The Common Good
September-October 1996

From the Church to the Union Hall

by Margaret Hoven, David Earle Anderson | September-October 1996

The songs of working people.

"The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement," wrote novelist John Steinbeck, "and the one statement that cannot be destroyed....Songs are the statement of a people. Listening to their songs teaches you more about a people than any other means, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations."

Whether it's the turn-of-the-century "Hard Times in the Mill," describing how "cotton mill boys don't make enough/To buy them tobacco and a box of snuff," or a "A Miner's Life," with its warning of both natural dangers ("watch the rocks, they're falling daily") and exploitation by the bosses ("Keep your hand upon the dollar/And your eye upon the scale"), working people have turned to music to limn their experience, protest their conditions, heap scorn on oppressors, celebrate heroes, and rally one another in the cause of organized labor.

Sometimes the writers and composers of these songs are known, as in the case of Florence Reece. After a band of deputy sheriffs broke into her cabin looking for her husband, Sam, a union organizer, she tore off a page from a wall calendar and penned what perhaps is the most famous song to come out of the coal fields: the defiant, decision-demanding "Which Side Are You On?"

Woody Guthrie, of "This Land is Your Land" fame, is perhaps the most famous balladeer of 20th-century working-class life. Taken on their own, his hundreds of songs provide almost a complete history of 20th-century working life—songs like "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" (on the migrants of the Great Depression), "Union Maid" (a song of praise for the courage of union women), and "1913 Massacre" (the story of the death of 72 people, mostly children, during a Christmas party of strikers in a door-rushing panic initiated by "copper boss thugs").

Just as often, however, the songs of working people have been written anonymously. Their power and importance were not diminished because of such anonymity. For working people, a song was the story of their lives, as well as a weapon to change that life. Together, these working people have given rise to a body of songs and ballads that constitute one of the country's richest cultural treasures.

The Wobblies, the name given to members of the militant International Workers of the World (the utopian labor union that flourished in the early decades of this century), said it pointedly: "Right was the tyrant king who once said, 'Beware of a movement that sings.'... Whenever and wherever the oppressed challenge the old order, songs are on their lips."

The Wobblies also created the most enduring labor song, "Solidarity Forever," penned by Ralph Chaplin during a l915 strike by coal miners in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Chaplin said he wanted "a song...full of revolutionary fervor" with a chorus that was "singing and defiant." Using the melody from the infinitely adaptable "John Brown's Body," Chaplin created just that:

When the union's inspiration
Through the worker's blood shall run,
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.

Folk music, the music of the people, is a subversive music, whether it be the traditional Anglo-American ballad from the mountains and rural areas of the South or the rural blues-to-urban jazz continuum of the African-American tradition. It is subversive because it presents an alternative reality that sneaks through the cracks of the hegemonic culture in which most of us live and find our moral, aesthetic, and political values. The hegemonic, or dominant, culture is the conventional wisdom, the taken-for-grantedness of the world in which we live. It is also what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls "the royal consciousness."

But the royal consciousness does not always square with the experiences, the lived reality, of some people and some groups in society, nor does it give adequate expression to either the pain and sorrows, or the longings and hopes, of those people. When this happens, an alternative, a subversive counterculture, develops as a critique of the dominant culture. It fills the gaps left by the hegemonic but also points to its transformation by including the hopes and aspirations of those left out.

This alternative culture seeks to use its expressive power to mobilize its constituency to nurture the solidarity that brings about spiritual and political change. Denied access to the "high" or dominant culture, the alternative culture draws on all the resources available to folks at the margin.

For working-class Americans, the church—its language, symbols, and, most important, its music—has been a critical resource. As Edith Fowkes and Tom Glazer have noted, "musically speaking, the line from the church to the union hall is very often short and direct. Some of the greatest union songs have been adopted from hymns, gospel songs, and spirituals."

THE CLOSE ASSOCIATION of music and labor that gave unions the reputation of being a singing movement flowered in the first half of the 20th century. Many of the best of those songs came from a handful of industries that were especially crucial to American industrialization. They were also those in which the workers were most exploited, the conditions most dangerous, the greed of owners most transparent, and the need for solidarity, militancy, and the union most obvious—mining, railroads, textiles, and agriculture.

These songs were part of the classic folk process. Borrowed from the church or other sources, they were fashioned for the moment and then picked up by other movements and causes as the occasion required. Sometimes, as in the case of some of the most popular songs of the civil rights movement, their earlier antecedents—as union songs and even as hymns—are forgotten.

No song illustrates this process more than the classic "We Shall Overcome," which in the 1960s became the anthem of the civil rights movement. Not surprisingly, the song's origins are in an African-American gospel hymn, "I'll Overcome Someday," also known as "I'll Be All Right." It was usually sung fast, often with hand clapping. It was imported into the labor movement in 1945 when several hundred tobacco workers—mostly women, mostly black—went on strike in Charleston, South Carolina. As Pete Seeger and Bob Raiser tell the story, one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, loved to sing it in the extremely slow "long meter" style. She changed the first words from the individual "I" to the collective "We."

Zilphia Horton, music director at the Highlander Folk School, a labor school in Tennessee, learned it in 1947 from members of the Food and Tobacco Workers' Union. Horton took the song to union rallies all over the South. In 1960, Guy Carawan taught the song to a workshop of civil rights activists at Highlander, and later that year it was sung at the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Within a few months it was known as the unofficial theme song of the movement.

In 1936, John Hancock, an African-American tenant farmer and lay preacher, wrote "Roll the Union On" for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Hancock used the old spiritual "Roll the Chariot On" to create a defiant, power-engendering song with lines such as "If the scabs get in the way, we're going to roll right over them....We're going to roll the union on."

While not perfect, the labor movement often told a different story about gender than the dominant culture's version of genteel, middle-class family values that saw a woman's proper place as in the home. Women and often, of necessity, children made up a significant portion of the exploited work force, especially in the textile industry.

Nowhere was the labor movement's vision of a better life more fully expressed than in the dramatic 1912 strike of 20,000 textile workers—mostly women and children—in Lawrence, Massachusetts, known as the "bread and roses" strike. It was one of the most democratically run strikes in labor history, with a strike committee of 56 people representing the 27 different languages spoken by the immigrant laborers.

During one of the many marches held by the strikers, young girls carried a sign with the slogan, "We want bread and roses too," a powerful reminder that the union struggle was about the ability to enjoy beauty as well as economic survival. The sign inspired poet James Oppenheim to write the poem "Bread and Roses" which was set to music by Caroline Kohlsaat:

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!"

IN THE POST-INDUSTRIAL era, the penetration of folk and working-class communities by the homogenizing impact of television and other forms of popular culture began to change the musical environment. In the 1960s, the voice speaking of an alternative culture switched from the working class to the affluent baby-boomer youth culture.

This has changed, but not ended, the counterculture narration of working-class conditions. Means and message are being adapted to the new conditions but there is still continuity with the old. There remain singing unions, such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), which penetrated the national consciousness a few years back by using music to urge people "to look for the union label." Organizing troubadours like Si Kahn, whose laments such as "Aragon Mill" are a powerful portrait of contemporary working-class life, still remain. There are also moments when popular mainstream music suffused with working-class consciousness touches the nerve of a mass audience, as does that of Bruce Springsteen.

The Wobblies remain right in warning oppressors everywhere to "beware of a movement that sings," for surely, in new ways and new places, the songs of working people will rise again.

MARGARET HOVEN has recorded an album, Urban Harvest, and currently works with children in the Washington, D.C. public school system. DAVID EARLE ANDERSON is a Washington, D.C. writer of poetry and essays. This article is adapted from a workshop presented at a national retreat of the Order of Sts. Martin and Teresa.

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