Rodgers (1897-1933) may have been singing country, before there officially was country music? The “Singing Brakeman,” back in 1929, sang this sad tale of a boxcar riding man who probably froze to death, eastbound, during a storm.
A “hobo” was a term back then referring to people that travelled around taking work where they could. Keep in mind, this song was from Great Depression era times. Finding work was challenging. Even the most resourceful of souls fell on hard times, and gradually, many felt more of a role for government to assist people was required.
What we got from this, was the welfare state: a government-administered collection of services and programs, aimed at helping out those who needed help, without any assignation of blame.
Some sources distinguish “hobo” from “bum,” the latter being someone not that interested in working, even when jobs were available. Both terms are likely considered politically incorrect today. However, a criticism of the welfare state is that it creates dependency on government: that it creates “bums.” And further, that the welfare state reduces not just our self-reliance, but our personal freedom when we are recipients of public services. After all, it’s not so easy to ride the rails from town to town unless the stops all have unemployment offices along the way.
A #1 in 1988 for “Jacko,” though not written by him, is sung in the first person as a declaration to change for the better. It comes off as a self-inflicted guilt trip, with Michael looking at his reflection, knowing he could do more to help those less well off.
Technically, around 99% of the world were financially worse off than the singer!
But we could all take from the song the hope that change can start with us, at the individual level. Some critiques of poverty alleviation maintain we too often look to or expect “the government” to get to work on the situation, freeing us to focus on our own selfishness… that we should help others organically. The government, in this view, may be seen as impartial and arbitrary, coercive and even uncaring. But as people, together as a society, there is optimism the poor can be voluntarily assisted by philanthropists large and small. The trade-off can be less coordinated efforts. A concern is whether the problems of poverty are too large and complex for such decentralized, non-expert responses.
Man In The Mirror could provoke an interesting discussion about the size and scope of government and the responsibility of individuals, to their brothers, sisters and strangers, too. It’s typically maintained that as government gets bigger, the role for individuals decreases. This is also debated.
From 1989, Tracy Chapman poetically likens marginalized citizens to living in a city below where everyone else gets by and finds success. This subcity exists because of a cosy relationship between government and big business, both failing to provide enough (and adequate) employment opportunities for the poor.
Chapman may be expressing a view of equality, from the ideology of liberalism, which has maintained the importance of using state intervention to assist people to reach their own dreams. People that fall through the cracks through no fault of their own, should be helped to regain their independence. Policy-wise, this could be through education, health care, social assistance, job training and other services. Chapman’s song does not mention the many such supports that Americans may be eligible to access, perhaps feeling that what is there, is not enough.
Woody Guthrie, from 1940, describes what it’s like to be a poor worker trying to make their way in life, while meanwhile others get rich and richer. This classic song about income inequality has powerful lyrics that are resentful of capitalist icons such as bankers, and reverential toward workers, such as farmers and miners. Guthrie suggests poor people, with no home in this world, wait patiently for respite in the next, presumably heaven. While the song certainly has socialist overtones of animosity toward capitalists, it thus does not go as far as recommending a worker’s revolution that would push it into Marxist and communist territory. Still, perhaps you will find the song is too passive for essentially accepting the lot in life for those that have less.
Well, heartland rock fables about cars and girls and jobs, at the edge of town, have been well-worn in songs, even by The Boss. But this is a famous song of his about the challenges of facing adult responsibility. In particular, Bruce sings about having dreams dashed by larger forces, such as the economy, in recessionary times – 1981. It doesn’t help that the narrator impregnates his high school sweetheart, suggesting that multiple factors are involved in holding back the social and economic mobility of the lower class. Officially, these can include gender, race, whether you’re an immigrant, education and geography.
Phil (or Don) Everly complain in song that a girl whose affection is being sought only goes for rich guys.
Now, the narrator understands that money doesn’t make a man, and calls the girl a fool for thinking otherwise. Yet, he’s none too bright either, plotting to rob a store to win the girl.
The 1965 tune, also covered by The Who, certainly expresses some bitterness about poverty and social status in an America of opportunity. Decades later, such contempt for the so-called 1% of richest citizens wrought the Occupy Wall Street movement. In some incarnations in some places, this assemblage led to robbery and other lawlessness, although the Occupiers made important points about governments paying too much attention to corporations. The girl in this song – like social justice – remains at large.