The top 15 songs about being broke
We don't need to tell you that the most promising career options in America right now are boxcar-hopper, petticoat tailor or shepherd of hungry one-eyed alley cats. Fortunately, the condition of being stone-broke is a perennially popular theme in music (unless you're T.I.), and regardless of your taste in genre, there is a tune to accompany cooking canned beans over a street-corner bonfire. We took to our dusty archives to find a treasury of the best tunes for such times, and in no particular order, here are 15 of the most soot-blackened, pink slip-crumpling, rail-riding songs for you to sing to yourself in the unemployment line because you pawned your iPod weeks ago.
Surely there's plenty we forgot (sorry, Jeezy, next time!), because we were too busy mournfully playing our harmonicas. Tell us below in the comments!
Blind Alfred Reed, "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?": Covered and topically updated by Ry Cooder and Bruce Springsteen, Reed's laments about food prices and shoddy healthcare are as contemporary as your latest premium hike.
Geto Boys, "Ain't With Being Broke": You wouldn't know it from the radio today, but rap used to be about not having money for food, let alone a Learjet. Never has not getting a toy train for Christmas sounded like such a cry for class warfare.
The Clash, "Career Opportunities": Sure, being broke is lame, but what's even worse is a minimum-wage gig where you "make tea for the BBC" or "open letter bombs" for paunchy apparatchiks. A sneering Brits' answer to "Take This Job and Shove It."
Crystal Waters, “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)”: You don’t usually look to house music for heartfelt lyrical content with a pro-social message. But what few words there are on this 1991 hit put a human face on being down and out. “She’s just like you and me,” New Jersey dance chanteuse Waters sings, “but she’s homeless. She just stands there singin’ for money, ‘La da dee, la da da. La da dee, la da da.’”
The Beatles, "Can't Buy Me Love": There are some single guys recently laid-off from Lehman Bros. who are trolling New York bars and really, really hoping this song is true.
Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City": The Boss' preferred stimulus package involves heading to the Jersey shore and hooking up with the Mob. And we know all about "debts no honest man can pay" around these parts.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Fortunate Son": As if being poor wasn't injustice enough, John Fogerty reminds us that when the Army comes a-drafting for another foreign adventure, guess who most often has to take that call?
Loretta Lynn, "Coal Miner's Daughter": Back before "clean coal technology" was a spurious buzzword, Lynn's extended brood was up to their necks in the dirty stuff. We're glad to report that she has bought plenty of pairs of better shoes since then without having to sell a hog.
Sham 69, “Hey Little Rich Boy”: Populist British Oi! outfit Sham 69 threw down the class-baiting gauntlet with this 1978 song. It attempts to glamorize the trappings of poverty as only football chanting punk yobs can: “I don’t need a flash car to take me around/ I can catch the bus to the other side of town!”
Bob Marley “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”: Soul-stirring songs like this are the reason St. Bob is revered as a kind of Third World messiah. In “Belly,” he ponders the harsh realities he faced growing up in Jamaica’s notorious Trench Town slum: food shortages, pervasive dirt, the untenably high cost of living and poor people’s cri de coeur -- that “a hungry mob is an angry mob.”
Pulp, "Common People": Jarvis Cocker delivers the single best uppercut to rich kids fetishizing poverty in all of pop. This song should be on every art school syllabus in the world.
Erik B. and Rakim, "Paid In Full": The song finds Rakim reaching into his pockets in search of “dead presidents” but only “coming up with lint.” The song’s narrative arc is his contemplation of ways to generate income: a 9-to-5 job or robbery being chief among them. In the end, though, Rakim reaches a crucial realization: Rhyme pays.
Desmond Dekker, “The Israelites”: One of the first smash reggae hits, Dekker’s soulful classic likens the plight of a poverty-stricken working man to that of an ancient Hebrew slave: “Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir/ So that every mouth can be fed/ Poor me, the Israelite.”
Ruben Blades, "Adan Garcia": A sleeper pick that gets the nod because of the sheer wanton melodrama of its ending. A man gets laid off, robs a bank to support his family and dies in the getaway. The next day, the papers lead with "Robber Holds Up Bank with Son’s Water Pistol."
--August Brown and Chris Lee
And here are a few more picks to play at your next hobo dance party.
Soundtrack to "Annie," "Hard Knock Life"
Roger Miller, "King of the Road"
Townes Van Zandt, "Marie"
Stevie Wonder, "I Wish"
Ray Charles, "I'm Busted"
Randy Newman, "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
Merle Haggard, "Workingman Blues"
Phil Collins, "Another Day In Paradise"
The Temptations, "Papa Was A Rolling Stone"
Gwen Guthrie, "Ain't Nothing Going On But The Rent"
Elvis Presley, "In the Ghetto"
Run DMC, "Hard Times"
Donnie Hathaway, "Little Ghetto Boy"
Clarence Carter, "Patches"
Kanye West, "Spaceship"
Jerry Reed, "She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft."
Photo credit: Dorothea Lange / University of Chicago Press
Huge thanks to Randy Lewis, Ann Powers, Geoff Boucher, Charlie Amter, Todd Martens, Chris Lee, Agustin Gurza and Margaret Wappler for taking time from repairing the holes in their ragged shoes to suggest songs for this list.