I respectfully disagree with their ranking - and I think it shows the author's age (at the time the track I'm talking about was released in 1963, The Brothers Four were one of the biggest musical acts in the world).
My number three or number two on this list would be "The Beast (Song Of The Punch Press Operator)" as performed live on the Cross Country Concert album by The Brothers Four. Words by Bernard Packer, music by Pete Seeger. IMHO, you could make the case for "The Beast" being number one here.
"Solidarity Forever" is a good song and a great anthem by an icon of American music. But the tune isn't original - it's from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and from "John Brown's Body". Nothing wrong with that - people have been doing that probably since words were first set to music - but it does diminish the originality of the work.
"Working Class Hero" is a good song by a great artist but I don't think it's a great piece of music. In my mind a great piece of music makes you want to sing or dance or weep or move to it the first time you hear it. "Working Class Hero is cerebral - one has to listen to it carefully. Plus the language does put some people off - fuck wasn't necessary and other words could have been used instead.
“There is Power in a Union” - again, a good song - but not very musical. Its power comes from Bragg singing it in a way that would be similar to a working man. In my mind that was the power that Bragg brought to his performances but this song is not as good of a creation due to that.
"16 Tons" is a great song done by a great artist (Tennessee Ernie Ford), but its words are partially about the words' creator, where he/she came from, and where he/she is going, rather than being all about the labour.
The introduction to "The Beast" sets the scene for a listener who might not have any experience with working in a dirty, difficult, or brutish environment. Then it starts. It's a catchy song! I started trying to sing along with it the first time I heard it as a boy.
The arrangement is wonderful, lots of sonic goodness to keep the listener waiting for what is coming next. You can listen to a different part individually to see how it all comes together every time you listen to it - the singing, harmonies, bass, finger snapping...
It's a simple song - instrumentation wise. It could be done almost as well with a washtub bass and without the guitar - but in a group of people one usually has access to a guitar. A lot of money isn't required to buy instruments which fits the spirit of Labour Day.
And yet it's a complicated song! It alternates between an A style verse and a B style chorus - but the chorus' words are never the same so it's not really a chorus! You have to listen to the words every time! (And the song's words are easy to hear - another criterion for a good labour song in my mind.)
The words are strictly about the labour involved in running a dangerous machine in a dirty factory and the control over the job that isn't given to the workers doing it by management - and the ease with which management can replace the worker with someone else for any reason whatsoever. But it also talks about a crucial part of us - our dreams, aspirations, and imagination that make us different from machines and other animals.
It's one of Seeger's great tunes - the man knows how to write a song!
That's my opinion - and I'm sticking to it! :-)
(Although I've done my best to make them work, some links may not - due to the age and obscurity of the tune in today's world.)
The Nation's list:
1. Pete Seeger, “Solidarity Forever”
2. John Lennon, “Working Class Hero”
3. Billy Bragg, “There is Power in a Union”
4. Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons”
5. Joan Baez and Mimi Farina, “Bread and Roses”
6. Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”
7. Woody Guthrie, “Union Burying Ground”
8. Phil Ochs, “The Ballad of Joe Hill”
9. Bruce Springsteen, “Youngstown”
10. The Rolling Stones, “Salt of the Earth”