Tuesday, January 11, 2011

January 11: Lee Dorsey, "Working In The Coal Mine"

Artist: Lee Dorsey
Song: "Working In The Coal Mine"
Album: The New Lee Dorsey
Year: 1966

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Though the city is perhaps best known for its massive influence and contributions to jazz and blues, one cannot overlook the fact that New Orleans was also responsible for one of the most important shifts in the r&b style.  Much in the same way that the overall mood of the city brought a far more loose, often strangely upbeat mood to other styles of music, it had a similar impact on r&b, and offered a fresh, yet stark contrast to the dominant sound of the time.  While a number of artists helped to push this sound to the forefront of popular music, few were as important or influential as the one and only Lee Dorsey.  Often working alongside fellow new Orleans legend Allan Toussaint, the pair are responsible for some of the most significant hits to come out of te south outside of Stax and Sun Records.  Bringing a unique, quirky sense of humor to his songs, Dorsey stormed the charts with his first single, 1961's "Ya Ya," and in many ways, the world of music was never the same after this song.  Proving that it was often the way in which one presented a song as opposed to the actual content, Dorsey quickly went back into the studio, releasing a number of albums, culminating with his brilliant 1966 record, The New Lee Dorsey.  Standing as what may be the greatest "working man's song" in history, one can find everything that makes Lee Dorsey such a vital part of music history in his 1966 single, "Working In The Coal Mine."

From the moment that "Working In The Coal Mine" begins, it is easy to hear what a stark contrast the song was in nearly every aspect.  Bringing together a number of different musical styles all in one, it is easy to make the case that this very idea mirrors the entire spirit of the city of New Orleans.  Kicking off with what is meant to be the sound of a miner's pick, quickly followed by one of the deepest, yet lightest grooves ever recorded, "Working In The Coal Mine" almost instantly grabs the listener.  It is this interplay between the percussion and the fantastic bass of Chuck Badie that is the key to this song, as the almost relaxed feel presents a great contrast to the high-energy, musically complex sounds that Motown was releasing under the genre of r&b.  However, it manages to work just as perfectly on "Working In The Coal Mine," as even considering the rather unexciting subject of the song, there is a strangely upbeat mood that is kept in place by the rhythm section.  Furthermore, the perfect touches and stings that are played by guitarist Roy Montrell offer a fantastic sonic contrast within the song itself, and the similarly subtle, yet vital horn interjections finish off what remains one of the most uniquely perfect musical arrangements in history.  It is also the repetition of this progression played by the group that reinforces the overall theme and mood of the song, and the way in which the players move as a single unit through the loose feel of the song has rarely been matched in the decades that have passed.

Much like the music, Lee Dorsey's vocal on "Working In The Coal Mine" stands all on its own when compared to the rest of music history.  Both in the sound of his voice, as well as the mood he conveys, there was not another artist with a similar sound.  Throughout the song, Dorsey maintains a smooth, soulful sound, and there is not a moment where it sounds as if he is pushing his vocal abilities.  The fact that he was so easily able to work the entire vocal scale sets him far apart from many of his New Orleans contemporaries, and yet there is an obvious proximity to the words he sings that helps the song move to another level.  Truth be told, after failing to find similar success following "Ya Ya," Dorsey returned to his auto repair shop, and it is perhaps this fact that helped to push "Working In The Coal Mine" to be considered one of the greatest "working man" anthems ever recorded.  Yet even within the lyrics, there seems to be an odd contrast at play, due to the fact that though he is singing lines like, "...lord I'm so tired, how long can this go on...," there is an energy and spirit in his voice that seems to not be in such a tragic condition.  It is in this juxtaposition that one can detect the unique brand of humor that runs throughout nearly every one of Lee Dorsey's recordings, and it is also one of the key aspects that makes "Working In The Coal Mine" such an essential piece in the overall progression of music.

While it was certainly a hit when it was first released in 1966, the lasting impact of "Working In The Coal Mine" can be seen in the way in which it has endured the generations.  Though the original version is still without question the standard, there have been a number of covers of the song that are fantastic in their own right, with versions by Devo and The Judd's releasing two of the most interesting interpretations of the song.  The fact that the song has found its way into so many different styles of music reflects its own roots, as one can hear everything from jazz to blues to gospel within Lee Dorsey's original recording.  This idea in itself is in many ways the most clear example of "what" r&b music truly is at its core, and yet it was Dorsey's sound that proved that there was far more to the genre than the singles coming out of Detroit and Memphis.  Furthermore, though many had tried over the years, there is a certain spark within "Working In The Coal Mine" to which anyone who regularly puts in long work hours can relate.  Though Dorsey's character is clearly exhausted from the brutal week of labor, there is a subtle tongue-in-cheek mood that can be detected when he wails about not having enough energy to go out on the weekend.  This humor, combined with the overall loose, yet unquestionably deep groove is the formula that defined the New Orleans style of r&b, and there is perhaps no finer example of this essential turning point in music history than one finds in Lee Dorsey's 1966 classic, "Working In The Coal Mine."

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