From the Church to the Union Hall | Sojourners

From the Church to the Union Hall

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").

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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