By Dillon Henry
The importance of music throughout the history of the labor movement in the United States cannot be overstated. However, it was not until the dawn of new musicology that much serious scholarly work was done on topic. Musicians of both academic and folk backgrounds, historians, and sociologists have all contributed research on the movement, which provides a unique depth and variety of sources. Still, because this is a vast topic that has roots in numerous disciplines, there is ample room for further research.
From the first national labor union in the United States in 1866 to the New Deal era and through the 1950s, the labor movement played a pivotal socioeconomic role in American history. Even in the movement’s humble beginnings, music was vital in spreading its message and attempting to unite the working class across the country. Most of the movement’s songs were repetitive and memorable, making them easy to sing; the lyrics glorified work, promoted brotherhood, and rejected the excesses and exploitative practices of a ruling capitalist class. While the organized labor movement and union membership have waned considerably since the second half of the twentieth century, the music has lived on. With the advent of new musicology, the repertoire has, in recent years, benefitted from serious scholarship. This paper will focus on: books and articles about the general history of music and social movement in the United States; sources focused on describing discrete aspects or chronological segments (e.g. a specific geographical region or decade) of music and the labor movement; analytical sources focused on the music and history of labor songs themselves; and sources tracking the labor movement singer, who would become important with the advent of recording technology and keep the spirit of the movement alive even into the present day.
Because the labor movement in the United States was so far-reaching over time and place, many sources narrow their focus on a single time, location, and/or aspect of the movement. Indeed, this is where the bulk of research on the movement’s music lies, and the blanket category under which most of the consulted sources fall. It is not possible to address all of them in such a short space (true in all the categories in this paper, but mostly so here), but a few have been singled out for further consideration.
In For Democracy, Workers, and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865-95, Clark D. Halker examines labor music from the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to the end of the nineteenth century. His numerous endnotes and matter-of-fact prose make his writing reputable and easy to follow. He makes a case for his thirty-year time span in terms of the goals of the movement as well as the character of labor song-poems produced in this time frame. These change drastically at the turn of the century with the rise of socialist ideology among radicals in America: “… the older form and the vision of Gilded-Age song poets would become an anachronism to radicals, who argued that socialism offered a more relevant and useful way to understand capitalism and to structure labor’s advance. … Radicals after 1900 employed a song-poetry qualitatively different than that of Rees Lewis and Michael McGovern.” Halker’s logical beginning and ending points illustrate that such a culture and movement did not exist unbroken and unchanged, which is important to recognize to avoid sweeping, inaccurate generalizations.
This change is strikingly evident when one skips forward in time and reads Robbie Lieberman’s “My Song Is My Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50. This timeframe surrounding World War II and the emergence of a Soviet power provides a wildly different backdrop for music and the labor movement. Lieberman writes of the “Coops,” the United Workers Cooperative Colony, a housing project in the Bronx, of whom the vast majority of its thousands of tenants were Communist or pro-Communist. “The Coops nurtured the Communist movement culture through activities and organizations, beginning with the Young Pioneers, a CP [Communist Party] group that children could join at the age of eight. … All these activities had some radical political content. For example, choral groups sang left songs and Red Army songs. Athletic teams wore shirts with slogans such as ‘Free the Scottsboro Boys.’” Lieberman paints a different picture of the movement, especially when one considers the onset of McCarthyism and its surrounding controversy and hysteria.
For a detailed account of a still more specific location and timeframe during the labor movement, there is Vincent J. Roscigno and William F. Danaher’s The Voice of Southern Labor: Radio, Music, and Textile Strikes (1929–1934). The authors approach the topic from a sociological point of view, while also providing the historical context of mill villages, radio station foundings, and strike events. They dug up and used over one hundred interviews of mill workers from the time period for this book. “These interviews, used throughout the book, speak to issues of work life, family life, and changes in each. Moreover, many of the workers discuss the emergence of radio, the role of music in their personal and family lives, hearing FDR on the radio, and the strikes that unfolded in their own mill villages.” These interviews no doubt took painstaking effort to retrieve, listen to, and analyze, and it is no surprise why the authors relegate their book to such a brief timeframe. This keeps their book focused, and their commitment is evident, and it shows just how sharply focused research on this sprawling topic can be.
While many sources on music in the labor movement focus primarily on the music’s role in organizing, mobilizing, and uniting laborers, there are a number of sources that look at the songs themselves. Terese Volk’s “Little Red Songbooks: Songs for the Labor Force of America,” looks at the songbooks used in four labor colleges in the United States. She describes the life at these colleges and discusses their songbooks: “The songs in these songbooks belong to the people. Their melodies were, in nearly all cases, those of the folk or popular songs of the day or were hymn tunes. What made these songs into special labor songs is that they were nearly all parodies written by workers. (There were some composed songs; the best known of these were written for the IWW.)” She provides a useful table that lists selected, popular labor songs and the accompanying tunes that they borrowed. Though she looks at only four songbooks, a number of the songs she lists appear in all four songbooks, and therefore highlight the popularity of a certain few handfuls of tunes: thus these four songbooks capture a wide swath of prominent labor songs.
It may seem unorthodox to include an actual songbook in a bibliography, but Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer’s Songs of Work and Protest: 100 Favorite Songs of American Workers Complete with Music and Historical Notes is a surprisingly neat, tidy, and useful compendium of labor songs. Those looking for footnote citations will be disappointed, but it is an edited collection of songs arranged for guitar and vocals with chord progressions listed, and Fowke and Glazer provide composers’ and lyricists’ names (when known). They also give backstory on the creation of each song (when known). For the song “Jerry Go and Oil That Car,” for instance, the editors write:
It was originally sung in an exaggerated Irish dialect … When Carl Sandburg included the song in his American Songbag he noted: “In 1884 Charles Lummis heard Gunnysack Riley sing this in Albequerque, New Mexico. Later, as an editor, he wanted the verses and put the matter up to Santa Fe railroad officials, who sent out a general order covering the whole system, calling for the verses to ‘Jerry Go An’ Ile That Car.’ A lost song was dug up…’”
This source is not an end-all be-all for scholarly pursuits, but it provides a capsule look at the musical construction of a large number of tunes (one hundred) and a brief history on how they came to be. The book also presents an extensive index of pertinent books and recordings for further reading and listening.
Robert V. Wells is a historian first and foremost, but his experience with the guitar, learning to play and sing folk songs, led him to write his book Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folks Songs and American History. From the perspective of both a performer and a historian, he traces the origins and discusses the musical stylings of a number of different tunes. Not all of these tunes deal specifically with the labor movement (though there is an entire chapter devoted specifically to the movement), but they all involve themes that were a part of working-class American life. He writes of the song ‘Boll Weevil’: “The ‘Boll Weevil’ is known widely across the South in varied forms but with the same basic message: the search for a home. Striking differences in lyrics and melodies in the way this message was expressed across the South suggest the weevil spread so fast that the first songs could not keep up, inspiring constant composition in the face of this munching catastrophe.” The prose is colorful and inviting, and copious endnotes allow the reader to follow Wells’s research trail.
The Labor Musician
With the advent of radio and recording technology in the twentieth century, individual artists rose to prominence through their singing of worker’s songs, some achieving the status of cultural icons for their representation of and speaking out for the working man.
No writing on labor musicians would be complete without mention of Pete Seeger, and Ronald Cohen and James Capaldi’s Pete Seeger Reader presents writings of great depth and breadth on the late musician and activist. This book is a compilation of writings by Seeger himself as well as those who wrote about him over the course of his long career, looking at all facets of his life beyond just the music. The writings are arranged almost all chronologically across seven decades, with the earliest from 1939 and the latest from 2009, and Seeger’s own writings are often personal and conversational. The reader senses Seeger is there talking to him or her, painting a picture of a different, perhaps simpler America: “If you play an instrument, why don’t you try this and start traveling yourself someday? Take along your music box and start off by the thumb route – hitch-hiking. Or you can ride the side-door Pullman, or if you can, if you care, ride in style behind the wheel of an automobile…” The sheer changes in subject and tone across the writings provide their own historical insights to the constantly undulating cultural landscape of America.
Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound For Glory is a fascinating read as well. One gets the impression, however, especially through its dialogue, that it is at least partly fictionalized. Said dialogue is written to resemble Midwestern American vernacular, and it is at times nearly painstaking to parse: “…‘cause, ya see, men, I jes’ happen ta believe they’re right an’ you’re wrong.’ ‘You an’ yore letter, an’ yore pack of mangy curs! Boom town rats!’” But if one can accept this book as sensationalized and get comfortable interpreting the dialogue, it gives a unique (albeit slightly fantastical) first-hand glimpse into the life of one of the most famous labor troubadours.
Bryan Garman traces a retrospective view of the lineage of labor singers in his A Race of Singers: Whitman’s Working-Class Hero From Guthrie to Springsteen. In particular, as could be inferred from the title, he connects this style of musician to the writings and ideas of Walt Whitman. He does not talk so much about the labor movement itself, except for where it pertains to the ideologies of specific singers. Still, his writing is well-researched, and takes the reader closer to the present day, in its discussion of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom have carried on the tradition of Guthrie and Seeger. The flames of the labor movement have long since died down, but Dylan and Springsteen are nonetheless couched in its traditions, and their music warrants consideration if one is to look at the labor movement’s legacy.
The labor movement in the United States had a long, rich, multi-faceted history in which music played an important role. Because of its social, cultural, and political angles, its broad geographical scope, and its almost one hundred year-lifespan, the movement has not yet been exhaustively chronicled. The survey here offers a (hopefully) useful but incomplete scaffolding for studying the myriad dimensions of music’s role in the labor movement. Not every source consulted could be adequately addressed in a document of this length, but a more complete bibliography below includes additional satisfactory sources. There is much more research and writing to be done on specific timespans, regions, and singers with regards to the movement. That being said, there are more than enough resources currently available to guide and aid interested scholars, and these sources come from a variety of authors: academic musicians, folk musicians, sociologists, and historians, among others. This provides the future researcher with differing focuses and viewpoints, which can shape a more complete overall understanding of a topic than sources coming from a single discipline. As the bulk of the scholarship in this area is recent (from roughly the 1980s onward), there is little doubt that it will continue to flourish in the future.