This is the 70th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Allen Toussaint was hired by fledgling label Minit in 1960. Only in his early 20s, Toussaint already had upwards of five years experience as a session musician for other artists. For Minit, he got to work with many artists, including Chris Kenner and Irma Thomas.
Toussaint was drafted by the military in 1963, but when he was discharged in 1965, he started Sansu Enterprises with Marshall Sehorn. The house band at Sansu was the band that would ultimately become famous as The Meters. At Sansu, Toussaint got to work with many artists with whom he had previously worked. Lee Dorsey, who had previously recorded “Ya Ya” with Toussaint, had hits with Sansu, including “Ride Your Pony,” “Get Out of My Life Woman,” “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On),” and “Working In The Coal Mine.” It was the latter song — “Working In The Coal Mine” — that became Dorsey’s signature song. It spent 12 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at Number 8.
Written by Toussaint, “Working In The Coal Mine” told the story of a miner who worked long days and was so worn out by the end of the week that he had no energy to do anything on on the weekend:
Five o’clock in the mornin’
I’m already up and gone
Lord, I’m so tired
How long can this go on?
Daddy, workin’ in the coal mine
Goin’ down, down, down
Workin’ in a coal mine
Oops, about to slip down
Workin’ in a coal mine
Goin’ down, down, down
Workin’ in a coal mine
Oops, about to slip down
‘Course I make a little money
Haulin’ coal by the ton
But when Saturday rolls around
I’m too tired for havin’ fun
Toussaint’s lyrics of worn-out narrator could have worked for just about any profession, which could explain how the song resonated as well as it did. Anyone who felt tired from a long week’s work could identify, whether they actually worked in a coal mine or not. But the coal mine imagery of the song helped give it some appeal, as did the pickaxe sound effect at the beginning. That sound was convincing, but as Toussaint later explained, it was really just his brother hitting a mic stand with a drum stick.
In 1966, The Capitols’ “We Got a Thing That’s in the Groove” featured a “Working In The Coal Mine” cover that was mostly faithful to the original except for a squeaky sound throughout the track, and the best way to describe that sound is to compare it to the sound of sneakers scraping against a gym floor. Just try to listen to it and not imagine you’re in P.E. class.
Gave you P.E. flashbacks, didn’t it?
British musician John Schroeder’s “Working in the Soul Mine” was a funky update to “Working In The Coal Mine,” in which most of the of the words were jettisoned save for a repetition of “Workin’ in a soul mine/Goin’ down, down, down/Workin’ in a soul mine/Oops, about to slip down.”
Booker T. & The M.G.’s included an instrumental “Working In The Coal Mine” cover on “And Now!” in 1966. Dorsey’s comedic delivery had been part of the original version’s appeal, but even without the words, “Working In The Coal Mine” could stand on its own. Of course, Booker T. & The M.G.’s had a talent for making any instrumental song sound good.
Allen Toussaint recorded his own version of “Working In The Coal Mine” for his 1971 album, “Toussaint.” Instrumentally, it sounded fuller than Dorsey’s version. And funkier. While Dorsey sounded borderline silly in his delivery, Toussaint sounded like he was just tired.
Country rock band Pure Prairie League covered “Working In The Coal Mine” for its sixth studio album, “Just Fly,” released in 1978. The band’s slowed-down version resembled Toussaint’s version in its laid-back funkiness and bluesy guitars.
Devo had recorded a cover of “Working In The Coal Mine” to include on the band’s 1981 album, “New Traditionalists.” Mark Mothersbaugh said that Warner Bros., eager for another “Whip It,” didn’t want “Working In The Coal Mine” to appear on the album, so the band pulled it. Around that same time, Devo was approached and asked to include a song in the movie, “Heavy Metal.” The band submitted “Working In The Coal Mine.” It ended up being a hit, which became a problem for Devo. As Mothersbaugh explained:
It happened right as Warner’s was gonna release the album that they had removed the song from, so they had a super panic attack and didn’t know what to do, so they included it as a free flexi-disc in the albums, because they didn’t know what to do. It was all set to go out, so they had to put stickers on it that said: Includes single “Working in a Coal Mine!” It totally fucked up any other campaigns for promoting a single, it was totally pathetic.
Devo’s “Working In The Coal Mine” spent 12 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at Number 43.
Devo’s version of the song was later used as the theme song for the sitcom, “Working.”
Mother-daughter country music duo The Judds covered “Working In The Coal Mine” for their 1985 album, “Rockin’ with the Rhythm.” Wynonna Judd and Naomi Judd sang the song with distinctively twangy delivery, and yet instrumentally, they didn’t have to do much to the original arrangement, as it already was appropriate for country.
New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr. included “Working In The Coal Mine” on his 2007 album, “Oh, My Nola.” The entire album featured songs somehow related to New Orleans, whether the songs mentioned the city or were by people from the city, like Toussaint. In a review for AllMusic, Matt Collar praised this version of “Working In The Coal Mine” as a “swaggeringly funky big-band workout.”
In 2013, Blues/jazz band Swingadelic released “Toussaintville,” an ambitious covers album reviewing Toussaint’s work. The band’s “Working In The Coal Mine,” reworked to be more of a meandering jazz song, would have been great as an instrumental. In a review for All About Jazz, Dan Bilawsky noted that the album suffered because “too much of the vocal weight is placed on the shoulders of pianist John Bauers; he’s a firm and focused presence on the 88s, but his vocals don’t always fit the surroundings they inhabit.”
“Muppets Most Wanted,” the eighth theatrical film to feature the Muppets, included a version of “Working In The Coal Mine.” The performers for this song, though, were mostly human, as it was sung at a prison talent show at a Siberian Gulag where Kermit the Frog has been trapped.
Released in 2015 and credited to Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars, “Walk on Jindal’s Splinters” is a live recording of former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra performing at Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 2011. Biafra appeared with a 10-piece band after being challenged by Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock. Like Connick’s “Oh, My Nola,” this album featured a smattering of songs of and about New Orleans. On “Working In The Coal Mine,” Biafra and his crew sound like they’re having a blast as they blitz through the song, and even if they missed some words, no one seemed to notice, let alone care.
In reviewing these various covers, it’s worth considering not just what “Working In The Coal Mine” means to Toussaint’s legacy, but what Toussaint means to New Orleans’ musical legacy. “Oh, My Nola,” “Toussaintville,” and “Walk on Jindal’s Splinters” all show a different view of the city and its music, but they all indicate, in various ways, that Toussaint’s influences are worth noting and preserving. In the aforementioned review from All About Jazz, Dan Bilawsky explained that the timing of tribute albums like those is not coincidental:
It’s tempting to say that the great Allen Toussaint is a musical phoenix who rose out of the ashes of a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, but that’s not really true. Toussaint wasn’t reborn when his city was in ruins; people just started to wake up and take notice of him again in the wake of that tragedy. Participation in benefit concerts, a well-publicized collaboration with Elvis Costello — “The River In Reverse” (Verve Forecast, 2006) — and a Joe Henry-produced jazz album — “The Bright Mississippi” (Nonesuch, 2009) — featuring clarinetist Don Byron, trumpet Nicholas Payton, guitarist Marc Ribot and other heavyweights put him back in the spotlight where he belongs.
Toussaint’s importance may be lost on many who don’t dig deep into the credits in liner notes, but his role in shaping the New Orleans sound in the latter half of the twentieth century can’t be overstated. His Midas-like touch bestowed musical riches upon Dr. John, The Meters, Lee Dorsey and countless others. He came to epitomize the earthy, funky, raw-yet-refined sound that came out of the Crescent City in the ’60s, ’70s and beyond, but his music moved far beyond the city limits.
The covers reviewed in this post — and the ones I left out — help prove Bilawksky’s point. Sure, “Working In The Coal Mine” saw a revival after Hurricane Katrina, but the song had been revered and oft-covered way before that tragedy. And some deep digging shows that well before that tragedy, some of the biggest names in music already considered Toussaint a legend. At a concert at the legendary Storyville Jazz Hall in the late ’80s, Toussaint performed with Irma Thomas, Dolly Parton, and Dr. John. At one point in the show, they played “Working In The Coal Mine.”
In the video of that performance, Parton seemed to play the default emcee of the show and in contrast, Toussaint seemed to be just a passive participant in the the corner. But when Parton, Thomas, and Dr. John turned to Toussaint turned to him so he could deliver the line “How long can this go on?,” it obvious he was no passive player. He was beloved, even on a stage with heavyweights.
“Working In The Coal Mine” has remained one of Toussaint’s signature offerings, which is how it has managed to appear on New Orleans-themed albums. It’s a strange song to make it on a such collections, as the song had nothing to do with New Orleans. And from a functional standpoint, the song has nothing to do with coal mines, either. The lyrics were simple and light on detail, as Toussaint had never been in a coal mine in his life.
“Never,” Toussaint told The Quietus. “We didn’t know anything about a coal mine.”