Today visitors can tour Carrie Furnaces numbers 6 and 7, billed as “extremely rare examples of pre-World War I iron making technology.” Since the collapse of the steel industry when steel mill jobs were shipped overseas, couples can hold their wedding ceremony on the Carrie Furnace grounds and occasionally Labor Day celebrations tout the courage and tenacity of the mill workers of old. “Choose your next adventure at the Carrie Blast Furnaces,” the marketing materials say.

For some, their experiences in the steel industry could hardly be called adventurous. The Economist reports that “Fatal accidents in the steel mills, accounted for 20% of all male deaths in Pittsburgh in the 1880s. Newspaper lists of men killed and wounded each year were as long as a casualty list for a small battle in the American civil war.”

Prudential Insurance Company found that in 1920 the mortality rate in iron and steel was nearly twice the rate in general manufacturing.

“Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground/’Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down”

From Nigerian-Canadian hip hop artist, Dax to country music heavyweights Travis Tritt and John Rich, downloads in the millions indicate that Oliver Anthony’s song speaks to the little guy on both sides of the political spectrum. Taxed and regulated beyond reason, Anthony sings about how hard it is, not only to get ahead, but just to stay even:

“’Cause your dollar ain’t sh** and it’s taxed to no end/’Cause of rich men north of Richmond”

I live and work in Italy and earlier this week Italians learned the hard way that working conditions aren’t the best for “boots on the ground” guys in Turin where five railway workers were killed when they were hit by a speeding train, traveling at 100 mph while they were working train maintenance on the night shift.

“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day/Overtime hours for bullsh– pay…Livin’ in the new world with an old soul.”

Our “old soul” Jewish traditions take us back to the Torah where we read, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer”, but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Devarim 24:14-15).”

On this Labor Day when the US celebrates the worker, I’m surprised that I find myself aligned with Oliver Anthony’s take on the millions of working men and women who feel trapped, abused and alone.  Politics and platitudes aside, Anthony says the quiet part out loud:

“It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to/For people like me and people like you/Wish I could just wake up and it not be true/But it is, oh, it is…”

As a nation, the United States has been commemorating Labor Day since 1894. That’s when historians believe that President Grover Cleveland tried to end a railroad strike by offering the masses Labor Day as a federal holiday.

“They don’t think you know but I know that you do…”

We knew then and we know now, placating the people with a day off, nice gesture as it was, was hardly the point. It’s one thing to celebrate the worker. It’s quite another for the Rich Man North of Richmond to commit to the mental health and physical safety of the workers themselves.

Mr. Anthony, could it be that the popularity of your song has taken on biblical proportions? In the Purim story Esther’s Uncle Mordechai urged her to speak out on behalf of her people. When Esther balked, Mordechai reminded her:

“… you have come to your position for such a time as this”

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots