Workers’ Comp in Song

By Judge Thomas Wyatt, Nashville

It’s not surprising that the subject of working has captured the creative impulses of the poet and songwriter. After all, most of humanity spends a good percentage of our waking hours making a living. And despite all the griping about our jobs and watching the clock for the arrival of the end of the day, we derive self-worth from work and grieve the loss of a job. Songs about working run the gamut of subjects—from hating work to hopes for a dream job, from disdain for the boss man to tributes to the working man.

It was no problem locating songs about working. But, as you might expect, it was more difficult to locate songs about workers’ compensation.

I came across a song titled “Bone Against Steel” by 38 Special. The song contained a theme that we often encounter in workers’ compensation cases: in the battle between man and machine, the machine almost always wins. The song contained the following lyric:

Puttin’ man against metal/in a classic workplace accident/He told how the drill started shakin’/The platform started to rock and the chain began breakin’/and we were straight out of luck.

The two songs that came to mind didn’t specifically deal with workers’ compensation but with industrial accidents.

First, because of my upbringing by country music fans, I immediately thought of “Big John,” a song about a man killed in a mine collapse. Jimmy Dean sang the following tribute to the hero of the song:

Then came that day at the bottom of the mine/when timber cracked and men started cryin’/miners were praying and hearts beat fast/and everybody thought they had breathed their last, ‘cept John.

Through the dust and the smoke of this man-made hell walked a giant of a man that the miners knew well/Grabbed a saggin’ timber, gave out with a groan/And like a giant oak tree, he just stood there alone, Big John.

And with all of his strength he gave a mighty shove/and a miner yelled out, “There’s a light up above/and twenty men scrambled from a would-be grave/and now there’s only one left down there to save, Big John.

Well, the mine collapsed before they could save Big John. The song ends with the words of a monument they placed in front of that worthless pit: “At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man, Big John.”

Another memorable ballad about industrial misfortune is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” about the 1975 sinking of a freighter loaded with steel on Lake Superior. The ship encountered an early-season storm and sank in the open seas. None of the 29 bodies of the crew was recovered. Gordon Lightfoot sang these lyrics memorializing the final minutes of the crew and his tribute to the dangerous job that took their lives:

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound/And a wave crashed over the railing/And every man knew as the captain did too/’Twas the witch of November come stealin’

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck, sayin’/”Fellas it’s too rough to feed ya”/At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in, he said/”Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”

The captain called in he had water comin’ in/And the good crew and ship was in peril/And later that night when his lights went outa sight/Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed/in the Maritime Sailor’s Cathedral/The church bells chimed 29 times/for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald/The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down/of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee/Superior, they say, never gives up her dead/when the gales of November come early.

I think the biggest surprise in my search was the fact I found a couple of songs about workers’ compensation claims.

In “The Life You Chose,” Jason Isbell sings a song reminiscent of arguments in some of the cases I tried as an attorney:

I got lucky when I finished school/Lost three fingers to a faulty tool/Settled out of court, I’m no man’s fool/You probably knew.

There’s plenty left to make a getaway/We’ve spent enough nights in the Bluegrass State/We could go somewhere where people stay up late/or just somewhere new.

And, finally, Dire Straits sang about the outbreak of an “Industrial Disease:”

There’s rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town/Somebody blew a whistle and the walls came down/There’s a meeting in the boardroom, they’re trying to trace the smell/There’s a leakin’ in the washroom, there’s a sneak in personnel/Somewhere in the corridors someone was heard to sneeze/Goodness me, could this be industrial disease?

Yeah, now the work force is disgusted, downs tools, walks/innocence is injured, experience just talks/Everyone seeks damages, everyone agrees/These are classic symptoms of a monetary squeeze./Some blame management, some the employees/Everybody knows it’s the industrial disease.

I enjoyed my walk through the museum of songs about working. I may someday write about the some of the songs I listened to. Maybe a talented and enterprising person or band in Nashville can write and perform some songs about workers’ comp. The field’s wide open. The band could name itself “Primarily in the Course and Scope of Employment.”

2 thoughts on “Workers’ Comp in Song

  1. David Hensley says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog about songs of “workplace” losses. There are some classics in there. My fav is The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

    Liked by 1 person

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