Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Union Man

Well, Labor Day, or as Barrett calls it, "fake May Day" is almost over, but I still want to say something about a certain song.  "Union Man" by the Cate Brothers, from their 1975 album, Cate Bros. (pronounced "Cate Brothers"), produced by Steve Cropper, who also plays guitar on several tracks, including this one.  Here's the the songs, before we get much farther in:

 Its easy, in the first couple of verse, to hear just the narrator's skepticism about what the Union Man has to offer, his doubts about paying dues and going on strike. Since at least the 1980s that's the kind of sentiment that we expect from a narrator who declares "It's six A. M. and I'm out on the job/working like a fool for my pay" when he introduces himself.  Certainly that's all that blogger/DJ JB hears, as he encounters the song on an archaeological dig through the May 22, 1976 broadcast of Casey Kasem's American Top 40. But there's more to it than that, and the third verse and chorus are critical to what I'm convinced is a conversion narrative. first, lets pick up the last verse before the break, where, at the end, Ernie declares: "All the money, that I'm getting paid/Looks like I'm bound to lose!" which is as concise a summary of the the wage worker's place in capitalism as you'll find on record.  That's followed by a middle section that's all about point and counterpoint, including a guitar duel between Earl and Steve Cropper.  Then, his doubts resolved, at least temporarily, the narrator declares "hey hey Mr. union man, thank you for the helping hand/hey hey Mr. union man, so glad you understand."

The doubts in those first two verses always made me hear that last line as sarcasm, but I'm sure that's not the case now.  There's very little sarcasm or cynicism in any of the songs that make up the 4 Cate Brothers albums from 1975-1979.  In fact, until 1979's Tom Dowd produced Fire on the Tracks, every song is sung as a first person, narrative, and usually a heartfelt one.  That doesn't mean that that the narrator of every song is Ernie or Earl, but it makes it easier to get to know the narrators they speak through. And the narrator of this song is, by the end of the song, sincerely happy to take a "helping hand" from someone who "understands" even if getting to that point is a challenge to what he believes he's supposed to be doing to feed his "hungry family."  Not simply a pro-union song, its a dramatization of the conflict between unionism and the ideological disposition of much the southern working class.  Its instructive.

In many ways, "Union Man" much less ambivalent about the unionism than the song "King Harvest" by the Cates' friends, The Band.  If you're not familiar with the relationship between these two groups, here's some background.  Interestingly, Robbie Robertson, a voracious reader, has said that he wrote "King Harvest" after hearing about and reading about The Southern Tenant Farmer's Union.  In an interview last year, Earl said that they wrote the song after reading a book about the STFU, and I've been wondering since if it was, this one?  Earl and Ernie both also said that the song was originally slower, that Cropper wrote the opening like and sped it up, which explains his co-writing credit on the tune.

Since I've started this, its past labor day, but hardly time to put aside the value of work.  The Cates kept working long after those 4 albums, and even after "retiring" in 2006, they still work a lot.  Here's a more recent performance of "Union Man" from the slightly surreal locale of the Cherokee Casino in Siloam Springs.  Thanks for listening.

No comments: