No Money No Honey: 8 Songs About Being Broke
Sure, you may be penniless and without a job, but you have an escape through music! For anyone who’s fallen on hard times, found themselves struggling to make ends meet or just can’t keep their bank account out of the red, this one’s for you: 8 Songs About Being Broke.
‘Mercedes Benz’ – Janis Joplin
At a glance, the gravel-throated party heroine of the late ’60s was running through a soulful wishlist of material goods. But that’s not the core of the track at all. With songwriting credits shared by Joplin, poet Michael McClure and folkie Bob Neuwirth, the song is a damnation of consumerism, insisting that material things alone won’t give one a sense of completion. Joplin and Neuwirth reportedly penned the song at a bar between tour stops, inspired by vague recollections of one of McClure’s poems. “We were all sitting around banging beer mugs on the table and chanting what existed of the song, which was the first couple of lines – and we finished it at this bar,” Neuwirth told Yahoo! Music. It was recorded just three days before Joplin’s death, locked down in one take. And while it’s been covered by goofy girls in karaoke bars around the nation for four and a half decades, nobody has ever done it the justice that Janis did.
‘Allentown’ – Billy Joel
The steel industry’s downturn in the ’80s was crushing to small towns that cropped up around the promising mining opportunities in decades prior. Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley was particularly hard hit, with thousands of layoffs leaving entire communities destitute. Billy Joel, a wizard in translating the struggles of blue-collar America into song, penned “Allentown,” a tribute to the spirit and determination of those hardest hit. The working man’s songwriter if there ever was one, Joel connected with audiences far outside the steel industry and helped shape a cultural awareness of economic struggle in America.
‘No Money No Honey’ – Beck
While the electronic introduction to “No Money No Honey” on Beck’s relatively unknown Stereopathetic Soulmanure is a lo-fi sample of the song “Hall of Mirrors” by B12, found on their album Electro-Soma, the rest of the song is a drunk-busker mess that outlines a relatively reliable formula: if you’re broke, no girl is going to give you the time of day.
‘I Hate Being Broke’ – Wesley Willis
It starts just like every other Wesley Willis song, like the theme song for Keyboard Cat as played by a homeless schizophrenic teddy bear of a man. We miss Wesley for tracks like this, which cut right to the heart of the human condition while rattling stream-of-consciousness hilarity along the way.
‘In the Ghetto’ by Elvis Presley
America’s inner cities are rife with generational poverty, and Elvis’ recording of the Mac Davis original helped put the dimming icon back on the map with his first top 10 single in four years. Davis explained the song’s origin at the Songwriters Hall of Fame: “It’s a simple matter of growing up with a little boy whose father worked with my father. He lived in a part of town that was a dirt-street ghetto. I grew up in Lubbock, Texas and it was a ghetto in every sense of the word, but we didn’t use that word back then. I was trying to come up with a song called ‘The Vicious Circle,’ how a child is born, he has no father, and the same thing happens. The word ‘ghetto’ became popular in the late ’60s to describe the poor parts of town.”
‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ – Bob Marley
The blues filtered through a reggae lens is a fascinating thing, particularly when done by the greatest. On this track, Marley reflects on growing up poor, hungry and impoverished. It serves as a thinly veiled threat against ignoring a nation’s poor, with the prophetic warning “a hungry mob is an angry mob.”
‘I’m Busted’ – Ray Charles
When you’re unable to buy your kids shoes, or pay the “big stacks of bills gettin’ bigger each day,” there isn’t much higher a person can feel than busted. The woes are deep, the struggle is painfully relatable to millions. The incredible rendition above features a duet between two late legends: Ray Charles and The Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.
‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ – Al Jolson
One of the best-known American songs of the Great Depression, the track was written in 1930 by lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, It depicts a beggar admonishing the system that exploited and discarded him, asking why the men who built the nation’s infrastructure now find themselves abandoned and in bread lines. The song is best known through recordings by Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee. We don’t suggest you put yourself through the pillow-talk nonsense of George Michael’s version.
Gorney said in an interview in 1974 “I didn’t want a song to depress people. I wanted to write a song to make people think. It isn’t a hand-me-out song of ‘give me a dime, I’m starving, I’m bitter’, it wasn’t that kind of sentimentality”.