By Edward McClelland
I don’t know how many tickets I could sell to a show called Rust Belt: The Musical. But if I ever decide to mount it, I already have the score. It’s possible to tell the story of the industrial Midwest through the songs it has inspired—songs that cover a surprising number of genres, from blues to swing to country to R&B to heartland rock, an indigenous form that arose in the early 1980s to express the region’s economic distress. The 20 songs on this playlist cover the entire arc of Rust Belt history, beginning with the Great Migration of African Americans in the early 20th Century and ending with the auto industry collapse of the early 21st.
“Illinois Blues” by Skip James
The Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial cities of the North began during World War I, when factories were suddenly starved of immigrant labor from Europe. Skip James, a blues singer from the Mississippi Delta, never made the trip himself, but while working in a lumber camp, he heard the stories from Mississippians who came home bragging about the big money. “I been in Texas and I been in Arkansas,” he sang. “But I never had a good time till I got to Illinois.” Written in the 1920s, “Illinois Blues” pre-dates Robert Johnson’s better-known “Sweet Home Chicago,” and deals more specifically with labor.
“Rosie the Riveter” by The Four Vagabonds
Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb were inspired to write “Rosie the Riveter” by Rosalind P. Walter, an upper-class woman from Long Island who built Corsair fighter planes. But the character, who came to stand for all women working in factories during the war, was most closely associated with Rose Will Monroe, a riveter of B-24 and B-49 bombers at Michigan’s Willow Run Assembly Plant. Monroe was the subject of a 1944 propaganda film to promote the sale of war bonds. The model for the famous “We Can Do It!” poster, which depicted a strong-armed female factory worker who became the pictorial embodiment of Rosie, was also a Michigander: Geraldine Hoff Doyle, a metal presser at a plant in Inkster.
“Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker
Most Mississippi blues singers headed for Chicago, but John Lee Hooker went to Detroit, where he found work on the line at Ford. Hooker also became a popular nightclub singer on Hastings Street in the city’s Black Bottom neighborhood. “Boogie Chillen,” his first hit, offers a description of African-American street life in a thriving industrial city just after World War II: “When I first came to town, people, I was walkin’ down Hastings Street/ Everybody was talkin’ about the Henry Swing Club/ I decided I drop in there that night/ When I got there, I say, ‘Yes, people’/ They was really havin’ a ball!”
“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats
Before it became your father’s car, the Oldsmobile was some badass American iron. In 1949, Olds introduced a powerful V-8 engine nicknamed “The Rocket.” The slogan “Home of the Rocket” was painted on the side of the Lansing, Michigan, plant where the engine was produced. The Rocket so impressed a young R&B bandleader named Ike Turner that he wrote a song about it. “Rocket 88,” officially credited to Turner’s saxophone player, Jackie Brenston, is considered the first rock and roll song. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “the song took elements of jump blues and swing, burnished with rollicking piano, a steady backbeat, extended sax soloing and distorted guitar riffing—a tone reportedly achieved by accident via a damaged amplifier.” (It was not, however, the first Oldsmobile song. That was “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” a 1905 ode to the then-novel pastime of “parking.”)
“Cleveland The Polka Town” by Frankie Yankovic
Slovenian polkas, which are slower than the Polish and German hops, are descended from the Viennese waltzes popular throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The immigrants brought their accordions to America, and played those smooth three-steps at weddings and dances. The bands added guitars, then banjos, then fiddles, making American music out of European folk songs. When the soldiers came home from World War II, they crowded the polka dances at the Slovenian National Home on St. Clair Street. Polka’s biggest star was Frankie Yankovic. A son of Slovenian immigrants from South Euclid, Ohio, Yankovic celebrated the polka capital with “Cleveland the Polka Town.” Polka was happy music for a happy era when victorious Americans were working good factory jobs, getting married, and starting families. From 1948 to 1954, it went far beyond Frank Yankovic and the “Blue Skirt Waltz.” Doris Day and Arthur Godfrey recorded polkas, while Bob Hope wrote about the “polka craze” in his newspaper column. Polka’s heyday was also Cleveland’s heyday. By the early 1970s, though, the music (and the city) had a terrible image problem. Polka wasn’t just the sound of the World War II generation. It was the sound of a way of life America had abandoned. The Old Neighborhoods were emptying into suburbia. Their sacred institutions—Catholic churches, hard-hat unions, VFW halls, bowling alleys—were not just out of fashion, they were seen as reactionary. Polka was derided as musical kitsch. As a bumper sticker put it: “Play An Accordion, Go to Jail.”
“Makin’ Thunderbirds” by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
Was there ever a better year for a shoprat than 1955? The cars were big and powerful, the money was great, and General Motors built half the autos sold in the United States. By the time Bob Seger from Ann Arbor, Michigan, released his album The Distance in 1982, the cars were small and leaked oil, and unemployment in GM’s hometown of Flint was at 25 percent. In just under three minutes, Seger told the entire story of the American auto industry through a worker’s voice. From “We were young and proud/ We were makin’ Thunderbirds” to “Now the years have flown and the plants have changed/ And you’re lucky if you work.” (Years later, in response to a request from a Michigan autoworker to “do something to help the auto industry,” Seger licensed his song “Like a Rock” for a long-running Chevy truck ad.)
“Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes
From its founding in 1960 to the end of 1966, Motown Records produced 14 number one hits, most of them by The Supremes, whose showcase singer, Diana Ross, was a graduate of Detroit’s Cass Technical High School. Motown’s impresario, Berry Gordy, Jr., had worked on the line at Ford, and it has been suggested that he transferred the principles of automotive assembly to assembling hit records, employing separate work crews of songwriters (Eddie Holland, Jr., Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland), singers (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard), and backup musicians (The Funk Brothers). All three elements contributed to “Where Did Our Love Go,” The Supremes’ first number one hit. Gordy may have organized his business like Henry Ford, but that was not the auto industry’s main contribution to Motown’s success. Gordy’s genius was selling black musicians to white audiences. Detroit’s auto plants were a destination for white hillbillies and black sharecroppers, who couldn’t help but appreciate each other’s music. Gordy’s wholesome brand of R&B could only have emerged from Detroit, one of America’s great musical cities.
“The Motor City is Burning” by John Lee Hooker
Hooker’s beloved Black Bottom was demolished in the 1960s, to make way for the Chrysler Freeway. Crowding in the nearby Twelfth Street neighborhood and resentment over urban renewal contributed to the 1967 riot that killed 43 people. The riot was the B.C./A.D. moment of modern Detroit history, the beginning of the city’s decline into hyper-segregation, abandonment, and bankruptcy. It was, Hooker sang, “worser than Vietnam”—an ironic line because the trouble began when police raided a blind pig hosting a party for two returning soldiers. Hooker himself became part of the post-riot exodus, leaving Detroit for San Francisco in 1970.
“Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5
Wayne Kramer, the guitarist for Detroit’s punk rock progenitors the MC5, learned his instrument from a Southern-born stepfather who serenaded Kramer’s mother with Ferlin Husky, Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold, and the bluegrass standard “Mountain Dew.” Then he turned on the radio and listened to John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, and Albert Collins.
“The cultural mix as it played out in music in Detroit in the ’50s and the ‘60s was unique in the world in its self-referentiality and incestuousness,” Kramer said. “Radio was huge and you had a broad choice. If you wanted to find soul music and real rhythm and blues, you could find it. There were country stations that were very hardcore country. Even the mainstream stations would play a soul record and certainly they played all the Motown hits.”
From this musical stew emerged the MC5, who derived their sound from their city’s industrial cacophony: drumbeats as the driving tempo of an assembly line, electric guitars amplified to the volume of 425cc engines. The band’s raw music was not well received outside the Midwest. During 1967’s Summer of Love—which was Detroit’s Summer of Violence—the rest of America was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Byrds. Eventually, the MC5 got its due as godfathers of the punk movement, beginning by inspiring their baby brother band, Ann Arbor’s The Stooges. If the MC5’s sound was ahead of its time in violence, aggressiveness, and despair, it could be because Detroit was ahead of its time in those qualities, too.
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
Motown made its fortune on sugary love ballads, but by the early 1970s even its romantic songbirds had to acknowledge the social changes of the previous decade. While Marvin Gaye was recording “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” his younger brother was serving in Vietnam and riots were destroying black ghettos across the nation. “With the world exploding around me,” Gaye asked himself, “how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
Berry Gordy thought the idea of a protest album “ridiculous,” but Gaye recorded “What’s Going On” at Detroit’s Hitsville, U.S.A, and released it behind Gordy’s back. With its references to the Vietnam War (“We don’t need to escalate,”) and the hippie movement (“Who are they to judge us, simply ’cause our hair is long?”), the song was so in tune with the times it became Motown’s fastest-selling single ever. Go ahead and do the whole album, Gordy told Gaye. With songs about the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me”) and urban hopelessness (“Inner City Blues”), What’s Going On is considered one of the great soul music albums, and opened the door for Stevie Wonder’s socially conscious music later in the decade.
“Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder
Although the action takes place in New York, Stevie Wonder’s ballad of a poor boy who flees Mississippi in search of a better life in the North, only to get caught up in the drug trade, could just as easily have taken place in Detroit—where the Saginaw, Michigan-born singer began his career.
By the time “Living for the City” was released in 1973, the Great Migration celebrated in “Illinois Blues” was petering out. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Detroit’s obsolescent multi-story factories went dark, and heroin was introduced to the city by returning Vietnam veterans. As one hustler put it, “Drugs destroyed Detroit. The auto plants left, and people needed to make a living, so they started to hustle. You had white people coming in from the suburbs to buy heroin. By 1974, it was off the chain.” That year, 714 people were murdered in Detroit, the city’s all-time record. Motown was so terrifying that even Motown left town—Berry Gordy Jr. moved his record label to Los Angeles, leaving only that monument to civic obsolescence, a museum. The Motor City picked up a new, unwanted nickname: Murder City.
“My Town” by the Michael Stanley Band
In the early 1980s, Cleveland’s only rock star was Michael Stanley, whose “He Can’t Love You” was the 47th video to air on MTV’s first day of programming. When Stanley’s band began writing its fourth album, You Can’t Fight Fashion, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 14 percent. His record label, EMI, insisted on an anthem, so Stanley decided to write a song not just for Cleveland, but for Erie, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and every other town that was losing its auto plant/steel mill/oil refinery and all the drive-ins/bowling alleys/taverns said industrial concern supported.
“The whole Rust Belt situation was bottoming out at that point,” Stanley said. “From a civic standpoint, things were pretty lousy. But if something has to be anthemic, it has to cross as many boundaries as possible. It was the whole thing about civic pride, even if there doesn’t seem to be anything to be that proud about. Proud of the fact that, if nothing else, you’ve survived what was going on around you. People always say, ‘That’s a Cleveland tune.’ That says nothing about Cleveland in the song, other than the reference to East Side, West Side, which is how Cleveland’s divided up, but I’m sure there’s many like that. The whole thing was to keep it as non-Cleveland-centric as possible. It was obvious there were a lot of places going through he same sort of situation we were.”
So here’s what Stanley sang, over chugging guitars and brassy, surging saxophones that defined the proto-MTV sound :
This town is my town
She’s got her ups and downs
But love it or hate it—it don’t matter
This is my town.
The lyrics may not have mentioned Cleveland, but the video was a montage of Clevelandiana. Steaming steel mills. The Russian Orthodox Church featured in The Deer Hunter. An orange sun declining beside Terminal Tower. Dressed as greasers, the band walked up to an abandoned factory, where Stanley stuck a “SOLD” sign on the fence and broke the chain with a bolt cutter.
“Allentown” by Billy Joel
The School of Heartland Rock was a loose, early 1980s movement that included Bruce Springsteen (Asbury Park, New Jersey), Bob Seger (Ann Arbor, Michigan), John Cougar Mellencamp (Seymour, Indiana), John Prine (Maywood, Illinois) … and Billy Joel, a Long Island saloon singer sponsored for membership by Allentown, Pennsylvania. Those musicians had grown up listening to two-minute songs about surfing. Without a Pacific Ocean to inspire the next “Fun, Fun, Fun,” they composed laments about the Midwest’s deepest and most endless characteristic: unemployment. They discovered blue-collar work as a lyrical topic at the exact moment Americans stopped doing it.
“Allentown” began as a ballad about Joel’s own hometown, Levittown, New York. Levittown didn’t scan, though. When Joel read an article about the struggling steel industry in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, he not only had a rhyme, he had a topic. The song opens with a whistle, signaling the beginning of a steel mill shift, and ends with the hammering of a drop forge. In between, Joel sang, “Well, we’re living here in Allentown/ And they’re closing all the factories down/ Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time/ Filling out forms/ Standing in line.”
Allentown loved it. Joel visited the Lehigh Valley for a sold-out concert, performing the song to a five-minute standing ovation. Allentown Mayor Joseph Daddona gave the singer the key to the city.
“Allentown is a gritty song about a gritty city,” the mayor explained. “Sure, we have some unemployment and some unfulfilled dreams, but who doesn’t? We are a city of strong, hardworking people who face their problems.”
“My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen is not a working class troubador. Bruce Springsteen explains the working class to the professional class. When I worked on a loading dock, all the guys listened to Ted Nugent and Van Halen. They didn’t want to hear about their jobs, they wanted to hear about what they were going to do after work: cars, girls, and partying.
Born in the U.S.A. was Springsteen’s response to the disappearance of blue collar jobs—and of the traditional American dream—in the early 1980s. In “My Hometown,” a ballad about a nameless Eastern mill town, he works in school desegregation, deindustrialization, globalization, moribund downtowns, and flight to the Sun Belt—familiar issues in Rust Belt cities during that decade. “Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/ Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more/ They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/ Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.” If you’re from Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit or Decatur, Bruce was singing about your hometown.
“My City Was Gone” by The Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde got out of the Rust Belt way before anyone else. In 1973, the Akron girl dropped out of art school at Kent State and moved to London, hoping to latch onto the city’s musical culture. She came back to Akron as a rock star, but it was a different Akron than she’d left. The downtown shopping strip had been demolished and replaced with an urban plaza and skyscrapers—a response to the suburbanization and shopping mall culture that was hollowing out so many central cities. Sang Hynde: “I went back to Ohio but my city was gone/ There was no train station; there was no downtown/ South Howard had disappeared; all my favorite places/ My city had been pulled down—reduced to parking spaces.”
Unlike many Rust Belt refugees, Hynde did come home. Although she still lives in London, she owns a condo in Akron, where she performed with Devo at a 2008 Barack Obama fundraiser, and opened a vegan restaurant. In a region devoted to encased meats, the restaurant lasted only four years. Maybe Akron never was Hynde’s city—or at least not the city she expected it to be.
“Youngstown” by Bruce Springsteen
The 1990s were not a great decade for a protest song. “Youngstown,” which appeared on Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie-inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad, would have been more relevant on Born in the U.S.A., although it doesn’t live up to the songs on that album. Musically, “Youngstown” is spare and somber. Lyrically, it never rises above the level of agitprop. Its historically accurate details about the discovery of iron ore on Yellow Creek and the Jenny furnace prevent it from rising to universality of “My Hometown.” The blue-collar tropes of returning home from Vietnam to follow your father into the steel mill and lamenting “Those big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do” after surveying the mill’s wreckage would have fit better in In These Times magazine.
Still, The Boss wrote a song about The Yo!
“Nothing Special” by Local H
Local H, two guys from the nuclear power plant suburb of Zion, Illinois, knew what the ’90s in the Rust Belt were really about: slacking. Their 1996 album As Good As Dead is a valedictory for their hometown, which is just close enough to Chicago to inspire a sense of longing for the big city, but not close enough to hit the bars and still get home to bed. So instead they drank at Fritz’s Corner—the subject of another song on the record—watched bad horror movies on the USA Network, bought lottery tickets at the gas station, and sucked on whip-its. All the usual amusements of the broke and hopeless post-industrial generation. (Lead singer and songwriter Scott Lucas worked at a Subway sandwich shop before signing a record deal.) Do enough of those things and “You won’t feel the alienation/ And you’ll never leave this town.” Lucas eventually did leave, though, moving to Chicago’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood, where he still performs in nightclubs.
“If I Had” by Eminem
Eminem was a better rapper before he became famous—when he was just a kid living in his mother’s trailer outside Detroit, decades after the era when a guy like that could walk into a Ford plant and go to work on the line the same day. That was the character he played in the movie 8 Mile, and those were the experiences that inspired his first major-label album, 1999’s The Slim Shady LP. “If I Had” is a litany of what makes poverty so wearying. Eminem is tired of borrowing a dollar for gas to start his Monte Carlo, jobs starting at $5.50 an hour, working as a gas station clerk, not having a phone, not working at GM.
“If I Had” also includes the most Michigan lyric ever recorded: “I’m tired of being white trash, broke and always poor/ Tired of taking pop bottles back to the party store.” If you’ve ever been so low on cash you collected cans and bottles to return for the 10-cent deposit, you’ll relate to that.
“Hotel Yorba” by the White Stripes
The Hotel Yorba is a sleazy flophouse on the southwest side of Detroit, made picturesque by its huge red neon sign. Charlie LeDuff, chronicler of Detroit’s dysfunction, labeled it the “Hotel Hell” in a TV report, because of its lowlife clientele. The White Stripes, led by Cass Tech graduate Jack White, made the hotel the subject of a lo-fi rave up on their 2001 album, White Blood Cells. It’s a love song, but the chorus goes: “Well, it’s 1, 2, 3, 4/ Take the elevator/ At the Hotel Yorba/ I’ll be glad to see you later/ All they got inside is vacancy.”
The song was recorded in Room 206 of the hotel, and the music video features Jack and drummer/wife Meg in a tiny white rented room —but it’s not at the Hotel Yorba. After the song came out, the couple were “sort of banned for life” by the management, and could only film exterior shots of themselves walking around the hotel.
“Shuttin’ Detroit Down” by John Rich
The first musical response to the automotive crisis of 2008 did not come from a Midwesterner. It came from Tennessee’s John Rich, formerly half of the country music duo Big & Rich. Rich wrote the song in early 2009 after seeing a report that the chief executive of Merrill Lynch—a brokerage firm that received federal bailout money—had spent $1.2 million to redecorate his office. Rich worked in familiar city folk vs. common folk country tropes, criticizing the bankers who were living the high life in New York, while “here in the real world, they’re shuttin’ Detroit down.” The video starred Kris Kristofferson as an autoworker who loses his job, then his home. It ended with shots of abandoned factories, including Detroit’s long-derelict Packard plant.
The song was a huge hit in Michigan. It also demonstrated that the populist themes and the blue-collar audience of heartland rock had migrated over to country music, a fact already recognized by Kid Rock, whose song “Son of Detroit” expressed his love for country outlaws “Willie, Waylon, George, and Merle.”
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, And Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.