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May Day is an annual wake up call for the working class, a day celebrated in more than 160 countries around the world. What better way to get on-message than through music? Today’s post honours May Day aka International Workers’ Day with songs about class, identity, and solidarity. It’s definitely time to work out which side you are on.

New York City’s Jeremy and the Harlequins put out a killer album in 2019, Remember This, a solid slab of Americana rock and roll in the Fallon, Mellencamp and Springsteen mold. But the standout song for our purposes is “American Gold,” a highly listenable hooky tune with lyrics that slay the American dream with a clarity seldom matched in popular music:

Brothers and sisters if you wanna be saved
Listen close to a story about how the streets get paved
Not by men selling greatness or hope
But on the backs of the working class folks
Well they sell you a dream that you don’t really need
Cut you up by colour or creed
Then they’ll give somebody to blame
It’s the same old story but they change the name

There’s a lot of talk about outlaw country but the usual examples are anything but. Most just mix dominant ideology with a few y’alls and call it a day. And then there’s Will Hoge. His 2018 album My American Dream takes aim at Republican politicians, the NRA and the conservative undercurrent to the country music establishment. Given how the latter dominate that scene, Hoge is clearly the real outlaw here. On “Stupid Kids” he rages in favour of kids making a difference, with a Steve Earle snarl and a driving Blue Oyster cult guitar riff:

Oh stupid kids don’t listen to what the old folks say
You’re the only ones that are ever gonna make things change
Keep your feet marching
Raise up your voice don’t quit
Keep doin’ what you’re doin’
Keep being stupid kids

But the coup de grace lyric comes in the bridge when Hoge sings:

Turn your music up
Sing to your own damn song
You know you got it right
When all the old white men don’t sing along

Crossing the pond This Circus Life take a break from their usual smooth poprock sound for something more Beautiful South or Chumbawumba (in a mellow mood) on “Where Are the Working Classes?” From 2021’s The Vast and Endless Sea, the tune calls into question the superficial and mostly unattainable middle class aspirations of the post Thatcher era in the UK, reminiscent of critiques from the likes of filmmaker Mike Leigh in his movie High Hopes. As Charlie Mear sings “Didn’t we see them pulling the wool down over our eyes?” Indeed. Another UK band that reliably banged on and on about class were McCarthy. I can’t believe I didn’t notice this band during their heyday circa 1987-88. They were essentially a twee version of The Smiths but with super-sized politics. For these guys, everything was political. Lyricist Malcolm Eden is like that guy at the party that won’t stop droning on about capitalism. My kind of guy obviously. There are so many possible songs to choose from here but “In the Dark Times” remains relevant and has some nice Johnny Marr-like guitar work. Wrapping things up this May Day we have the ever relevant Billy Bragg. His recent album The Million Things That Never Happened is another Americana folk tour-de-force, both sing-a-long good and highly topical. On “Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free” Bragg shreds the libertarian right, pointing out the glaring flaws in their unrealistic utopian plans that should be the obvious to everyone.

McCarthy – In the Dark Times

So listen for the bugles’ call this May Day. Whether your reveille be “The International” or “This Land is Your Land” the sentiments are basically the same. As my grandmother used to say, ‘working people gotta stick together!’

Top image is Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s 1901 painting The Fourth Estate.