The “Workin’ Stiff” (Lionel Moise)

“The ‘Workin’ Stiff’”

Lyrics: Lionel Moise.
Tune: Unknown.


Note: The United States Census says there are 10,000,000 casual laborers in the United States—that is, 10,000,000 men who work at temporary or “short-time” jobs. To the underworld these men are known as “working stiffs.”

They asked me, “What’s a workin’ stiff?”
And I told ’em best I know,
Though all I got was a doubting sniff,
And a titter when I got through.
But I told them straight as the bow of Fate,
The same as I’m telling you.

A workin’ stiff is the lad that toils
On the tracks ere the trains go by.
And he is the victim and they are the spoils
And the victor?—is you and I.
He levels the path for the engine’s wrath
And stretches the strands of steel,
But he always rides where the ballast slides,
By the roar of the brooding wheel.

For his is the brunt in the serried strife,
The brawl of a moment’s breath;
And it lies in the places far from life
And only an inch from death.
He must blind his brain for his body’s gain
And live in the seconds bought—
So his work is long as his arms are strong,
And his pleasures as swift as thought.

Would you tender the wall of a basalt chute
To a river of grinding rage?
And lead it out like a conquered brute
From its path of pre-Cambrian age?
Would you Eden breed from a desert seed,
Through the bowels of a barren cliff?
Promote it a bit, and the granite will split
At the tread of the workin’ stiff.

When the wheat is ripe on the standing grain
He crawls on the steam-wrapped blind,
And, haggard, sways to the trembling train
As it wings through the rough night wind.
Then—the endless days in the header’s haze
And the breathless, broiling heat;
A bleary blank, for an all-night tank,
And then, let him beg on the street.

Does a city shake to a broken shell?
Does it burn to a blackened heap?
Does the ocean vomit a whirling hell,
That buries its dead in the deep?
Will you build it new with the famished few
That foster the wasted veins?—
As the field is born from the blasted corn
That fell in the April rains?

On the road, he’s a cat, and a bloody fink,
And a scissor-bill to boot:
And bindle-stiff is a gentle link
In the names that he must bruit.
For the lowest bum and the foulest scum
Are higher than such as he,
As the stars in the sky are lighted high
From their brothers in the sea.

He’s a workin’ stiff—ergo, he works.
He’s a stiff—id est, he’s broke.
He hasn’t the sense to play the firks,
And he hasn’t the brains to moke.
Which is to observe that he hasn’t the nerve
Required of those who steal,
And equally lacks in the mental tacks
Incumbent on begging a meal.

When he’s of the road he’s a nasty tramp,
If he’s working, a fly-by-night;
If he lands in court he’s a vagrant scamp,
And a couple of months is light.
But, breathless, he may progress
To the ranks of the Johnny Yegg;
For the name and the game, and the game and the name,
Are only dissevered a peg.

And truth of it is that he’s neither a tramp,
Nor a fink, nor a Johnny Yegg,
Nor a fly-by-night, nor a vagrant scamp,
Nor much of a fellow to beg.
He works when he can, like another man,
And quits when the job is done;
But the jobs are short and away apart,
And most of the time are none.

So he works the while that there’s work to have,
And goes when the work is done;
For work is the master and he the slave;
And the Master’s will be done.
And sometimes he drinks, but he never thinks and
The cause redeems the end,
Since the mind must bend as the back’s inclined.
And the back must ever bend.

Ay, the workin’ stiff is the lad that plods
Up the tracks as the trains go by;
He builds the railroads and rides the rods,
And his cities rend the sky.
But he’s never a bed to lay his head,
Nor a roof to hide his grime;
He harvests the wheat that the world may eat, and—
Goes hungry most of the time.


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