Labor Songs

Using Songs to Teach Labor History

The American labor movement has a long and rich heritage of song. Like hymns and patriotic songs, union songs are songs with a message. Thousands have been written by union members and others over the years. These men and women, black and white, native American and foreign born, created their own literature reflecting every aspect of life in the mines, mills, factories, shops and farms where they were forced to labor. Their songs tell us of their agony and miserably long hours for pitifully low wages. We hear of their working conditions which were both dangerous and unsanitary. Unemployment was another horror they recounted in song. Equally important, they sang of the fighting spirit of the workers and their determined struggle to improve their conditions through organization. These songs tell the history of the American labor movement.

Early in our nation’s history, labor songs were passed about orally. Later, some journals offered songs and poems to readers. Following the Civil war, with the growth of strong national unions and federations, song books containing labor, socialist and populist songs were published regularly. Among the most famous was the little red songbook of the Industrial Workers of the World I.W.W. or Wobblies). The AFL-CIO still has a songbook today and many national unions continue to publish their own.

Labor songs can convey a sense of history to students as well as imagery and emotion. Labor songs range widely in time and probe deeply in spirit. Their purpose remains the same – to narrate a story, to capture a mood or to stimulate particular action. They express hope and sorrow, affirmation and protest, courage and despair.

The selective use of labor songs can help students develop an appreciation of the struggle of American workers to find dignity in the workplace. They can also help students develop a sense of empathy with those workers and understand the powerful force music can play in protest movements.

These songs can be used to enrich not only history classes, but they can be effectively integrated into English, Humanities, Economics, Government, Music, Art and Career and Technical Education.

In addition to traditional labor songs, in rock, blues, country, funk and every other musical style, working people have told their stories throughout America’s history. The AFL-CIO has compiled a range of songs—including some labor classics and some you may never have encountered before.

One of the most comprehensive resources about union songs can be found at Union Songs: http://unionsong.com/songs.html. This site has lists more than 730 songs and poems and over 277 authors. A click on a song title will open the song’s verses. In addition, it includes a comprehensive list of articles, recordings, books, films, song links and union links.

Undoubtedly the greatest song in American Labor history and one of the finest examples of how a literary form may serve as an organizing weapon is Solidarity Forever, written to the tune of John Brown’s Body by Ralph Chaplin. Chaplin was one of the early leaders of the I.W.W. and worked closely with William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood. Soon after his release from prison in 1923, Chaplin expressed regret for his former activities in the labor movement. This song continued, however, to rally hundreds of thousands to the labor movement after its author had deserted it, and during the rise of the CIO, it was a regular feature on scores of picket lines. It is still the most popular and many consider it to be the “national anthem.” Click here to hear Pete Seeger sing it.

Alan Singer points out that high school students become historians as they use labor songs to uncover the story of American working-class life, work, culture, ideology, and organizations. The words to labor songs illustrate changes in working-class values and consciousness as workers built trade unions and communities and assimilated into- or resisted-American industrial life. They recount costly lessons learned in the course of bitter defeats and triumphant struggles. They celebrate labor heroes like Joe Hill, Mother Jones, the Union Maid, and the Rebel Girl, and roast labor villains like Casey Jones (who scabbed on the S.P. railroad line), J.H. Blair from Harlan County, and Old Man Sargent of the Winnsboro Cotton Mill. Tracing the histories of these songs highlights the diversity of the American working class and ways that working people transmitted their ideas from one generation, and one ethnic group, to the next.

Broadly defined, the category of labor songs includes songs about work-” Drill Ye Tarriers Drill,” “Erie Canal,” “Take This Hammer,” and “Haul Away, Joe”; songs about the impact of industrialization and automation on working people-”Peg and Awl,” “John Henry,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and “Allentown”; songs that raise broader political and class issues-”Preacher and the Slave,” “Bread and Roses,” and “1 Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”; and songs about the importance of unions-”Talking Union,” “Miner’s Lifeguard,” “Get Behind Me Satan,” “Solidarity Forever,” and “Which Side Are You On?”

John Henry is probably the most famous worker in United States history. The song, “John Henry,” describes a larger-than-life African-American man who used a twelve-pound hammer to drive steel rods into mountainsides. Dynamite, placed in the holes left by the rods, was blasted to build tunnels for railroads.

Examining the lyrics of this song helps students understand ideas that were important in the development of the labor movement. For example, in an era of Jim Crow segregation following the Civil War, John Henry, though black, emerged as a hero to all workers. The celebration of John Henry in song is a statement about the importance of class solidarity for working people, regardless of race or national background.

The story of John Henry is the story of a man who died while defeating a steam drill in a race; the battle pitted human strength, skill, and dignity against the impersonal forces of mechanization. But, as the story demonstrates, even the greatest worker could not stem the tide of industrialization through individual effort. To resist the power of capitalist bosses, workers must struggle collectively and build labor unions.

The United States Library of Congress “The Learning Page” features “Stand Up and Sing: Guide for Writing a Reform Song” (http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/99/sing/guide.html) and a “Reform Song Rubric” for teachers. It is part of a section entitled “Music and Our Reform History” that provides teachers with excellent ideas for how to use music to teach American history.

The Labor Heritage Foundation offers 277 labor song CDs available at http://store.laborheritage.org/cd.aspx including Pete Seeger, Tom Juravich and others. A variety of labor song parodies can be found at the Labor Heritage Foundation at http://www.laborheritage.org/?p=502.

OAH Magazine of History, the organization of American Historians (OAH) special issue on labor history, (Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter 1997) includes a piece by Alan Singer entitled “Union Songs to Teach Labor History” (http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/labor/singer.pdf) that highlights such songs as John Henry, Miners Lifeguard, and Talking Union as well as a list of labor resources on union music.

With the permission of Joe Glazer, “Labor’s Troubadour,” we have the first volume: “Joe Glazer Sings Labor Songs” available below with a description and link to each.

  • 01 ORGANIZING MEDLEY: WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED was first sung by coal miners in West Virginia in 1931; ROLL THE UNION ON was made up in 1936 by John Handcox.
  • 02 HOLD THE FORT is based on the popular gospel hymn of the same name.
  • 03 THAT’S ALL was composed by Joe Glazer in 1949 based on a gospel tune.
  • 04 JOE HILL was written by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson. Hill was an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known as the Wobblies) and was a writer of many fine union songs. He was convicted of murder and executed in 1915 in Salt Lake City. Many believe he was convicted unjustly, and he became a symbol of workers who died fighting for labor’s rights.
  • 05 UNION MAID was composed by legendary Woody Guthrie in 1940. This version includes a new third verse written in 1973 by Franchon Lewis and Rebecca Mills.
  • 06 CASEY JONES is a parody by Joe Hill of the song about the brave engineer who died in a famous train wreck in 1900. The S.P. (Southern Pacific) strike referred to in the song took place in 1911.
  • 07 WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON? Was written by Florence Reese, wife of a coal miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1931, at the height of the bloody battles between the armed company deputies and the miners. J.H. Blair was the anti-union sheriff of Harlan County.
  • 08 THE MILL WAS MADE OF MARBLE – Joe Glazer wrote this popular union song in 1947.
  • 09 SOLIDARITY FOREVER has become the unofficial anthem of the American labor movement. It was written in 1915 by Ralph Chapin, a poet, writer and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
  • 10 AUTOMATION was written in 1952 by Joe Glazer.
  • 11 HARD TIMES IN THE MILL – This textile workers’ song about the twelve-hour day first appeared in Columbia, South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century.
  • 12 LOOK FOR THE UNION LABEL – This song was used by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to get women to look for the union label when purchasing women’s clothing. Music by Malcolm Dodds, lyrics by Paula Green.
  • 13 JOHN HENRY – This historic ballad describes the exploits of John Henry, a black steel driving man, who fought the machine – the steam drill – and won, but died with his hammer in his hand. The song probably originated after the drilling of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia in 1872.
  • 14 TOO OLD TO WORK – This song, composed by Joe Glazer in 1950, was written for the Chrysler workers during their long strike to win company paid pensions as a supplement to the meager social security payments prevalent at the time.
  • 15 UNION BUSTER is aimed at management consultants who advise employers how to maintain a “union-free environment” y taking advantage of the many loopholes in labor relations laws. The tune is “Oh Susanna” by Stephen Foster, lyrics are by Paul McKenna.
  • 16 DOWNSIZED was written by Joe Glazer in 1995. At this time there was a wave of layoffs among many industries but the popular term used by employers was “downsizing.”
  • 17 UNION, UNION – This is a union take-off of the popular gospel hymn, “Amen.” These lyrics are by Joe Glazer and anonymous union members.
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