Four years ago, Durham-based singer-songwriter Charles Latham
recorded a song called "The Living Wage" for his LP Fast Loans
. The song is an anthem about trying to keep your head above water and living on a dime—even if you're working a full-time job—and the effect it can have on your mental health. "For the living wage," Latham sings, "It's just enough to pay the bills and rent, it's not enough to spend."
Latham's song seemed to foreshadowed a movement. Low-income workers, including those at fast-food restaurants, have recently won huge minimum wage victories in California, New York, and Oregon. In North Carolina, the Living Wage Projects in Durham
and Chapel Hill
have seen success in getting companies in those cities to pay their employees a better living by choice if the city (or state) won't require them to.
With that in mind, Latham re-released the song four months ago as a full-band, twangy track, complete with slide guitar, to benefit the Durham Living Wage Project
and the Scottish Living Wage Project
. We spoke with him about the song, being broke, and the future of the movement.
Embed for The Living Wage
INDY: What gave you the idea for "The Living Wage"?
: I wrote the song on a walk one night in Philly. I was worried about money and thinking about being constantly broke despite the fact that I had a full-time job in addition to being a musician. I thought about what it meant to be keeping your head above water, so to speak, spending everything you made, not saving, and that all an employer was expected to do was provide just enough to keep you alive, which was an amount calculated ruthlessly and called a "living wage."
This was during the peak of the fallout of the economic crisis in this country, so there was also a pervasive sentiment that you were lucky if you had a job and should act accordingly. I felt like I was being told: you will work for as much as we decide you can live on,and it's a recession so you'll also be grateful for the opportunity. I thought that was bullshit and that I would say so, but rhyming.
This originally started out as an acoustic song you recorded four years ago for "Fast Loans." What made you decide to re-record it?
In my head, it's always been a country song—writing it, I heard a band. It works both ways, and I enjoy playing it solo because I want an audience to hear the words first. But it couldn't be a fully realized song if I didn't do a band version, though, so initially I was going to re-record it for my next LP. I didn't have much to do with fully realizing the song, though—Stephen Mullaney, Greg Klaiber, Omar Ruiz Lopez, Nathan Golub, and Catherine Edgerton came to Greg's studio and brought that song to life.
You're donating proceeds from this song to Durham's Living Wage Project as well as the Scottish Living Wage Project. How did you get involved with the Scottish campaign and the Poverty Alliance?
I learned about the Poverty Alliance and Scottish Living Wage Campaign through some research after my 2013 UK tour. I'd gotten really strong audience responses to "Living Wage," especially in Scotland, and it had been suggested to me that it could serve as a protest anthem. I was really intrigued by that idea and wondered if there was a way to lend a song to a movement, a way which didn't entail me playing it on street corners in Scotland indefinitely, which wasn't possible according to my visa. When I got back to the States, I started researching the various wage equality organizations in the UK and Scotland specifically.
This debate has picked up some steam recently with minimum wage victories in New York, California, and Oregon. How do you see the movement developing in places like North Carolina?
I think it depends on where in North Carolina—if you're talking about the Triangle, Asheville, I think we'll continue to see more and more businesses become living wage certified. I do not think, however, that the wage equality movement has many friends in the state government and certainly no friend in this governor.
How long do you think it'll take for us to get to an actual living wage, which is probably somewhere around $20?
As long as we want it to take. Until we're ready to start screaming for it. And voting for it.