Monday, September 5, 2011

A Salute to Laborers on Labor Day

(Warning--this is a long post, so get yourself something to drink, sit down and enjoy!)

Labor Day is one of those holidays that has lost some of its original meaning.  Originally established to honor those who labor, it had strong ties to the union movement in this country. I would venture to say that unions are controversial these days. Some see them as an important factor in establishing decent working conditions, benefits  and pay for workers. Others blame them for closing businesses and industries with their demands and contracts. In any case, the holiday has become a transition from summer to fall, from vacation to school, marked by picnics and special sales.For my part, I'd like to add a word or two in praise of those who labored to build this country and who work to keep it going today.

Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, my favorite singer/songwriter (much to the chagrin of my daughters, who consider him hopelessly old school) has had a remarkable career. He began singing publically as a child, and  moved into the folk/songwriter area around 1960. Marty Robbins' hit "Ribbon of Darkness" is a Lightfoot tune. Lightfoot broke into a wider audience when Ian and Sylvia recorded his "Early Morning Rain" and "For Lovin' Me."  Peter, Paul and Mary later covered both songs. I first became aware of him around 1965 when he released his first solo album, "Lightfoot!" and have followed his career since then. He is still performing 62 concerts a year all over North America.  His voice isn't what it used to be, but he has one of the tightest bands around, with some members 30 year veterans.  The band lost extraordinary guitar player Terry Clements to a stroke a few months back.

Some of Lightfoot's more popular songs were "If You Could Read My Mind" (1970-- to my way of thinking the best pop song every written about failed love), "Sundown" (1973), and  "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976--an over six minute recording about the loss of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in a Lake Superior storm in November, 1975. It had considerable radio airplay in spite of its length and subject matter). His catalog includes over 237 recorded songs.  Not too shabby.

Early in his career, Lightfoot celebrated workers who built Canada, and workers in general. He wrote about go-go dancers ("Go-Go Round"), truck drivers ("Long Thin Dawn,"), textile mill workers ("Cotton Jenny"), laborers ("Early Morning Rain" and "Steel Rail Blues"), bush pilots ("Flying Blind"), singers ("Hangdog Hotel Room"), miners ("Boss Man" and "Mother of a Miner's Child,"), and numerous songs about ships and sailors ("Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," "Triangle," "Ghosts of Cape Horn," "Ballad of Yarmouth Castle," "Marie Christine").

In two songs, Lightfoot sings specifically about the contribution of workers to building up the country. "Crossroads" is first-person account of a young man who worked all kinds of jobs.

When first I did appear upon this native soil
All up and down this country at labor I did toil
I slumbered in the  moonlight and I rose with the sun
I rambled through the canyons where the cold rivers run...

So I swung an axe as a timberjack
And I worked the Quebec mines
And on the golden prairie I rode the big combines
I sailed the maritime waters of many a seaport town
Built the highways and the byways to the western salmon grounds...

Lightfoot's magnum opus is "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a song which honors and recognizes those workers, mostly Scotch-Irish in Canada (and Irish and Chinese in this country) who built, almost entirely by hand, the Canadian transcontinental railroad. In first two movements, Lightfoot comments on the building of the railroad.

There was a time in  this fair land when the  railroad did not run
When the  wild majestic mountains
Stood alone against the sun
 Long before the  white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark  forest was too  silent to be real
But time has no beginnings and history has no bounds
As to this verdant country they came from all around
They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
And they built the mines, the mills and the factories for the good of us all
And when the young man's fancy was turning to the spring
The railroad men grew restless for to hear the hammers ring
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day
And many a fortune lost and won and many a debt to pay
For they looked in the future and  what did they see
They saw an  iron road running from the  sea to the sea
 Bringing the goods to a  young growing land
All up from the seaports and  into their hands
Look away said they across this mighty  land
From the eastern shore to the western strand
Bring in the workers and bring up the rails
We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails
Open her heart let the life blood flow
Gotta get on our way 'cause we're moving too slow

In the third movement, he gives a voice to those who constructed it, mile by mile:

We are the navvies who work upon the  railway
 Swinging our  hammers in the  bright blazing sun
 Living on  stew and  drinking bad  whiskey
 Bending our  backs til the long days are  done
We are the navvies who work upon the railway
Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun
Laying down track and building the bridges
Bending our backs til the railroad is done  

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have) opened up the soil
With our teardrops and our toil 

Our nephew, Jonathan Pankey, like the workers in Lightfoot's song, is a symbol of all the hardworking men and women out there who keep the country moving. Jonathan is about the hardest working person I have ever known.  He has had his own lawn care business since he was fifteen.  His mother had to drive him to his jobs until he got his license.

Jonathan had his start with mowing and machines and growing things under the tutelage of his late grandfather and my father-in-law, Oscar Detwiler. Oscar could grow or fix just about anything, and Jonathan learned from a master.

When he got his driver's permit at 16, he began to acquire the trucks and lawn equipment he needed to do a professional job.  He presently has a Ford-350, a trailer that must be thirty feet long and dozens of pieces of equipment.  He serves dozens of customer and, with a helper, works from first light to total dark. He does a wonderful job with our lawn, which is a typically-sized suburban patch of grass, in thirty minutes.

Jonathan is a delightful young fellow.  As I have said, he is hard-working.  He is also honest, sincere, polite and possesed of a great sense of humor.  He is one of the good ones.

And so, here's to Jonathan and to all the people who work hard for a living and make a difference for us all--the crossing guards, the steel-mill workers, the miners, the truck drivers, the school bus drivers, the toll takers, the mechanics, the locomotive engineers, the cowboys, the administrative assistants, the C.N.A.'s, the dry cleaners, the medical techs, the stone masons, the plumbers, the carpenters, and all the rest too numerous to list here (there are tens of thousands of occupations such as these). To the people who built this country and all these who keep it running, thank you for all you do, and God bless you all.


  1. Amen to all those sentiments. (Except for The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald..I absolutely DETEST that song..) Perhaps it's because I have plumbers and roofers and farmers and railroad workers, etc. in my more or less immediate family, but I couldn't agree more.

  2. Thanks,Mary. My background is working class as well. BTW "Wreck" was named worst pop song ever by Dave Barry.