Industrial Workers' Songbook Gets Big Update Music and singing has always been integral to the Industrial Workers of the World, a universal union for labor created in 1905. Since its creation in 1905, the IWW has published a Little Red Songbook with music that has been sung and played at rallies and demonstrations ever since.
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Industrial Workers' Songbook Gets Big Update

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Industrial Workers' Songbook Gets Big Update

Industrial Workers' Songbook Gets Big Update

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In 1905, representatives of 43 labor groups came together in Chicago to form one big union - the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. The union was a big presence in the labor movement, leading strikes, walkouts and rallies across the nation. And everywhere its members went, they sang.

On this Labor Day, independent producer Rachel Ann Goodman has this story about the music of the movement.


The Wobblies were a radical union. Their motto was A World Without Bosses. and they were a singing union.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. FRED HANSEN (Wobbly): Are you cold for morning hungry, are there lots of things you lack? Is your life made up of misery, then dump the bosses off your back. Are your clothes -

GOODMAN: Their songs were sung in mining camps and textile mills and hobo jungles and flop houses and anywhere workers might be recruited to the Wobblies' cause. The songs were published in a pocketsize tome called the Little Red Songbook, which was so successful it's been published continuously since 1909.

Folklorist and shipbuilder Archie Green has made it his mission to gather the songs from all 37 editions into one big all-embracing book.

Mr. ARCHIE GREEN (Folklorist): About 1950, I met an old Wobbly named John Neuhaus. John's ambition was to do a comprehensive edition of the IWW songbooks. As it turned out, he died of cancer about '57 or '58 and he left his material to me and his unfinished manuscripts.

GOODMAN: Before Neuhaus died, Archie promised to carry on his dream. This fall Green will publish the Big Red Songbook, tracking the rich history of Wobbly songs. The songbooks were notorious for including zany, irreverent parodies of popular hymns and Tin Pan Alley tunes, as well as songs like the famous labor anthem The Red Flag.

Mr. GREEN: The first songbook began with The Red Flag that came to the Wobblies from England. It was written about 1896 by a Irish socialist, James Connell. It was a very patriotic song. The worker's flag is deepest red.

(Soundbite of The Red Flag)

Mr. BILLY BRAGG (Singer): (Singing) The people's flag is deepest red, it's shrouded off the mouth of dead.

GOODMAN: Here it is, performed by the English singer/songwriter Billy Bragg.

(Soundbite of The Red Flag)

Mr. BRAGG: Then raised the scarlet standard high, beneath its folds we'll never die. No (unintelligible) splints and traitor sneer will keep the red flag flying here.

(Soundbite of Hallelujah, I'm a Bum)

Mr. HARRY HAYWIRE MACK MCCLINTOCK (Singer): (Singing) Rejoice and be glad for the springtime has come, we can throw down our shovels and go on the bum. Hallelujah, I'm a bum. Hallelujah.

GOODMAN: Other Wobbly songs like Hallelujah, I'm a Bum from Harry Haywire Mack McClintock became major hits.

(Soundbite of Hallelujah, I'm a Bum)

Mr. MCCLINTOCK: The springtime has come and I'm just out of jail without any money, without any bail.

GOODMAN: The song appeared in the first booklet in 1909. This is from his 1928 recording on the Victor label.

(Soundbite of Hallelujah, I'm a Bum)

Mr. MCCLINTOCK: Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again. I went to…

Mr. GREEN: Haywire Mack had originally come from Knoxville in the southern mountains and knew a good repertoire of traditional American balladry.

(Soundbite of Hallelujah, I'm a Bum)

Mr. MCCLINTOCK: I went to her house and I asked for some bread and the lady says bum, bum, the baker is dead. Hallelujah.

GOODMAN: Not all songs had stood the test of time as well as Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. There are reasons for that, says Archie Green. Many of them just weren't that good.

Mr. GREEN: Most of the songs were polemical, hortatory, revolutionary songs that didn't live for two reasons. Pop songs don't last. Also the rhetoric, they were terrible poets. I think the songs were unsingable, so they have been quietly forgotten.

GOODMAN: Folksinger and IWW member Utah Phillips says the songs that have endured served a purpose.

Mr. UTAH PHILLIPS (IWW Member): I remember old Fred Hansen, the great Wobbly who worked on the docks down in Houston for many, many years. Well, he's been long gone. He was a peacemaker. You know, there was a strike on the docks, tempers start to rub raw, you don't know how you're going to feed your kids. Somebody picks up a brick to throw at a goon or a company guard, Fred Hansen would jump in with a song.

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) Then dump the bosses off your back. Are you -

Mr. PHILLIPS: He had everybody singing because when people were singing together, they weren't throwing punches and they weren't throwing rocks.

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) Well, why don't you buck like thunder and dump the bosses off your back.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

GOODMAN: Perhaps the most popular American labor anthem of all time first appeared in the 1913 edition of the Little Red Songbook. But according to folklorist Archie Green, it had already been evolving for 60 years before the Wobblies put their stamp on it.

Mr. GREEN: That was a folk tune and it was used in John Brown's Body. It was a marching song that preceded the Civil War. But apparently, Julia Ward Howe, you know, heard some soldiers singing the hymn John Brown's Body and liked the music. And she set religious words to it - mine eyes have see the glory of the coming of the Lord.

(Soundbite of Solidarity Forever)

Ms. JULIA WARD HOWE (Singer): (Singing) Solidarity forever -

Mr. GREEN: Ralph Chaplin wrote the words to Solidarity Forever in West Virginia about 1913. He was a socialist and Wobbly editor who came down from Chicago to West Virginia to Cabin Creek area. He was the best of the Wobbly Poets.

(Soundbite of Solidarity Forever)

Mr. RALPH CHAPLIN (Wobbly Editor): (Singing) When the union's inspiration through the workers (unintelligible), there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun. But what force on Earth is weaker than the evil strength of one but the union makes us strong.

GOODMAN: In the late 1920s, hundreds of Wobblies were rounded up and jailed. Joe Hill, a prolific songwriter and labor organizer, was arrested and shot by a firing squad in Utah. Legal costs eventually crippled the IWW, but despite dwindling membership, the union kept on publishing the songbooks.

During the ‘50s' folk revival, the songs of the Wobblies were embraced by artists like Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Folk singer Anne Feeney performs them today on picket lines and protests around the United States.

Ms. ANNE FEENEY (Folksinger): The songs of the Wobblies had so much union and so much fun in them. And the ones that have survived until now bring with them the weight and the power of all of the thousands and thousands of people that have sung them before.

GOODMAN: The Big Red Songbook, edited by folklorist Archie Green, will come out this fall.

For National Public Radio, I'm Rachel Ann Goodman.

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