Contributed by: Ben L. Kyer, Ph.D., Francis Marion University, Florence, SC and Gary E. Maggs, Ph.D., St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY


One of the most important concepts in economics, particularly macroeconomics, is unemployment. Indeed, much time is devoted in both classrooms and textbooks to discussing the unemployment problem. When used together with the traditional pedagogical approaches and techniques, Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” and Johnny Cash’s “Worried Man” are excellent vehicles for communicating the various socioecomic aspects of unemployment.


The student will be able to: 

  1. identify different causes and types of unemployment.
  2. identify and understand economic costs and social consequences of unemployment.


sophomore or junior-level college course in macroecomics; may also be appropriate for upper-level high school social studies classes.

Time Frame

approximately one 50-minute class period should be sufficient.


CD/tape player, music, and lyrics for “Johnny 99” and “Worried Man.”


Johnny Cash has been one of popular music’s most enduring figures. Born in the 1930s, his roots and early years were spent in the Arkansas Delta just west of Memphis. His apprenticeship as a musical performer began during a European tour of duty in the Air Force after World War II where he played with fellow airmen in a band called the Barbarians. After his return from service, he was married to Vivian Liberto with whom four children were born. It was during this time that Cash’s first recordings were made. “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” began his ascension to greatness within the worlds of both country and rock and roll music. Such well-known songs as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue,” Ring of Fire,” and his wide acceptance in society within both the spiritual community and the young, progressive and rebelious teens of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are reason he was inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame (1980) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992).

Bruce Springsteen began playing music in his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, because he “wanted to fit in.” He joined his first band, the Castiles, in 1965 and released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ in 1973. When his Born to Run album was issued in 1975, Springsteen was quickly hailed as “the new Dylan” and “the future of rock and roll,” and he was featured simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek on October 27, 1975. By the early 1980s, Springsteen was being called the “greatest performer in rock and roll” because of his high-energy marathon concerts and his appeal became so widespread that it began to transcend generations and the world of rock and roll. For example, during the 1984 Presidential election, both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan sought to identify themselves with “The Boss” and his immensely popular, anthem-like song of that year, “Born in the U.S.A.” The album of the same title went to Number One and spawned seven top ten singles. The 1990s witnessed Springsteen’s break from his long-time support musicians, The E Street Band, and his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad was followed by his first-ever acoustic tour.

Despite his popular and financial successes, Bruce Springsteen has always remained concerned with and connected to his small town, working-class roots. Indeed, “the blue-collar troubadour” has performed benefit concerts for and/or donated large sums of money to such diverse organizations as the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (Local 8-760 of Freehold), USA for Africa, Vietnam Veterans of America, and numerous food banks across the United States such as the Steelworkers-Old Timers Food Bank in Los Angeles. Much of his music focuses on various social and economic problems.  Bruce Springsteen was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.



  1. The official U.S. Department of Labor approach to the measurement of the unemployment rate should be explained together with the definitions of crucial terms such as employed, unemployed, total labor force, and not in the labor force.
  2. The three types of unemployment, i.e. frictional, structural, and cyclical, should be defined and sufficiently discussed using examples.
  3. The costs of unemployment, both economic and social or human, should be identified and discussed. Because the human costs of unemployment are emphasized in the songs cited, empirical estimates of these costs should be provided. For example, Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison in The Deindustrialization of American (1982) found that every one percent increase in the U.S. unemployment rate was associated with 920 more suicides, 650 more homicides, 500 more deaths from heart and kidney disease and cirrhosis of the liver, 4000 additional admissions to mental hospitals, and 3300 additonal incarcerations in state prisons.
  4. The lyrics to both “Johnny 99” and “Worried Man” should be distributed to the class and the music should be played. The discussion which follows should focus on some of the important points described below.
  5. Both songs begin with a man becoming unemployed. In “Johnny 99,” the auto plant shuts down entirely, which was probably becuase of the bad economy (recession) in New Jersey and the United States during the early 1980s when this song was written. Therefore, Ralph was quite likely cyclically unemployed. On the other hand, the “Worred Man” could well have been structurally unemployed since the place where he worked implicitly remained in operation but just didn’t need him any more.
  6. Both songs deal with the crushing consequences of unemployment. The “Worried Man” realizes that he can buy neither the shoes nor food that his children need because of his unemployment. In addition, he knows he doesn’t own a “money tree,” which could mean accumulated savings, or any “land,” which probably is being used broadly to include real property as well as other financial assets which could be sold for cash. “Worried Man” includes a more extensive discussion of the human costs of unemployment. Because Ralph couldn’t find a job, he got drunk and committed a homicide, for which he was sentenced to ninety-nine years in jail. In his statement before the judge, Johnny explains that his crime was the direct result of the debts which he couldn’t pay because he was unemployed. In particular, the bank was foreclosing on his mortgage. His final and ultimate desperation is evidenced from his plea for execution rather than spending ninety-nine years in prison.


Students will write an essay in which they will 

  1. Define and give examples of each type or cause of unemployment;
  2. Discuss the various consequences of unemployment, citing specific aspects of the songs examined to support their answer.:

Selected Recordings

“Johnny 99” recorded by Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska, Columbia, 1982); words and music by Bruce Springsteen, 1982 Warner Brothers Publications.

“Worred Man” recorded by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson (Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson VH-1 Story Tellers, The American Recording Company, 1998); words and music by John R. Cash and June Carter Cash, song of Cash Inc., Administered by Bug Music Co., ASCAP.

Enrichment/Additional Resources

The study of unemployment may be extended by examining the lyrics of other songs. These could include “Out of Work,” also by Bruce Springsteen, and “Tell Me Why” by Phil Collins, both having lyrics which deal with the socioeconomic plight of poverty. This can be thought of as a situation arising from extended periods of unemployment and thus is a natural extension of this lesson’s main objective, the discussion of unemployment.