February 3rd, 2009


Working people sing about what they do all day

I blogged a year ago about Planted magazine, a Japanese-European gardening magazine published by Tokyo's Knee High Media, who have a very interesting range of titles: gardening magazine Planted, travel magazine Paper Sky, kids' culture magazines Mammoth and Baby Mammoth. All the mags are produced by the husband and wife team Lucas Badtke-Berkow (co-publisher of Tokion magazine when it began) and Kaori Sakurai, from an ordinary house halfway between Shibuya and Ebisu.

A short item on Jean Snow's blog today pointed to a video interview with the couple on an interesting website called Tramnesia. They have a section called Working, whose manifesto stresses their debt to Studs Terkel's 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel's book was about all sorts of workers, from poet-carpenters to assembly floor hardhats, whereas Tramnesia focus on self-employed people in the creative industries:

"WORKING is a series of short videos profiling the practices of small, owner-operated businesses. Inspired by Studs Terkel's landmark oral history of working people in the early 1970's, WORKING interviews individuals who have rejected the idea of working for others, instead setting up businesses in order to work for themselves. If Terkel's study triumphed the survival of the human spirit against the daily humiliation of the Job, the individuals presented here update that theme with personal examples of autonomy against the economies of scale that perpetuate the demoralized workplace. WORKING attempts to highlight the successes of these individuals in carving out ways to live, of tailoring a "work" situation that "works" for them, offering up business models that value independence over financial and/or material preoccupations. Terkel, quoting a union leader: "Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful -- not just as the source of a buck -- you don't have to worry about finding enough jobs."

Studs Terkel (who just died last year, aged 96) saw work as a search for "daily meaning as well as daily bread", and it's this point -- that overcoming anomie and finding a sense of purpose and belonging is just as important as money when people choose what to do -- that unites his 1970s Americans with the more privileged creative class interviewed on Tramnesia.

Sometimes, though, a little too much meaning can over-egg the pudding. Terkel's Working -- the book was a best-seller -- was made into a Broadway musical in 1978 which was taped as a TV musical and broadcast in the American Playhouse series on PBS in 1982. The YouTube clips that punctuate this page are excerpts from this PBS special. I must say I have really mixed feelings about them; inevitably, the workers have been airbrushed and sentimentalized in the process of having their testimonies turned into songs by Stephen Schwartz. Their accounts of the daily grind have been plundered for the kind of emotional impact Broadway requires, and in some sense betrayed.

At the same time, as songs (and as early 80s video sets) these are pretty intriguing. It's great to see disco star Patti Labelle as an office cleaner, for instance, or Eileen Brennan as an old millworker, or Rita Moreno as a waitress, with Terkel himself as her customer. The Act 1 finale, What Could've Been, is an appalling schmaltzfest, giving the assembled cast a sort of collective "coulda been a contender" speech, and the Steelworker's song to his dad makes my skin crawl:

But there's something fascinating here too. Work may be given a little more existential richness than it deserves in these songs, but -- by the same token -- showbiz is given a bit more grit than it usually gets, and much more interesting sets. I can't help wondering what sort of musical would result if you got the people from post-production studios and curated SoHo boutiques featured on Tramnesia singing? I have a horrible feeling the music would be by Moby.