For the rest of my life — a tribute to James Taylor’s “Millworker”

Art by: Joel Kweskin

“Music is like a huge release of tension. I believe 100% in the power and importance of music.” — James Taylor

You know what I can’t stand? People telling you that you have no right to feel down. It really makes my blood boil. If I feel down, well, it’s for a damn reason. I’m the one who justifies how I feel, not somebody else evaluating my life and telling me, “well, you have this, so you really should be happy.” The catch is that person typically has a point that there is much to be grateful for, however, the way out of a feeling is through. By disregarding that, you are going around.

Enter music.

The release of tension. Arguably, the most powerful universal force in the world. On Artist Waves we focus a lot on the encouragement of music and art through inspiring lyrics, movements, actions, process, and the artists themselves. Those that push you to do your best, believe in yourself, and keep on keeping on. But where does sad music fit into that? There’s a ton of substance to melancholy music. In a reverse-psychology type of way, it claims a space towards the top.

Here’s the thing — we often find the most comfort in understanding. Not necessarily answers or positive words laced with inspirational breakthroughs. Though that can certainly help you gain perspective, there is no better companion then the emotion of “I get it.” Sometimes the “I get it” means … yes, that really sucks. Chris Cornell has one of the most profound lines in his song, “When I’m Down,” where suddenly the music fades and he belts out, “You want to be understood, yeah, we’ll I understand.” It’s chilling, and that line alone helped me figure out so many things when I first heard it in 1998, and it still does today.

But in terms of complete songs that “get it” I’ve found none to be more understanding than James Taylor’s “Millworker”. It’s one of my favorite songs of all-time.

Millwork Ain’t Easy, Millwork Ain’t Hard:

Track # 9, from Taylor’s 1979 classic, Flag — “Millworker” was originally written for Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway musical, Working, where it appeared as “Millwork” and was typically sang by Robin Lamont. The basis for the musical is people talking about what they do for work all day and how they feel about it. The story-line starts with a focus on the mundane routine of getting up and going to work for the man — sitting in traffic, parking cars, and even putting yourself at risk due to the challenges of certain trades. Sometimes the character does this job so that others do not have to. All of those on stage, reflect upon their once-upon-a-time dreams. Through all the drudgery, the foundation the characters stand upon is a concept of dreams.

Taylor synchronizes with compassion in his beautiful song. There is no anger in his voice as he glides into deep and haunting lyrics such as “I’m waiting for a daydream to take me through the morning, and put me in my coffee break where I can have a sandwich and remember.”

Swearing By My Sorrow:

When you are in rut, it often feels as if you will never get out. You’re trapped. Somehow along the way, you made all the wrong decisions. It’s you and the machine for the rest of the morning, for the rest of the afternoon, and the rest of your life. Here’s the irony — when you have a song like “Millworker” to accompany you during this time of torture, the sadness in the song hardly stokes the fire. The “this is miserable” settles you down. “Ah, yes. You get it. Music, James Taylor, you get it. This is exactly how I feel. I am not alone. You understand, when I’m not sure anyone else does.”

The Man Whose Name Is On The Label:

My favorite line in “Millworker” goes like this, “ So may I work the mills just as long as I am able, and never meet the man, whose name is on the label.” It then gracefully drifts into the wind blowing chorus/outro. In the live version, the last line starts with “It’s still…” before breaking into “Me and my machine…”

“It’s still”. Those two words makes the punch that much more powerful.

We’ve all been there. I sure have. Full-time job number one (number two)… nobody cares about anybody. Everyone either wants to get the hell out, or feels imprisoned, working a gig you have accepted as fate because you had to. Sometimes nothing is more subconsciously permeating as your given environment. Is there anyone who steps outside on an extremely hot and humid day, filled with smog, and says, “this feels good?” It’s all state of mind. If morale is down, it’s hard to be your best self. In a workforce, that can often start at the top. “Never meet the man whose name is on the label.” Exactly — come say hello to your employees. Ask them about their families. Thank them for their tireless work. Give credit where credit is due, and watch that humidity and smog dissipate as “numbers” rise.

For The Rest Of My Life:

There’s a moving ending to Working that Taylor captures in pure melody with “Millworker”. The ensemble boasts about their accomplishments as workers. For Taylor, he delivers such a melodious closing line. Sonically, it surfs the foundation of dreams in a cautiously optimistic manor, before sailing away on a gorgeous acoustic guitar outro. The story then fades into the night and into the next day.

Photo by: Michael Lutch

The thing I love about writing is — although I am on a public platform, writing allows me to go to place where nobody can find me. Picture a cup in the middle of the sea. When I go there, and I’m arm-wrestling the invisible man, I bring a song like “Millworker” with me. It’s the perfect song to close out a long day. To throw on your radio and sing along with in the dark on a drive home. You won’t elbow the window, you’ll instead take a deep breath and say, “maybe tomorrow.”

Your millwork might be a sacrifice. You might be frantically treading water. Or maybe you are giving everything you have in order to make other peoples lives better, and in the process, lost a little bit of yourself. Nobody is entitled to anything except a chance. Just don’t expect that chance to roll right up to your feet.

“Millworker” recognizes all of this. It acknowledges the truths and in doing that it, it preserves an ounce of pride in all that you’ve done and all that you are. By being compassionate, you can work the mills as long as you are able, and in the end… there’s a little room for an unwritten chapter.

“Me and my machine.”

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