Song Of The Day 8/28/2015: Michael Brown – “The Woolworth Manager's Work Song”

Woolworth's in Seattle, 1980's
Woolworth's was the only name in multi-purpose discount department stores in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, all things being equal and all chapters being 11, Woolworth's may still be the most important success story in the epoch of American retail, as it proffered a model of enterprise that still gets copied even though the brand's been defunct since 1997. Woolworth's was such the capitalist behemoth that it figured its way into pop culture, from the Glenn Miller hit "A String of Pearls" to Ed Graczyk's play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. A Woolworth's in North Carolina was the scene of one the key events in the struggle for African-American civil rights. The overall point being, Woolworth's store and lunch counter were kind of like the pantry and kitchen we never had.

Cut from that to industrial music, and I don't mean Skinny Puppy. I'm talking about the singular thrill of recordings made by corporations with the intent of encouraging, motivating or bullying employees and partners to increase productivity, efficiency and profits through the swaying power of song. This kind of music took off in business circles almost as soon as the record player became the tool of, um, record, and may still exist today for all I know. There's enough of them out there from the likes of Penney's and McDonald's that it might merit a theme week if I ever decide you need punishment (or amusement) (or both -- let's face it, I know some of your psycho-recreational preferences). The lyrics to these uniquely American works of the industrial-entertainment complex were often very specific; if you listened to enough of them you might have gained enough acumen to run a Shakey's Pizza outlet. Such records are some of the more professional sounding examples of "outsider music" that are out there.

All of this brings us, as so often happens, to the ballroom at New York City's Biltmore Hotel on June 16, 1965. The event was a private function for Woolworth's employees, and the highlight of the night was a joint production between Woolworth's and the Donahue Sales Corporation called Mr. Woolworth Had a Notion. The ties between Woolworth's and Donahue were long and deep, as Woolworth's had sold products distributed by Donahue practically since the retailer's founding.

Mr. Woolworth Had a Notion was a one-night-only revue with songs by industrial composer Michael Brown. The eight-song set include paeans to working and shopping at Woolworth's, and therefore by proxy the American way of life. When he could find an opening, Brown also shoehorned in some quick references to Donahue-distributed products like the Talon zipper. All the guests received a commemorative album copy of songs from the show, from which today's song is taken, and you can bet your sensible shoes that very collectible record currently fetches a king's ransom on eBay.

"The Woolworth Manager's Work Song" is the centerpiece of the set. Brown does pretty much everything he's supposed to do, and demonstrates some of the odder aspects of running a major department store in the '60s. Who knew you had to deal directly with the Kiwanis, or that having too much inventory was your own damn fault? You'll also hear some Donahue product placement -- namely the Talon zipper mentioned above, used here as metaphor -- and the recitation of various bra sizes that drives the song to its rousing conclusion. Attention shoppers, there's a special on Big Finishes in Aisle 3! Enjoy this, teenage monsters.

(Editor's Note: Some information in this post was adapted from the book Remembering Woolworth's: A Nostalgic History of the World's Most Famous Five-and-Dime by Karen Plunkett-Powell, published in 2014 by St. Martin's Press.) 

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