Tuesday, October 09, 2007

White Collar Holler

A week or so ago, my sister Kathleen sent me a link with a listen to Jonathan Coulton's very sweet and very funny ode to techies, "Code Monkey". (Here you go for a listen. If you've ever been a) been a techie; b) worked with techies; c) known a techie; d) worked; e) known anyone who's worked, this one is for you.)

I don't think I'm giving away any of the lyrical punch when I quote the intro lines:

Code Monkey get up get coffee
Code Monkey go to job
Code Monkey have boring meeting
With boring manager Rob

"Code Monkey" is a fine example of a modern work-related song, and one that absolutely catches the essence of the workplace. It got me thinking about the old Stan Rogers' (no relation) tune, "White Collar Holler". (In truth, I did not remember it as a Stan Rogers; Kathleen did. It was performed by Stan, but written by Nigel Russell.)

Listening to "Code Monkey" got me thinking about the song "White Collar Holler," a tech tune that was popular a generation ago (yikes!), and which actually spoke pretty directly to the type of work I was doing at the time, creating computer-based forecasting models. (Oh, those were the days.)

And it's Ho, boys, can't you code it, and program it right
Nothing ever happens in the life of mine
I'm hauling up the data on the Xerox line

Then it's code in the data, give the keyboard a punch
Then cross-correlate and break for some lunch
Correlate, tabulate, process and screen
Program, printout, regress to the mean

This song is particularly amusing if you knew that Stan (who I believed died in a plane crash caused by some idiot smoking in the toilet) sang sea chanteys (or lake chanteys: most were set on the Great Lakes). (Click here for a link to Stan's site. )

"Code Monkey". "White Collar Holler."

Why are song about the types of jobs we have these days all humorous? Is it just not possible to have a "serious" song about B2B marketing? Hedge fund management? Mortgage lending? Back-office processing? Customer support?

Why is that?

Is it because, all these years after the Industrial Revolution bled into the wonderful world of Knowledge Workers, we're all feeling kind of foolish that we can't really explain to anyone what exactly it is that we do all day? Do we, somewhat sheepishly, feel a bit foolish about this?

These days, if you're in a job that didn't exist 50 years ago, good luck getting across what you do.

Teacher. Carpenter. Doctor. Truck-driver. Bartender.

All clear!

Sort of. (Some of the those doctors are doing some pretty far out stuff...)

Even for those in professions that are generally familiar - like lawyer - how confident can you be in explaining your day-to-day if you're anyone other than Jack McCoy on Law & Order. (Is he an Assistant DA or an actor. I was going to write Sam McCoy there for a moment - the character is played by Sam Waterston.)

Actor. There's another profession we get. (Although 90% of the working actors are probably doing corporate training films and voice-overs.)

Ah, for the work songs of my youth!

Tennessee Ernie Ford hauling "Sixteen Tons" of coal. ("You load sixteen tons? What do you get? Another day older and deeper and debt." At least the "deeper in debt" line still holds for a lot of workers.)

Sam Cooke, "Workin' in a Coal Mine (Going down, down, down)". Although now that I think of it, Sam had made the transition from actually working in a coal mine to coal mine as metaphor. (I certainly remember people using the expression, "Back to the mines" when they were referring to their jobs - white, pink, or blue - but definitely not coaldust collar.)

There was also a song I half remember called "Uptown" that started, "He gets up in the morning and he goes downtown," where he labors all day as some little cog in a wheel, "and then he comes uptown."

Then there was "Witchita Lineman." ("I am a lineman for the county...") But this was actually a love song (I think). And I have know idea what a "lineman for the county" is or does. I don't think we had "linemen for the county" in Worcster.

Coal miners. Cowboys. Fishermen. Workin' on the railroad. ("In eighteen-hundred-and-forty-one, I put me corduroy britches on. I put me corduroy britches on, and went to work for the railroad." Not to mention "Dinah, blow your horn.") Truck drivin'. Barge boy on the Erie Canal.

Those were the days.

The last "good" (serious) song I remember that had to do with a job was Harry Chapin's "Taxi Driver." Which was actually more about f-ing up your life than it was about driving a cab. Although in the song, they were synonymous.)


(One thing about workplace songs: Current or past, most of them aren't about any of the positives about work: the camaraderie, the satisfaction. Instead, they speak to the frustrations and the drudgery, the exploitation and the ragee, the bad bosses and the back-breaking (or mind-numbing) labor for short money.

I implore you. Would someone please find me a song about a "modern" job that is not satirical? Or tell me why it's really not possible to write one.

Or like the timeless Johnny Paycheck song - and can that be that boy's real name? - "Take This Job and Shove It. (I don't work here anymore.)"

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