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The Tradition of Song

December 1, 2009

(Green, 76)

Work songs are a participative art form, not a performance form like narrative ballads. When work songs are arranged into performance songs, they are usually so drastically changed as to be useless. (Seeger, 63).

The same can be said of labor songs. Their power lies not necessarily in their content, but in their presentation. Their beauty lies in their ability to convey the message of angry people through a confrontational, but non-violent approach. Many of these songs are union powered and reference the strength of the union in their lyrics, but others are simply laments written either by the workers themselves or years later in retrospect by singers like Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, and Joe Glazer. These songs were written in reference to a specific labor force, but can be applied to any protest. As Pete says, however, our modern folk-minded tendencies lead us to believe that all unions spoke their troubles through song. In Pete’s words, “‘Tain’t true.” (Seeger, 74). The old Wobblies, more officially known as the Industrial Workers of the World, were the most musically minded radical group, going so far as to hand out song books upon entry to the union, which were emblazoned with the words, “To Fan the Flames of Discontent.” (Seeger, 74). As for union songs prior to World War One, the evidence of great compositions and popularity is lacking. While many songs were probably written and sung for each respective protest, they were soon lost in the aftermath of change and upheaval. Also, the tunes to these songs would not have been new compositions, but would rather have reflected the heritage of the people who sang them and simply be old tunes with new words added. For example, We Shall Not Be Moved was first sung by coal miners in West Virginia in 1931, but was originally known to different words as Jesus Is My Captain, I Shall Not Be Moved. (Seeger, 76). Now it is known through the voices of Joe Glazer and the Seegers.

We shall not be, we shall not be moved x2
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water
We shall not be moved.

The union is behind us, we shall not be moved x2
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water
We shall not be moved.

We’ll build a mighty union, we shall not be moved x2
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water
We shall not be moved. (Glazer, Labor Songs, track 1)

This song has seen so many new verses and rewritings that it is sometimes unrecognizable, but it’s power is always undeniable. With these words, each member surely gained strength from knowing the power of the union was behind him and that even if he should be afraid, the union’s voice would protect him.

Even with the strength of the union, however, nothing could be done on the part of the workers when a mill closed down and abandoned a town. Particularly in the South, this must have been traumatic on multiple levels. As an anonymous worker from the Aragon mill in Georgia put it, “They say when the company left the town died. The mill was the heart of the town. Without it, the town will just dry up and blow away.” (Kahn) Not only were hundreds left unemployed, but they were also without the food and shelter provided by the mill’s blanket of “family” hospitality. Songs did not rise simply from the need to improve mill life; they also rose out of sorrow and the feeling of loss. Some lament the closing of a workplace, some disease caused by cotton dust, and still others the deaths of children in the mills. Songs are the statements of people with something hard or joyful to say. Deep feeling produces a need to express that feeling, and song is a powerful and enduring medium.

Most of these songs arose organically from the personal traditions of the workers. New England textile factories drew heavily from farmers and their families for employees, so many of the songs sung in the mills were similar to those sung in the fields. Music was an integral part of rural life, and not necessarily always meant to be inflammatory or for a cause. As Dorsey Dixon sang in his “Spinning Room Blues,”

I’m a factory fellow and I work in a mill, I have to keep at it cause I live on the hill,
Ain’t got no clothes, ain’t got no shoes, I ain’t got nothing but the spinning room blues. (DeNatale)

This song exhibits the pure and simple suffering of a mill worker, but asks for nothing. It simply states the facts of his unhappy and unsatisfying life. These songs are perhaps the most moving and powerful for the very reason that they are devoid of anger. Their truthfulness and plainness is the reason that they still circulate around the music world today.

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