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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.


Against the Boss Man!

November 30, 2009

(Hard Travelin’ album cover)

“Every little [work] song [is] easy and simple, but mighty pretty, and [they] caught on like a whirlwind–it didn’t need sheet music, it didn’t need nickel phonographs, and it didn’t take nothing but a little fanning from the bosses, the landlords, the deputies, and the cops, and the big shots, and the bankers, and the business men to flare up like an oil field on fire, and the big cloud of black smoke turned into a cyclone–and cut a swath straight to the door of the man that started the whole thing, the greedy rich people.” (Lomax, Guthrie, 16).

Woody Guthrie had a problem with every injustice, but it is clear that he loathed no one more than the Man. Anyone with power and money to lord over those smaller, lesser people, was on the bad side of Mr. Guthrie, and he had no qualms about telling them so. Woody Guthrie was not the only singer outraged by the boss man who lived on the hill. Hating the boss was a wonderful inspiration for song, and many work tunes reflect this very sentiment. The other view held by Guthrie, was that anything could be a song and the simpler and plainer, the better. “And the words don’t even have to be spelt right.” (Lomax, Guthrie, 19). Woody believed in God and religion as he believed in the One Big Union. He felt that because God owned everything, it was impossible and unjust for one man to say that he owned anything, much less that he owned people and their lives. These men were rich, yet they gave nothing to those in need as the Bible says. He wrote of peace and unity, and he spoke against those lofty men who would try to divide his country with unfair lines of class. Woody saw the inequality in his world and to rectify it, he sang his songs and the songs of others. He was, in the greatest sense of the phrase, the voice of the people. (Lomax, 281-282). Archetypal examples of these songs are The Union Fights the Battle of Freedom, which is sung to the tune Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,

The union fights the battle of freedom, freedom, freedom.
The union fights the battle of freedom,
And the bosses come tumbling town. (Lomax, 318)

and Union Maid by Woody Guthrie,

Oh, you cain’t scare me, I’m sticking by th’ Union,
Sticking by th’ Union, sticking by th’ Union,
Oh, you cain’t scare me I’m sticking by th’ Union,
Sticking by th’ Union till the day I die. (Lomax, 324).

Guthrie’s approach to folk music and protest songs was more harsh and far less appologetic than other union singers. He was angry and he let it be known how strong he was. He did not mourn or complain in his songs; he demanded, and if that demand seemed a little violent, than so be it. In contrast to Pete Seeger’s, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender,” Woody’s guitar read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Brown Lung and Modern Atrocities

November 30, 2009

Brown Lung disease or Byssinosis, similar to the Black Lung so prevalent in the coal mines, was a common affliction of the cotton mill worker. The disease manifested itself after a lifetime in the mill where floating cotton fluff from the constantly working machines was inhaled, and after continual exposure eventually led to the narrowing of the lung airways. Workers would wheeze, cough, and experience a constant shortens of breath, which would seem to ease over the weekend away from the mill, but would then be redoubled upon return. The mills pretended that the disease did not exist, and often blamed the symptoms on asthma. As sad as the past treatment in regards to mill workers is, the most truly horrifying thing is that it is still an issue today. In the 1970s in a North Carolina cotton mill, a worker reported that, “The company knows of this trouble, but they don’t even want you to talk about it.” (Kahn). Still, over a century later, mills fail to properly care for their workers. While no Brown Lung songs are readily apparent, there is a Black Lung song by Hazel Dickens that speaks to the same troubles facing textile workers. This disease was one of the most feared because it was so completely disabling. A sick worker was not a fast worker, and due to the lack of any sort of medical plan, and a general consensus from the mill leaders that the affliction was fictitious, there was really no way to recover.

Black lung, black lung, you’re just biding your time.
Soon all this suffering I’ll leave behind,
But I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind
To send such a devil to claim this soul of mine.

He went to the bossman but he closed the door.
Oh, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.
You’re not even covered in their medical plan
And your life depends on the favors of man.

Down in the poor house on starvation’s plan,
Where pride is a stranger and doomed is a man,
His soul full of coal dust till his body’s decayed,
And everyone but black lung’s done turned him away. (Dickens, Classic Labor Songs, track 16)

Despite the progression of the rest of the working world, there are still Southern mills that function in almost the same fashion as they did one hundred years ago. The mill town still exists, and the mill workers are still over worked and under paid.

We Just Come to Work Here

November 29, 2009

(Bread and Raises album cover)

A large part of the “modern” labor movement and today’s unionization can be attributed to woman’s rights and the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s, ’70s and ’80s. As women rose against the ideals of femininity and domesticity that had constrained them for so many centuries, they entered the striking work force with gusto. Songs like I’m Gonna Be An Engineer, by Peggy Seeger spoke to the endless possibilities ahead for women in traditionally make roles. There was also a resurgence of the old Suffrage songs like Bread and Roses which served the new purposes of working just as it had served the purposes of the first wave of feminists. Bread and Roses was sung by all of the leading feminist musicians including Peggy Seeger, Bobbie McGee, and Anne Feeney.

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses! (McGee, Bread and Raises, track 2)

These old and new songs powered the women’s rights movements just as old union songs powered the Knights of Labor and other poor factory workers. Many of these songs, Bread and Roses in particular, are still circulated today and will be the inspirational driving force behind unions for the strikes to come.

Pete and Steve’s Hammer

November 28, 2009

(If I Had A Hammer album cover)

Steve Earle is one of the most famous rockabilly country singer/songwriters of all time, and has recorded numerous chart topping records. His early work, Copper Head Road in particular, put him on the map, but by the early ’90s, like all good folk singers, his serious drug addiction and abuse landed him in jail. After his release, he quickly produced Train A Comin’, a more bluegrassy version of his older self. In 2007, he released the wonderful Washington Square Serenade, and most recently, Townes, a tribute to his hero and long time friend Townes Van Zandt. Earle’s music has always been politically charged, but post prison, it has escalated in opinion. His album Jerusalem, loudly opposes war in Iraq, and many other songs speak strongly to his far left political opinions.

On Washington Square Serenade, is the song Steve’s Hammer (for Pete). I remember the first time I heard this song. It is driving and passionate and truly a work of art, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I see now what it refers to. I saw him in concert a few months ago, and it was there that I learned that Pete was Pete Seeger. While searching for a subject for a closing post, I was listening to my ipod on shuffle and there it was.

One of these nights I’m gonna sing a different tune
All night long beneath the silvery moon
When the war is over and the union’s strong
Won’t sing no more angry songs
One of these nights I’m gonna sing a different tune

Someday when my struggle’s through
I won’t have to strive
Until then all I can do
Is let my hammer fly

One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down
Leave my burden restin’ on the ground
When the air don’t choke ya and the ocean’s clean
And kids don’t die for gasoline
One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down

This song is a testament to the never failing union and the strength of working people to persevere through the years of struggle. The reason musicians continually resurrect old union songs is not necessarily because they are wonderful works of music, it is because they are still valid. If we keep singing union songs of protest, then someday we may not need to. If we continue to look toward the day when we can lay down our angry words, the day will come.