Labor Movement Songs
Labor Day is an American holiday that honors working people. It is celebrated each year on the first Monday of September. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Bob Doughty. Today we play some songs from the American labor movement on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
The labor movement in the United States has been very successful. It has won many rights for American workers. The struggle for these rights was long and difficult. Yet few people remember the battles. Americans know about them mostly through music. For music was an important part of the campaign for workers' rights. The songs are stories of struggle and pride. Struggle to win good pay and working conditions. Pride in work that is well done. Some of the songs tell of working long hours for little pay. Some tell of the bitter, sometimes violent, struggle between workers and business owners.
Union activists knew that songs could be weapons. The music was a way to help people feel strong and united. So most labor songs express the workers' hope that a union could make life better.
The people who wrote labor songs were workers and activists, not professional musicians. Usually they did not write new music. They wrote new words to old songs.
One example is the song "We Shall Not Be Moved." It uses the music and many of the same words of an old religious song. Here is folksinger Pete Seeger.
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Many of the best labor songs came from workers in the coal mines of the southern United States. Coal mining was perhaps the most dangerous job in America. There were few health or safety rules to protect workers. The labor movement demanded action. But mine owners bitterly opposed miners' unions. In some areas, there was open war between labor activists and coal companies.
Once in Harlan County, Kentucky, company police searched for union leaders. They went to the home of one man. They did not find him there. So, they waited outside for several days. The coal miner's wife, Florence Reece, remained inside with her children. She wrote this song, "Which Side Are You On?" Again, here is Pete Seeger.
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Joe Hill was probably the most famous labor song writer in America. He was born in Sweden and came to the United States in the early Nineteen-Hundreds. He worked as an unskilled laborer.
Joe Hill joined a labor union called the I-W-W, the Industrial Workers of the World. More than any other union, the I-W-W used music in its campaigns. It told its members to "sing and fight."
One of Joe Hill's best-known songs is "Casey Jones." It uses the music from a song about a train engineer. In the old song, Jones is a hero. He bravely keeps his train running in very difficult conditions.
In Joe Hill's version, Casey Jones is no hero. His train is unsafe. Yet he continues to operate it after other workers have called a strike against the railroad company. Pete Seeger and the Song Swappers sing "Casey Jones – The Union Scab."
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When labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill was thirty-three years old, he was accused of murder. Some historians believe that police falsely accused him of murder to stop his labor activities. Others say there was strong evidence that he was guilty.
Joe Hill was executed in Nineteen-Fifteen in the state of Utah. Reports say these were his last words: "Do not waste time feeling sad about my death. Organize the workers." The song "Joe Hill" was written by Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes. It is sung here by Joan Baez.
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Labor historian and musician Joe Glazer says the unofficial song of America's labor movement is the song called "Solidarity Forever." It was written in Nineteen-Fifteen by Ralph Chaplin. He was a poet and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World union.
Ralph Chaplin wanted to write a song of revolution. He said it should show that workers would always unite to claim their rights.
Here is "Solidarity Forever," sung by the Whiteville Choir. These singers are members of a clothing workers union in Whiteville, North Carolina.
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To most Americans today, labor songs are part of the past. One reason is that labor unions have gotten smaller. Another reason is that American culture has changed. People do not sing in group meetings as much as they once did.
Still, many workers enjoy hearing and singing labor songs. One popular historical song is called "Bread and Roses." Clothing workers used these words to describe their movement in Nineteen-Oh-Eight. That year, one-hundred-twenty-eight women died in a factory fire in New York City. Fifteen-thousand women marched to protest unsafe conditions in the factory.
Four years later, the words "Bread and Roses" appeared on a flag carried by textile workers during a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. That gave a member of the International Workers of the World the idea for a song. James Oppenheim wrote the song "Bread and Roses." Pat Humphries sings it.
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This program was written by Carolyn Weaver and Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. Our studio engineer was Keith Holmes. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Sarah Long. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.