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About American Song

December 9, 2009

I am an undergraduate student at Smith college in Northampton Massachusetts where I am majoring in American Studies with a concentration in material culture, and minoring in Studio Art with a concentration in sculpture. I also have a deep rooted interest in traditional American music, from early religious tunes of the first Americans to the protest songs of the ’60s and ’70s. This interest has led me to intern for the first semester of my junior year at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington DC. As I write these words, my internship is drawing to a close, and as a final culminating project, I am creating this blog in lieu of a paper or other form of presentation, to share my own experiences with American folk music and the research I have done in the past weeks. This blog will center around the topic of textile mills in the Northern and Southern United States, and the labor and protest songs that came hand in hand with the cotton and wool industries. I will detail the history of mill labor and speak to the significance that music played in strengthening unions and raising spirits brought down by fourteen hour days, child labor, and the ever present brown lung disease. I will write about the lives and influences of such great names and inspirational singers as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and follow the threads left in their wake to their influences in the modern work force. Through this writing experience, I hope to expand my own knowledge of labor unions, protest songs, and the wonders of the World Wide Web through an in depth study of the industrial and musical history of our great and beautiful land.

In reference to my blogging rights: As much as I would like to, and as tempting as it is, I am unable to upload and stream sound recordings onto my blog. Copyright laws for music are incredibly complicated and I simply do not have the right to stream music. Also, as I am representing two prestigious institutions (Smith College and the Smithsonian), I feel that I must try to be as legally truthful as possible. With that said, it is however, within my rights to link to web pages that already stream music. I cannot, unfortunately, provide an entire song, but by linking to the Folkways page of the Smithsonian, any reader of this blog can hear a clip of the tune I am referencing. I am saddened that I cannot share this beautiful music, but it is all out there and still in circulation for you to find.

Finally, due to the inherent nature of a blog, if I were to adhere to the dates on which my posts were actually published, they would appear on the page with the most recent publication at the top. Because I am writing as though from the beginning of a paper to the end, I want my fist post to be the first the reader sees, and my concluding post to be the last. To get the desired order effect, I have altered the dates of publication that you see at the top of each post. I would remove them if it were possible, but as it is not, please disregard them and read this blog from top to bottom. Though I have written them in a certain order, however, each post is technically free standing and will be understandable even out of context.

This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender

December 8, 2009

Photo by Bruce Mondschain, courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution. Pete Seeger, This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.

“The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement and the one statement that cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can gaurd against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.” (Lomax, 8)

I think that the most direct way to begin to approach politically charged folk music is through an inspirational intermediary. While individual songs such as If I Had A Hammer, are monumental, timeless, and essentially the property of the American people, they were at one point written by one man, recorded on one record label, and owned by one company. In this instance, the one man happens to be Pete Seeger, arguably the most influential singer/songwriter in American history. While I intend to cover a vast span of history in my future writing on this site, and time line wise, Pete is near the end of an era when labor and union songs had a direct effect on workers, he seems like an intelligent place to begin. While he protested his then current issues, Pete also sang ballads of women and child laborers in early American mills, and about the trials of coal miners, which makes his music all-encompassing and time enduring. In the 1800s, union ballads were sung by those who needed to hear them, in other words, actual union members and mill workers, but once into the 1900s when record labels and companies began to monopolize the music industry, these songs were sung and written by people publicly recognized as musicians. (Dunaway, 127). Singers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Glazer became the new voices of the people, and united under these single voices, the unions and those concerned had new hope for organization. These musical powerhouses would lead organized workers to new levels and be remembered for their contribution for decades to come.

Pete Seeger’s hopes and dreams for the American working class relied heavily upon the acceptance of the Communist party, a group that mirrored his ideals of a cohesive and classless society. In its earlier years, the Communist party promoted protest and labor songs, and their pro-labor stance provided ample material for the politically minded folk musician. Unfortunately, while Pete sang songs of hope during his time in the military in Saipan, the party changed and the music industry became crippled due to war-induced material shortage and the American Federation of Musicians strike from August of 1942 to the latter years of 1944. (Cohen 24). Upon his return in the early ’40s, Pete found that to be a radical movement leader, he would have to sing his way into the public’s hearts without party affiliation. Obviously, given his current musical status, this was not a major stumbling block in his career. In 1946, Pete Seeger developed People’s Songs, a recording organization based in the Communist beliefs for which Pete had such passion, which both boosted it’s popularity and caused suspicion among officials. In a People’s Songs pamphlet in 1946, Pete stated that, “The people are on the march and must have songs to sing. Now, in 1946, the truth must reassert itself in many singing voices…It is clear that there must be an organization to make and send songs of labor and the American people through the land.” (Cohen, 27).

Pete was also heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, an interest which If I Had A Hammer clearly demonstrates. The civil rights movement and the labor movement were connected by many common values, and also by song. Many songs which applied to civil rights, also applied, and still do apply to labor issues today.

In this first post, I also think it would be prudent to lay down a foundation for what I mean when I refer to a “union song,” or a “protest ballad.” These are songs that express a feeling or feelings of discontent and unfulfilled working dreams; music that conveys a desire, but also, in the simple act of its moving sound, has the power to inspire organization. What Pete Seeger found, was that although he had the best intentions and laborers loved to hear him sing, the true rallying singers were those of old, those who shared a commonality with the workers that he never could; these singers were the workers themselves. As country singer Bill C. Malone so eloquently put it, “The most substantial expression of protest (as opposed to mere commentary) came from humble farmers and workers who poured out their anguish in music.” (Cohen, 10). This statement leads me to the belief that the reason many, if not most of Pete’s recordings involve audience participation is not simply because he is a group performer, but also that he realizes the power of organization lies beyond the realm of picket signs and cruel words. The heart of an effective organization is the commonality of the people expressed in its truest form: song.

From North to South: A Brief History

December 7, 2009


(Hine, John Dempsey)

Before the Civil War’s beginning on April 12th, 1861, the majority of the textile industry lay in the Northern United States. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and others, were the heart of an industry that needed water power to survive, and with a steady flow of wool from New England and cotton from the South, the textile manufacturing plants flourished. Only a few short and bloody years later, however, the Northern industry stumbled to a halt due to a lack of Southern cooperation and material as well as the modern equivalent to globalization. In the wake of the war, the Southern states were left without slavery, the backbone of their cultural structure. Their unpaid farmhands were gone and previous owners needed to become employees. New England mill owners saw in this destitution a massive career opportunity and moved their business to the South where they established mills in close proximity to their raw material of cotton, and provided labor to workers who could be paid next to nothing and were completely unorganized.

In the early 19th century, the cotton industry powered New England. Thousands of women and children from poor farming communities came to mill towns seeking employment and in the case of many, security, if there was no family patriarch. The same beginning was present in the Southern mills, but with one major difference. While the North had centuries of industry behind them and understood the ideas behind organization, the South failed again and again to form any long-lasting unions. There are many theories behind this phenomena, the most strongly argued of which is the idea of paternalism. The North had a long history of fighting against authority and especially of the family-centered life style, where the South had a tradition of community and race solidarity. Mills were not just a building. They owned the land, the houses of the workers, the water supply, and the lives of their laborers. Rather than seeing this as an overstepping of bounds as the North did, the Southern states viewed it as a strong, white, paternalistic, and altogether wholesome environment. Thus, when dissatisfaction arose, it was virtually impossible for workers to revolt against a master who seemed to share their views of white supremacy and family culture. (English, 75). From the beginning of Southern mill culture, mill owners attempted to make themselves appear to be on a common ground with the workers as both their white brothers and their philanthropic caretakers. In some respect, this was true. The mills “protected” white culture by not allowing black workers to infiltrate the mill towns, and provided a place for otherwise homeless and vulnerable women and children.

Due to the South’s initial success in the cotton industry, the North began to fear for its own manufacturing businesses. In an attempt to satisfy the complaints of their own workers, child and woman labor laws, especially in the late 1800s in Massachusetts, began to take effect. By 1898, after countless worker complaints and protests, no child under 14 and with less than 3 months of schooling from the previous year could work in a mill. (English, 22-23).

Modern Machines, Outdated Workers

December 7, 2009

(Hine, The Spinning Room)

In the 1890s, the Northern textile industry saw a major decline in production due to Southern competition with resulting large scale protesting. In an attempt to regain their past success, Massachusetts mills in particular decided to produce finer goods to eliminate competition with the rougher weave Southern products. In theory this was an intelligent and logical step forward because there was no Southern equivalent to a higher thread count, but new product production meant new machines and new training for workers to opperate them. In short, shifting the direction of production would be extremely expensive. (English 29-30).

Despite advancements in technology, the South stayed ahead of the North, mainly due to the Northrop loom, invented in the 1880s. This machine had the ability to hold multiple bobbins of thread and change them out automatically when they were used up. This meant that weaving, previously the most skilled task, now required very little knowledge, fewer workers, and thus, less pay. While cost effective in this respect, technological advancements also further prevented unionization, as the weavers were historically the most organized workers. With the advent of new and simpler machinery that women and children were more able to operate, the union took another blow. Men who were higher paid and more likely to organize could now be let go. (English 30-31).

Children at Work and Their Mothers Who Love Them

December 7, 2009

(Hine, Four Doffers)

Many of the songs recorded today in the tradition of labor history reflect on child labor and the mourning or fearful mother. Despite laws concerning how old a child could be to work in a mill, children as young as 5 or 6 could be found doing chores and “helping out” around the factory. This was mostly the case in the Southern mills where the mill town encouraged whole families to devote their working lives to the mill. Children too young to be left alone came to work with their mothers and ended helping out with simple tasks. Once they were legally of age, or more likely simply old enough in appearance, children could be added to the pay role. Even at this young age, children were separated into different tasks by gender. Boys were usually assigned sweeping and doffer jobs which allowed for vast periods of free time to play and be children. Doffers could sit around for hours, but would then be called upon to work quickly and efficiently to replace all of the empty bobbins on the weaving machines. This job was highly dangerous and often required the children to climb up into the machines to reach the spools of thread. Eventually, boys would work their way up from doffer to the position of spinner. Girls, however, were immediately placed in the roles of spinners upon their official entrance to the mill. Spinners received no breaks and needed to pay constant attention to their work. This was a much more strenuous job and required a much higher level of concentration and perseverance than the positions allotted to young boys.

While many of the songs about child labor mourn the fact that children were forced to work, the issues cannot be blamed entirely on the mills and their efforts to enlist entire families from an early age. Mothers lied about the ages of their children to get wages out of their work earlier in life, and also removed them from school and took them to the mills. The reasoning behind this, was that if they received an education, they would leave home or marry earlier, thus starting their own household without allowing enough time for their wages to pay the family back for the cost of rearing them. (Hindman, 153-166).

Most of the songs in relation to children, however, contain the mourning words of mothers. The poverty and illnesses plaguing the poor white community found its way into songs like My Children Are Seven In Number, which is set to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean with words by Eleanor Kellogg, and Mill Mother’s Lament by Ella May Williams. These are songs of the most extreme sorrow; laments of poor working mothers who could barely afford to feed and clothe themselves, much less their children. Combined with union sentiments, these are some of the most powerful and persuasive organization songs of them all.

My children are seven in number
We have to sleep four in a bed;
I’m striking with my fellow workers.
To get them more clothes and more bread.

Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes. (Seeger, American Industrial Ballads, track 21)

This song also makes the purpose of striking clear. What is the point of a strike? To get better wages. But what are these wages to be used for? Songs such as this, not only serve the strike, but also provide conext for the suffering of the people who sing. It is all very well to sing, “Down with the boss!” or “I will not suffer this injustice,” but to say that more money is needed to feed and shoe your children carries a great deal more weight.

We Shall Not Be Moved

December 3, 2009

(Lawrence Textile Strike)

In the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s, New England mill workers began to push and strike for shorter hours and better pay, as well as solid protection laws for women and children. When mill owners failed to respond to repeated worker strikes, the unions went above the factories and appealed to the state for help. In the mid 1840s, legislation finally made several visits to various mills in an attempt to understand the conditions of the workers and came to the conclusion that shortening the work day from around 14 hours to 10 hours would make no difference in the lives of the workers. In 1870, the mulespinners, loom fixers, and weavers struck again. These three positions were the most highly skilled and thus most highly paid places at any mill. Simply without the integral weavers, textile production would grind to a halt and the mill would be forced to close, so without all three it was impossible for the owners to ignore the voices of the workers. The unions also changed the direction of their demands. Instead of arguing for a shorter work day for all employees, they argued simply for the women and children. Here in lay the most powerful part of the protest. As women and children made up the majority of the unskilled workers, once their needs were met, it would be unprofitable to keep the few remaining men longer in the day. With this tactic, the strike was won and in 1874, the 10 hour act was passed. (English, 23-25).

“The Knights of Labor was the first labor organization in the United States to spearhead a nationwide lobbying effort to secure laws that would advance the needs of the ‘producing class’.” (English, 27). In Massachusetts at the height of its power, the Knights of Labor had over 30,000 members, and although the organization fell in the 1880s and ’90s, it left its mark with laws like the standardized 60 hour week passed in 1900, and the safety and sanitary measure laws passed in 1894 in the Northeast. (English, 27-28). Before the Knights of Labor, other unions rose and fell in the North and South. In the earlier 1800s in New England, the more skilled textile operatives formed the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW). This union understood that none of their conditions would improve until the Southern conditions did, so their primary purpose was to raise the working standard in the South. They eventually successfully enlisted around 5,000 followers in the 4 leading textile production states in the south: North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. Unfortunately, the situation in the South was fundamentally different from that in the North. The Southern workers were chosen because of their inability to organize and their acceptance of lower wages and longer hours. Also, because of the paternalistic aspect of mill owners and the phenomena of the mill town as a family made it possible for the owners to threaten the workers in a way that would not have been possible in the Northern states. Mills owned the towns they inhabited, and could take away necessities such as food and housing from their workers. The unskilled Southern workers also had less to bargain with and had no means of retaliating against the factories when striking. By instituting a family infrastructure, the Southern mills had insured that their workers would never be able to rise to power. (English, 71-77).

The Knights of Labor (Continued)

December 2, 2009

“All movements which have had for their object the uplifting of humanity have been greatly helped by their poets. If it be true that the heart of a nation is dead when its songs are stilled, it is equally true that the vigor, the fervency of any great movement may be accurately measured by the earnestness of its poets and by the enthusiasm with which their songs are welcomed.” -A.W. Wright, editor of the Journal of the Knights of Labor (Foner, 161)

The Knights of Labor, one of the most influential union organizations of all time, was also one of the most musically minded groups as well, due to that fact that they believed that, “songs, ballads, and poems were important in educating workers on the key issues associated with the order.” (Foner, 146) In other words, this was an organization of truthfulness. The leaders wanted everyone involved to understand their rights as members, and also that they were equal to everyone else in the group. The International Workers of the World was the union most recognized for its song, but prior to their musical fame, the Knights of Labor led the revolution of protest through music. These songs were, for the most part, songs of strength, love, and unity. The organization used music to send a peaceful message such as, “Let each one strive in peace to work – No discord may we meet. May social love prevail, To give us harmony; That right may triumph over wrong, When labor shall be free.” (Foner, 146). As with many union organizations, not all of their songs were peaceful. Some railed against the boss and other officials, others mourned low wages, and a wide variety of other complaints. Song, however, simply by its nature, allows unsavory subjects to be delivered in an appropriate and non violent manner, so dispite the content, the tunes of the Nights of Labor were able to convay a message without physical harm to the participants.