The Sound of Solidarity

How labor songs inspire, teach...and even make us laugh

Volume 114, No. 5May, 2014

John O'Connor
Aunt Molly Jackson (far left) influenced generations of coal miner songwriters with her Appalachian melodies. Florence Reece and Joe Hill both wrote songs that became labor movement classics, inspiring activists and working people to the present day.

Aunt Molly Jackson (far left) influenced generations of coal miner songwriters with her Appalachian melodies. Florence Reece and Joe Hill both wrote songs that became labor movement classics, inspiring activists and working people to the present day.

The Sound Of Solidarity

By John O’Connor

When we think of labor history, we tend to gravitate to the decades of the industrial revolution when labor struggles were a matter of life and death and the stories of workers battling the bosses abound. Those were the times when the labor movement was becoming a mass movement across America and acts of courage and solidarity carved the contours of our history. Naturally, they lent themselves to a great body of song that, in a way, remains a living history. Scores of musicians across this country draw from this body of work whenever they sing for labor-related events.

The two great wells of labor music are the songs of the Wobblies and the songs of the Appalachian coal miners. The Wobblies, as many of us know, were the working men and women who made up the Industrial Workers of the World, or the IWW, and whose history spanned the years from 1905 to the time of the repressive years of the first Red Scare in the early 1920s, when the IWW was virtually hounded out of existence by deportations, vigilante violence and arrests. Though the Wobblies were wiped out as a mass movement, they influenced the rise of the CIO movement in the 1930s, which created the modern-day American union. And their songs are still sung at union functions and inhabit the repertoire of every folksinger who is worth his or her salt.

The songs of the mineworkers are from a deeper well, spanning from the mid-1800s to recent times. Where the IWW created their song lore by parodying popular music, the mineworkers’ body of song came from a song tradition that was well steeped in Appalachia before it was invaded by King Coal. The song tradition goes back as far as the 18th century in England, Scotland and Ireland, and some of the songs you hear today carry the same melodies and often the same lyric structure. An example is the song “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister,” which was recorded by the Almanac Singers (Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie’s group) in the 1940s. The lyrics were written in the 1930s by Jim Garland but the music comes from a much older song called “I Don’t Want Your Greenback Dollar,” which, as far as anyone knows, originated in Appalachia in the 1800s and is sometimes known as the “East Virginia Blues.”

Many generations of songwriters from the coal mining states of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee contributed to the long list of songs, which includes such gems as “Dark As A Dungeon,” “I Am A Union Woman,” “The Mannington Mine Disaster,” “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Coal Tattoo.” Many of the songwriters were influenced by Aunt Molly Jackson, who was discovered by the novelists John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser, when they went to Harlan County, Kentucky to investigate a miners’ strike in 1931. Jackson came to New York City and met Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who learned her songs and those of her halfsiblings Jim Garland and Sara Ogan Gunning. The songs were raw and powerful and often embodied a haunting minor key and were sung unaccompanied.

Another Harlan County songwriter named Florence Reece wrote one of the most well-known songs in the union lexicon, “Which Side Are You On?” (See opposite page for the music and lyrics.) Typically, this song is cradled in a traditional minor key melody. It was written during a strike after company thugs burst into Reece’s home, looking for her union activist husband. The legend is that Reece wrote the song on a calendar after the thugs left her house. The song begins, “Come all you good workers, good news to you I’ll tell/Of how the good old union has come in here to dwell” and then later asks the provocative question of the strikebreakers, “Workers can you stand it? Oh tell me how you can/ Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?” Reece is clearly furious with the company quislings, as exemplified in the lyric, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man or a thug for JH Blair.” The chorus of the song is repeated throughout as the simple challenge, “Which side are you on?”

Where the composers of the rich body of mineworker songs drew their strength from their direct tone and haunting melodies, the Wobblies were the masters of humor and irony. Among the satirists of the IWW was the famous martyr Joe Hill. The Wobblies, like the mineworkers, were victims of the violence of take-no-prisoners capitalism. (In fact, one of the Wobblies’ great leaders was a mineworker named Big Bill Haywood.) Among the weapons used to counter the bosses was the Wobblies body of poems and songs.

A strike against the Southern Pacific Railway inspired Joe Hill’s well-known “Casey Jones, the Union Scab,” which is a good example of Wobbly humor, irony and irreverence. The song goes to the tune of the once-popular “Ballad of Casey Jones,” but in Hill’s version, Casey Jones was an engineer who crossed the picket line when the other railroad workers went on strike. The Wobblies were not adverse to sabotage and Joe Hill features the tactic in the second verse of his song: “Someone put a bunch of railroad ties across the track/ And Casey hit the river with an awful crack.” Most of the Wobblies had no room for religion, but injected satirical scenes of heaven and hell in their literature. In Casey Jones, after the engineer goes to heaven, “You’re just the man, said Peter, our musicians are on strike/ You can get a job in a’scabbin’ anytime you like.” But “the angel’s union, number 23, they sure were there/ And they promptly fired Casey down the golden stairs.” The song ends with: “Casey Jones went to hell a’flying/ Casey Jones, the devil said ‘Oh fine!’/ Casey Jones, get busy shoveling sulfur/ That’s what you get for scabbin’ on the SP line!”

Joe Hill was the most famous of the Wobbly songwriters and wrote other well-known songs like “The Preacher and the Slave” and “There is Power in A Union” (not to be mistaken with Billy Bragg’s 1986 song of the same title), both using melodies of popular religious songs. But Joe Hill was only one of many IWW songwriters. Others made their marks. Among them, were T-Bone Slim (“The Popular Wobbly”), Clint McClintock (“Big Rock Candy Mountain”) and Ralph Chaplin, who wrote the most widely sung union song ever, “Solidarity Forever.” Chaplin’s songs did not contain the same irony and satire that other Wobbly songsmiths used. “Solidarity Forever” and his utopian “The Commonwealth of Toil” are rather stiff and sentimental. What saves them as agit-prop is their visionary lyrics wrapped in familiar melodies. Consider the revolutionary lines from “Solidarity Forever” (to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”): “In our hands is placed the power greater than their horded gold/ Greater than the might of armies multiplied a thousand-fold/We can bring to earth a new world from the ashes of the old.” These are lyrics that, if given in a speech, would have the orator accused of sedition. But the song has been sung by millions of ordinary working women and men in union halls and picket lines over the past 100 years, arms raised and joined while inspirational electricity runs through the crowds.

It may sound obvious to say so, but what gives the lyric in a song great strength is music. Music makes it possible for the spirit that created a labor song to be carried down through the years without losing its power. Great works of literature and art can do that, as well, but songs are instantaneous and portable and are a communal experience shared by the singers and the listeners that bring the song to life as if it were written yesterday. And this art, as powerful as any art created by any master, is more often than not made by ordinary people with little or no training.

We don’t hear labor songs or union songs sung as often as we used to and that is largely due to the decline of the American labor movement. But the labor movement continues and – in due time – will grow again, in response to the hyper-capitalistic exploitation we are now experiencing. And when that time comes, those old songs will still be there, living and breathing, being joined by new songs, some of which will endure as long as the old ones.

John O’Connor can be reached at

“Which Side Are You On” by Florence Reece (1931)

“Which Side Are You On?” (below) was written by Florence Reece (1900-1986), who was the wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. In 1931, the miners of that region were locked in a bitter and violent struggle with the mine owners. In an attempt to intimidate the Reece family, Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men – hired by the mining company – illegally entered their family home in search of Sam Reece. Sam had been warned in advance and escaped, but Florence and their children were terrorized in his place. That night, after the men had gone, Florence wrote the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?” on a calendar that hung in the kitchen of her home. She took the melody from traditional sources. Reece sang the song her whole life, including during the 1973 miners’ strike, as recounted in the documentary “Harlan County USA.” From Wikipedia.

Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell,
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner,
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union,
Till every battle’s won.


They say in Harlan County,
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man,
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.


Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab,
Or will you be a man?


Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance,
Unless we organize.


John O’Connor can be reached at