Notes on the Endurance of the American Labor Song Movement for May Day 2015

If you look up Solidarity Forever on Wikipedia, you will learn that the famous labor song, perhaps the most famous of labor songs anywhere in the world other than the Internationale, was written a hundred years ago by Ralph Chaplin, a writer, artist and union activist. Chaplin was a Wobbly; in other words, a member of the radical union of the early twentieth century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). His song has been sung for a hundred years everywhere that union people gather for the cause of the working class, whether it be a union meeting or a strike (or an anti-war rally) and is often the song that is sung to close a union function or labor rally. It’s the We Shall Overcome of the labor movement.

At the last AFM Convention in the summer of 2013, shortly after the delegates had spent more than an hour showing their support for the locked out Minnesota Orchestra members by pledging thousands of dollars to the Minneapolis/St. Paul local union, a handful of delegates were recognized by President Hair. In the middle of the convention floor, they led their sister and brother delegates in singing Solidarity, many raising their arms and linking hands together. It’s an irresistible fall-back song because of its extremely accessible chorus, which is sung simply by repeating the words, “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Joe Hill may have been the most famous of the Wobbly songwriters, but Ralph Chaplin’s song had more endurance than anything Joe Hill wrote. If you ask union activists who Joe Hill is, they will surely recognize the name, but it’s Ralph Chaplin’s song they know.

Chaplin said he began writing the song in 1914 during a miner’s strike and finished the song in 1915. According to some historians, the first time the song was sung broadly was during the great lumber workers’ strike of 1917. The strike started in the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest and spread through Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. It was fitting that the song caught on here, since the IWW provided leadership and finances for the strike. The lumber workers were striking mostly for better working conditions and the eighth hour day and, though the workers were intimidated and their leaders were jailed, they persevered and won most of their demands.

(The strike is captured in an uncredited song written at the time called Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks, whose chorus pronounced: “Such a bunch of devils, that’s what the papers say/ They’ve gone on strike for shorter hours and some increase in pay/ They’ve left the camps, those lazy tramps/They all marched out as one/ They say they’ll win the strike or put the bosses on the bum.)

Chaplin was known for his utopian language in the songs he wrote. Solidarity Forever captured this spirit in its lyrics, along with the IWW’s program for a no-compromise strategy to win power for the workers. Consider the lyrics to this verse: “All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone/ We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone/ It is ours not slave in, but to master and to own/ For the union makes us strong.” Out of the six verses of the song, this verse is not usually sung. Most singers include no more than four verses when performing the song. But one of the most frequently sung verses is the last (but not the least radical) and iterates Chaplin’s and the Wobblies’ revolutionary vision: “In our hands is placed the power greater than their horded gold/ greater than the might of armies multiplied a thousand fold/ We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old/ For the union makes us strong”.

The song has had an interesting journey, being sung throughout the organizing of the CIO, the movement that brought many blue collar workers into middle class. The Almanac Singers, which included singers like Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, recorded Solidarity on the 1955 re-issue of their seminal album called Talkin’ Union. Joe Glazer, known as Labor’s Troubadour, put the song on as many as half a dozen albums. There have been surprising recorded renditions as well. In 1970 Leonard Cohen sang the song at a rally against the Viet Nam war, giving it a slow rolling amble that is characteristic of Cohen’s music . And more recently, Emcee Lynx recorded a hip-hop version of the song, using all six verses.

The universal characteristic of songs like Solidarity Forever is their lyrical glimpse into the times of turmoil in which they were written. Most labor songs have been written by the participants of the movements, many having lived their entire lives in poverty. These were not professional musicians by any means. Many of the Wobblies were amateur poets and opinion makers, using the labor and left press of the era to proselytize their message about class conflict. For each song written, one can find the struggle that went side by side.

As an example, a hobo and day worker, T-Bone Slim, was one of the Wobblies’ most prolific poets. He wrote the irreverent song The Popular Wobbly during the widely publicized “free speech fights” of the nineteen-teens. The Wobblies took to the soapbox as a sort of street corner lecture circuit, particularly in the Pacific Northwest; in cities like Spokane, Seattle and Portland. The movement gained its widest notoriety when scores of activists were jailed for their public speech, most notably in Spokane, where over a hundred free speech participants were arrested, attracting unionists, anarchists and socialists from around the country to make speeches as civil disobedience. T-Bone Slim’s song was sung to the tune of They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me: “Oh, the jailer went wild over me/ And he locked me up and threw away the key/ Oh it seems to be rage/ They keep me in a cage/ They went wild, simply wild, over me.”

The tradition of the Wobbly parodies and social commentaries was handed down through the mass movements of the twentieth century. Civil rights activists in the South during the sixties sang a version of The Popular Wobbly in the jails of Mississippi and Alabama. Maurice Sugar, who became active in the labor movement as a socialist at the height of the IWW movement wrote his Soup Song to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. It could easily be mistaken as a song by Joe Hill or T-Bone Slim: “I’m spending my nights in a flop house/ I’m spending my days on the street/ I’m looking for work but can’t find none/ I wish I had something to eat/ Soo-oup, soo-oup, they gave me a bowl of soup.” But Sugar’s most effective activism was during the CIO movement, as one of the first labor attorneys working for the United Auto Workers. He wrote a song that became immensely popular about the sit-down strikes that spread through the auto industry in the Great Depression: “When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk/ Sit down, sit down/ When the boss sees that, he’ll want a little chat/ Sit down, sit down.”

Woody Guthrie’s and Pete Seeger’s occupation with union songs quite likely was spurred by their association with Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland and Sarah Ogan Gunning, a singing family from the coal fields of eastern Kentucky. During the rise of the National Miners Union and the United Mineworkers of America, they wrote scores of songs using melodies that were popular with Appalachian Mountain people. Jackson wrote I Am A Union Woman with lyrics as strong as anything in literature: “The bosses ride their big white horses while we tramp through the mud/ Their banner is the dollar sign and ours is dipped in blood.” Another CIO era poet was John Hancox, an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. Hancox wrote the ever-present picket line song, ” Roll the Union On”, another song recorded on the 1955 Talking Union re-issue.

These examples of songs that have come from the struggles of the labor movement in the United States are but a few of an immense body. Labor activists have continued to write songs about labor struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the current era of the unions’ fight for their right to exist. But interestingly, musicians of today, when coming to the aid of working class struggles, whether it be in Wisconsin or on Wall Street or in the recording studio, rely heavily on the library of songs that came from the workers movements of the early twentieth century. For many decades to come, I’ll wager, we’ll continue to sing songs like Solidarity Forever and Roll the Union for their eloquence and simplicity. Because as long as musicians sing for justice, they will continue rediscover the great lyrics, music and poetry handed down through the years, as in the prophetic yearning of James Oppenheim poem, Bread and Roses: “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.”

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