One great thing about researching a book is making yourself study subjects that you’d always been vaguely interested in but never quite got around to. Recent events in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker (not that one) has effectively declared war on the union movement, mean more to me because I know some of the history. Twentieth century protest singing began with the unions, specifically the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies. From the Woody Guthrie chapter:
The Wobblies’ brand of socialism was broad-shouldered, boisterous and uncompromising. Strikes and sabotage were their tools, the formation of One Big Union their goal. And – important, this – they had the songs, too. Fighting to make themselves heard above the right- eous blare of a Salvation Army band in Spokane, Washington, in 1906, the Wobblies began crafting pungent parodies of Salvation Army hymns, which were compiled three years later into Songs of the Workers, popularly known as The Little Red Song Book. ‘At times we would sing note by note with the Salvation Army at our street meetings, only their words were describing Heaven above, and ours Hell right here – to the same tune,’ remembered Wobbly Richard Brazier.
Joe Hill sang union songs. So did Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers. It was the labour movement that transformed old hymns and spirituals into the celebrated protest songs We Shall Overcome and We Shall Not Be Moved. In Satisfied, the Reverend Rosco McDonald, leader of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) Singers in Alabama, even ventured that Jesus’s disciples might have constituted the first ever union: “Christ’s last Passover/He had his communion/He told his disciples/Stay in union.”
The unions sang to rally the troops and stiffen spines in the face of sometimes brutal opposition. In his introduction to the 1939 songbook Labor Songs John L Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, wrote: “A singing army is a winning army.”
The glory days of labour songs were a long time ago but the battle in Wisconsin rouses memories and brings back old tunes. I felt history stirring when I watched Tom Morello and friends perform Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land at a rally in Madison:
And when John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats recorded a version of Billy Bragg’s There Is Power in a Union (named after Joe Hill’s 1913 song) with the message: “Everybody knows I don’t generally do the acoustic guitar guy rocking political jams deal but as a former member of SEIU 660 & the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians & a kid who benefitted from great teachers I wanted to spend tonight saying WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE xo jd ”
The unions have lost this battle. I just hope that the anger inspired by this outrageous attack on workers’ rights will roll on into election year and comes back to hit the Republicans where it hurts.
Note: For some quick insight into the historical context of the clash in Wisconsin, this NPR interview with writer Philip Dray (author of a book called There Is Power in a Union) is hard to beat.,