By Steve Horowitz
July 11th, 2019
Folkies Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore present a collection of pre-World War II songs about the struggle for economic justice with Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song.
Presumably, there is no one reading this review who is old enough to remember the original versions of these pre-World War II working-class songs, and probably very few who can remember them being recovered during the folk revival of the early 1960s when Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie compiled many of them in a book called Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People. Therefore, it makes sense to revive this material. Times may have changed greatly since the Great Depression and the American Camelot in terms of technology, but the struggle for a living wage for the poor and disenfranchised remains. These songs call for solidarity and provide solace for those battling for a better future for all.
The 20 songs on Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song range from well-known classics such as “Joe Hill” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” that have been redone by popular artists to more obscure tunes including “Dreadful Memories” and “The Murder of Harry Simms. Kentucky coal mining singer/activist Sarah Ogan Gunning penned six of the tracks, and her sister and brother Aunt Molly Jackson and brother Jim Garland are represented as well. There are two songs by union organizer Ella Mae Wiggins, one by Woody Guthrie (“Mamma Don’t ‘Low No Bush-Wahs Hanging Around”) and even one credited to “an unknown proletarian”. This is rich material that covers a wide spectrum of concerns, attitudes, and behaviors.
Anthologizers Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore offer the songs in a plain and simple manner so that one can understand all of the lyrics and sing along. That makes sense as a way of resuscitating these cuts. However, it frequently takes away the passion from the lyrics. For example, John Handcox’s barbed reflections on “There’s a Mean Things Happening in This Land” come off more as supplicative inventory than a hymn of righteous wrath. When Callahan and Moore’s voices combine and shout “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years”, the impact is more suggestive of a hootenanny than its lyrical concerns about the human cost of capitalism. To be fair, these songs were meant to be sung at hootenannies, union meetings, and the like. But that was then; this is now.
And so the very purpose of this endeavor is problematic. If the point is to show the relevance of these songs in the world today, one needs to interpret them for a contemporary audience. That doesn’t mean one has to change the words or the melody reductively but to consider the context. The music’s original intent was to inspire. This disc has more of a documentary feel to it. One can appreciate the spirit and power of the originals that Callahan and Moore present and yet also be aware of the dust left by age; hence, the 20 cuts come off as dusty relics of an earlier time.
As the title suggests, the album provides evidence about Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song. It’s good to remember history and where we came from to illuminate the path forward. Lord knows many in this country could use their spirits lifted in the battle for a better life. Chances are they won’t find it here. It’s a worthy effort, but that’s all it is. Recommended for historians and labor activists only.