Singing History

Labor History Month

Volume CVIII, No. 5May, 2008

Charlie King
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Charlie King and Anne Feeney are two of labor’s modern troubadors. They are inspired by those who came before them.
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Pete Seeger reminds us that people have been making up songs to get the work done since time immemorial: sea shanties; field hollers; lullabies. And when people want to rock the boat and dump the bosses, they sing songs — new songs; new lyrics to old tunes; new life breathed into old lyrics; new rhythms to old parlor cadences. You can tell the history of labor organizing in the U.S. without speaking a word. The songs tell it all. More importantly the songs made it happen. Labor songs have energized and informed union organizing and have told our story because the media and the American history books won’t. 

It didn’t start here. European immigrants and African slaves carried the flame of songs and visions as they struggled to make a life in new and unfamiliar soil. Big visions: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water — fire next time.” Or: “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” They dreamed of the world turned upside down and their songs reflected it. 

For over a century labor ran on these songs. In 1863 the American Mineworkers Association included in their constitution a lyric to remind them “…by union what we will can be accomplished still. Drops of water turn a mill, singly none…”

When in 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions (soon to be the American Federation of Labor) adopted the eight-hour-day movement as its earliest organizing project, they inherited the vision penned by a preacher in 1866 and set to music in 1878. Not just the demand for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will…” but also the declaration “hurrah for labor… It has filled the world with plenty, it will fill the world with light.”

When the bright march “L’Internationale” was sung here American translators asserted “The Earth shall rise on new foundations. We have been naught, we shall be all!”

But it was the concrete and confrontational demands like “eight hours” that came to define labor song as it entered the 20th century. The Industrial Workers of the World produced a flood of union songs written to popular songs and hymns: easily learned, easily sung, easily re-written for specific struggles. Songs like “What We Want” and “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back” left no doubt where this union was headed. The Lawrence textile strike of 1912, a textbook example of how to organize a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic immigrant work force into a unified labor movement, will be remembered for the cry “Bread and Roses” because it was memorialized in that eponymous song. 

Songwriters like Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, Haywire Mac McClintock, and T-Bone Slim churned out songs for the IWW’s “Little Red Songbook” in the pre-World War I era that are still sung today. And they gave us the song that is known all around the world as the anthem of international labor unity: “Solidarity Forever.”

The red scare did its best to destroy union organizing and union singing, but the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed proved fertile ground for working class movements and song.

In 1931, while Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney composed the 1930’s anthem “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” in New York, the coalfields of Kentucky rang to Florence Reese’s “Which Side Are You On?” and the textile strikers of North Carolina beat back racial divide-and-conquer by adapting an African-American hymn: “Black and white together, we shall not be moved.”

Back in New York, classical musicians formed the Composers Collective to contribute their skills to working class struggles. Elie Siegmeister, Charles Seeger, Earl Robinson, Marc Blitzstein, Hans Eisler and Aaron Copeland wrote for labor choruses and theatre.

With the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO) in 1935, a wave of industrial organizing and militant strikes rode on an undercurrent of song: “Oh write me out my union card, we’ll organize and we’ll fight hard, ‘cuz all my rights been taken away” or “Sit down just take a seat, sit down and rest your feet, sit down ya got ‘em beat. Sit down! Sit down!”

Back in New York City, the Almanac Singers (including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Sis Cunningham) greeted the 1940’s with a new batch of labor songs in their LP “Talkin’ Union.” Organizing slogans like “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union” or “Take it easy, but take it” derive from Almanac’s lyrics. And it was then that Woody penned a grass roots response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (20 years old but enjoying a surge of popularity with Kate Smith’s 1938 recording) with a song that starts out “This land is your land, this land is my land.”

Members of the Almanacs founded the Weavers, the soundtrack of the post-WW II era, until yet another red scare hounded that ensemble into early retirement.

The 1950’s marked a transition from industrial unionism to a less adversarial business unionism and some of the best visions and visionaries were driven out of the AFL-CIO. With a top-down organizing model, the bottom-up energy of songs was less called for and peoples’ songs flowed in other directions, notably the civil rights and anti-war movements. 

But labor music is alive and well in spite of it all. Clear examples? I’d single out the Great Labor Arts Exchange which happens each June at the National Labor College in Silver Springs, Maryland (

The list of contemporary artists who sing in the cause of labor is longer than space allows, so I’ll single out one, a woman who has continued that tradition of Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Aunt Molly Jackson, singing in union halls and picket lines, moving her bones like Mother Jones to front of every fight, thinking locally and singing globally: Anne Feeney ( In fact, Anne Feeney also has an essay in this month’s Allegro; printed below.

If you’d like a longer list or a bunch of sources for labor history or music, you can write to me via my Web site at

Charlie King, a member of AFM Local 1000, has been at the heart of American folk music for over 40 years. His songs have been recorded and sung by other performers such as Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, John McCutcheon, Arlo Guthrie, Peggy Seeger, Chad Mitchell and Judy Small. Honors include an “Indie” award for one of the top three American folk recordings of 1984. In May of 1998 the War Resisters League gave their Peacemaker Award to King and to Odetta. Pete Seeger nominated King for the Sacco-Vanzetti Social Justice Award, which he received in November 1999. King has released a dozen solo albums since 1976. He has also released three albums with the touring ensemble Bright Morning Star, and numerous compilation albums with other artists.


As another May Day comes and goes, we cultural workers in the labor movement know that it will pass without comment in most U.S. unions.

But around the world, millions of workers will gather to remember and honor the sacrifice of Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs in the 1886 battle for the eight-hour day. They will link arms and sing “The Internationale.” They will sing this 120-year old song in Korean, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Urdu, Hindi, Swahili and Chinese.

Here in the U.S., most people — even union members — couldn’t begin to hum the tune, and we know little of the Haymarket Massacre and less about May Day.

I’ll suggest to you that one of the reasons that we don’t know our history is because we don’t know our songs.

Since the dawn of humanity, we have been writing and singing songs as a way to remember our history and traditions. So many lessons that we have learned — both bitter and glorious — are remembered in labor songs.

Music that inspires us to collective action, music that inspires us to make individual sacrifices for the common good, or music that reminds us of the bloody and exploitative history of American industry will never sell at WalMart. And so this music has all but disappeared from our cultural landscape.

I spent 12 years as a trial lawyer believing that “professionals” would be able to make the system fairer to working people. I came to understand that was not, and would never be, true.

Studying our history convinced me that any powerful and important changes have come from the bottom up. Professionals, politicians and philanthropists are helpless to effect social change — without mass movements behind them.

We hear labor leaders decry U.S. labor law and declining union density. While these are problems to be sure, our failure to advance labor’s agenda has little to do with labor law. It has little to do with union density.

France has a fantastic labor movement, even though its union density is lower than ours. But French workers have something that we do not have — class consciousness. This is something that has been drilled out of us by corporate America.

No matter who we are, we say we are “middle class.” People on food stamps think they are middle class. People with six-figure paychecks and millions in assets consider themselves middle class. Can we really all be middle class? Who benefits from that perception?

It wasn’t until I immersed myself in American labor music (and began writing some of my own labor tunes) that I began to see where our class consciousness resides — in our culture!

For instance, a visit to will give you a glimpse into a huge variety of cultural expression of working class value: books, music, films, art, puppets, poetry and more.

As I continue to learn and produce working-class oriented material, I become energized, optimistic and savvy.

I can hear some of you now: “I’m not working class! I’m a professional!” But unless you are primarily an employer, you are a worker — and a member of the working class. See if the values articulated in the cultural works of the labor movement speak to your true heart. I may just find you whistling “The Internationale” next May Day! 

Anne Feeney ( is a freelance troublemaker from Pittsburgh. Her award-winning songs have been featured in several films and are sung by activists everywhere — including Peter, Paul and Mary. Feeney was the only woman ever elected president of AFM Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh) and is also an active member of the traveling musicians’ local, AFM Local 1000. E-mail her at