The Protest Songs That Drove the Wobblies a Century Ago Are Still Lighting Fires

More than a century ago, Joe Hill wrote some of the most enduring anthems in the radical union’s Little Red Songbook—and today’s activists carry on that legacy of struggle through music.
Former teacher Sherrie Parker leads a chant at a May 2013 rally against Chicago school closings, attended by parents, activists, students, labor leaders, and CTU president Karen Lewis. - PHOTO BY JESSICA KOSCIELNIAK / ILLUSTRATION BY SUE KWONG

Former teacher Sherrie Parker leads a chant at a May 2013 rally against Chicago school closings, attended by parents, activists, students, labor leaders, and CTU president Karen Lewis.
Photo by Jessica Koscielniak / Illustration by Sue Kwong

By Kim Kelly
Chicago Reader
April 26th, 2018

At a bar in Chicago nearly 30 years ago, Billy Bragg slugged down Joe Hill‘s ashes with a bottle of union beer. Now 103 years dead, Hill remains one of the most iconic faces of the Industrial Workers of the World, informally called the Wobblies, a radical international union that is itself an enduring symbol of militant working-class power. After Bragg played a concert in Chicago, a couple of Wobblies brought him a packet of Hill’s ashes—one of the last remaining traces of this particular relic, which had been divvied up into 600 envelopes and distributed to IWW branches and their allies worldwide. The Chicago Wobblies were acting on a suggestion Abbie Hoffman had made shortly before his death in 1989: that Hill’s legacy be preserved by having the new “Joe Hills,” Bragg among them, eat his ashes. For Bragg to be named one of Hill’s spiritual successors by an anarchist anti-war protester as prominent as Hoffman was no small honor—and to actually imbibe his ashes was akin to taking Wobbly communion.

Hill was executed by firing squad in Utah in November 19, 1915, convicted of a double murder he almost certainly didn’t commit, and his body was shipped to Chicago for a second memorial on Thanksgiving Day. After hours of songs, speeches, and tributes in ten languages, he was cremated at Graceland Cemetery in Uptown. “When Joe was killed, he said he wanted to be buried anywhere except Utah,” Bragg says by phone from his home in Dorset. “So they cremated him, and they sent little packets of his ashes to all the Wobbly unions in each state.” He relays his own Joe Hill anecdote with obvious pride and an impish chuckle. The British singer-songwriter and activist has always been one hell of a storyteller, and his knack for making the political personal has kept him and his music relevant since he started playing pubs in 1977—well before Margaret Thatcher went to war with the UK’s coal miners in 1984 and gave him a cause to rally behind.

That knack is also something he shares with Hill, born in Sweden in 1879 as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, who spent his truncated life fighting for the working class on picket lines, in factories, and most memorably in song. As an IWW labor organizer and songwriter, he’s responsible for some of labor’s most enduring hymns and rabble-rousing tunes, including “There Is Power in a Union,” “The Rebel Girl,” and “The Preacher and the Slave.” His life was cut short by the state following a sham trial, but Hill’s Wobbly anthems had already been collected (alongside a bevy of other labor songs) into a volume eventually christened The Little Red Songbook. First printed in Spokane in 1909, it was soon distributed by Wobbly publishing bureaus in other cities too—including Chicago, where the IWW itself had been founded in 1905.

The Industrial Workers of the World arose from a meeting of more than 200 anarchists, socialists, Marxists, and radical trade unionists from across the country, dubbed “the Continental Congress of the working class.” The best-remembered of these founders include miners’ unionist Big Bill Haywood, five-time socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, labor and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Hill’s fellow songsmith Ralph Chaplin, and Chicago anarchist Lucy Parsons, whose husband had been hanged in 1887 for his alleged role in the Haymarket Affair. “You are not absolutely defenseless,” Parsons said in 1886. “For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known with impunity, cannot be wrested from you.” She encouraged her comrades to fight with dynamite—Chicago police famously described her as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”—but ol’ Joe fought with song. He inspired countless others, just as she did, among them Bragg protege Otis Gibbs. Bragg shared Hill’s ashes with him (their intended recipient, Michelle Shocked, had become a born-again Christian), and Gibbs wrote a song for Parsons on his 2016 album Mount Renraw.

That Bragg’s path would cross in Chicago with that of one of the most significant figures in labor history is almost too perfect. The blood of radicals has watered the Second City’s streets for nearly two centuries, and its air has long resonated with the uplifted voices of those who know it doesn’t have to be like this—dreamers, thinkers, fighters, martyrs. The city’s political history is knotted and complex, but one thing its activists have always held in common is a talent for propaganda and an appreciation for the power of song. During many of their struggles—the 40,000-strong May Day parade that Parsons led in 1886, the Democratic National Convention protests in 1968, the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012, the current No Cop Academy campaign—people have leaned on the same familiar songs to get them through dark nights and anxious mornings. “There Is Power in a Union.” “Which Side Are You On?” “The Preacher and the Slave.” “Solidarity Forever.”

A demonstrator at a downtown Chicago march on May 1, 2017, celebrates May Day (also known as International Workers’ Day) by carrying a portrait of IWW cofounder Lucy Parsons. - SCOTT OLSON

A demonstrator at a downtown Chicago march on May 1, 2017, celebrates May Day (also known as International Workers’ Day) by carrying a portrait of IWW cofounder Lucy Parsons.
Photo by Scott Olson

As a member of the leadership council for Writers Guild of America East, I attended the Labor Notes conference in Chicago in early April, presented by the nonprofit Labor Education and Research Project. During an impromptu sing-along in our hotel’s upstairs bar, I heard “Solidarity Forever” in the wild. One of the people joining in was Natasha Carlsen, a special education teacher and member of the CTU’s executive board. “We had gathered a group of comrades from New York City to Puerto Rico to Chicago, all teacher unionist, and were beginning to feel the sense of togetherness,” Carlsen says. “We were cognizant that not everyone was CTU. ‘Solidarity Forever’ holds true in today’s conditions just as it did when it was created, and there has been no other song that resonates with the labor movement in such a way. Solidarity is when one realizes that it’s not just important to be together with those in their own community or their own occupation, but in building and fighting for a world that’s just for all. Music is a way to build those connections between communities, religions, ethnicities, or nationalities. Music is universal. What we all had was in fact solidarity—and all of us knew the chorus.”

Labor activist Joe Hill wrote many of the most enduring anthems in the IWW’s Little Red Songbook. - UTAH DIVISION OF ARCHIVES AND RECORDS SERVICE

Labor activist Joe Hill wrote many of the most enduring anthems in the IWW’s Little Red Songbook. Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Archives and Records Service

As Hill himself once said, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is only read once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.” Many labor classics use simple, unforgettable choruses—”Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong”—and though they’re made for echoing down picket lines, they’ve traveled far beyond that traditional context. The Mountain GoatsJohn Darnielle recorded an impassioned rendition of “There Is Power in a Union” during the 2011 demonstrations in Wisconsin by teachers and other public-sector workers whose wages and collective bargaining rights were under assault by Governor Scott Walker. Darnielle says he was drawn to “There Is Power in a Union” by its strong melody, clever internal rhymes, and stark images of factory, land, and workers’ hands. “Union songs fucking own,” he says. “It’s very hard not to get caught up in the feeling—they’re songs about the power of being together, at their core, which is the same power we all feel in a room together playing and listening to and sharing music. Music itself is kind of inherently about union.”

Darnielle has been a member of SEIU Local 660 and the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, and he’s pro-union to his bones. “I was raised to never cross a picket line—it’s a value I was taught to hold from early childhood. And then I was a teenager when Reagan broke up the air traffic controllers’ union, and the anti-union movement really began, after years of failure, to find inroads,” he says. “And we arrive at a point where a simple thought like ‘union is powerful’ needs to be stated plainly. It’s just a very direct and beautiful expression of the to-me self-evident truth that if workers organize, they have power, and if they don’t, somebody else will have that power.”

Darnielle is inspired by the giants upon whose shoulders modern activists stand, but he wasn’t singing Hill’s version of the song—he used lyrics Bragg wrote in the 80s, which have since become the new standard.

“I wasn’t really aware of Joe Hill until I came to America, on one of my very first trips,” Bragg recalls. “I picked up Utah Phillips‘s album We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years, which had quite a few of Joe’s songs on it, among them ‘There Is Power in a Union.’ Then I came back to the UK, right in the middle of the miners’ strike, and was looking to write a song about that particular struggle in the style of Joe Hill to connect with that tradition—because when I first started going out doing gigs for the miners, which were predominantly in the north of England, there were folk singers there singing these old songs like ‘The Red Flag’ and ‘Which Side Are You On?’ They were more radical than I was, and I was supposed to be this ‘one-man Clash’ punk kid from London! They made clear to me that by standing up for the miners I was joining the tradition they were part of, so I tried to write songs that reflected that.”

In 1990 Bragg released a whole album of labor solidarity songs, The Internationale, but he’s hardly the only musician to find inspiration in revolution. Artists as disparate as Boston-based Celtic punks the Dropkick Murphys and Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli have joined the tradition with versions of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” One of the most compelling modern renditions of the song has come from Austin Lunn’s black-metal band Panopticon, which honored the union battles of coal miners with pathos and grit on the 2012 album Kentucky.

“It’s all in the lyrics,” Lunn explains. “The boss needs us—we don’t need the boss. I have seen worker exploitation firsthand and railed against those who would take advantage of workers. I have been a part of coalitions, protesting and picketing; I have held signs, locked arms, participated in sit-ins in federal buildings, and screamed alongside other folks struggling. I know there’s a lot of folks who don’t want politics in metal, and that’s fine. They don’t have to hear it. But for me, I’m always going to write about what’s in my head and in my heart . . . and a lot of the time, what’s in my head and heart is this desire to burn down the destructive forces in this world and try to build something better in the place where that once stood.”

The metal community may be divided about left-wing politics, but Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello was working entirely in character when he tackled “Solidarity Forever”—it appears on the 2011 album Union Town by his solo project the Nightwatchman, which he says owes a great debt to Joe Hill’s work. Morello has long used his platform to advocate for anti-oppressive, anti-capitalist, and proworker causes, including the global Occupy movement, the Fight for 15, immigration reform, and death penalty abolition. He’s also a proud member of the IWW, and in 2007 he wrote the foreword to The Big Red Songbook, a compendium of more than 250 IWW songs accompanied by historical essays.

“These songs look an unjust world square in the eye, slice it apart with satire, dismantle it with rage, and then drop a mighty sing-along chorus fit to raise the roof of a union hall or a holding cell,” he writes. “The IWW literally wrote the book on protest music. These songs, some written many decades ago, address the same issues facing us today: poverty, police brutality, immigrant rights, economic and racial inequality, militarism, threats to civil liberties, union busting.”

Chicago continues to fight against the injustices that provoked the founding of the IWW, with activists rising up with each new generation to hold their oppressors’ feet to the flames. The young rabble-rousers of the No Cop Academy campaign aren’t necessarily gathering ’round a campfire to sing “I’m Too Old to Be a Scab,” but they do have their own versions of Joe Hill.

Ethan Ethos, an organizer with No Cop Academy and restorative justice group Circles & Ciphers, names Chance the Rapper (a vocal supporter of No Cop Academy), G Herbo, and Jamila Woods as current Chicago artists fighting in Hill’s tradition. As a key inspiration, he cites a fiery 2013 rendition of “Which Side Are You On?” by Bronx hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz with Dead Prez and Rakaa Iriscience, and notes how younger people remix old songs to suit their new battles.

“There’s a quote by Emma Goldman that says ‘I don’t want to be part of your revolution if I can’t dance,’ and this remains true in the movement,” Ethos says. “We need to make a movement that attracts people and shows the love they want to see in the world. Emory Douglas of the Black Panther Party and activist singers like Nina Simone pioneered this. They captured the pulse of the moment, and we now walk in their legacy, creating new ways to make the revolution sexy, to make it the fire in the belly of the people.”

Ethos remembers a Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) conference several years ago in Cleveland, during which a young boy was arrested outside the site of the meeting. The people at the conference rallied and got the boy released from police custody into his parents’ care. After he was safe, someone played “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. “Everyone went nuts,” Ethos says, “and for that second, I really felt free. Like no matter what they throw at us, it’s all gonna be all right.”

Alexandra Bradbury, editor of Labor Notes magazine and codirector of its organizing and research project, also points to the black liberation movement as a modern-day locus for activist songsmiths. “I’ve heard some great chant songs, like the Black Lives Matter one that goes ‘Back up, back up / We want freedom, freedom / Tell these racist-ass cops / We don’t need ’em, need ’em,’ sung in harmony while you’re marching,” she says. “Or there was one people sang at the Flood Wall Street action, ‘The people gonna rise like the water / Gonna calm this crisis down / I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter / Singing shut down Wall Street now!’ For movement building, I’m interested in songs that get people singing together.”

Bradbury also has a soft spot for the old tunes in The Little Red Songbook. Joe Hill and his comrades wrote songs designed to be learned by ear and picked up quickly by large, diverse groups, she explains, with memorable lyrics and catchy choruses. This kind of people’s poetry has an emotional impact that’s deepened by its long evolution through history—though she also notes that just about any song can be made into a protest song. “When you think of some of the long-lasting movements that have persisted through adversity—the black freedom struggle in the U.S. south, the fight against apartheid in South Africa—it’s impossible to imagine them without song.”

The ghost of Joe Hill still lives: in the words of a tune written in his memory in 1938, “What they forgot to kill / Went on to organize.” The melodies in The Little Red Songbook continue to ring out in the streets. And Chicago’s ingrained activist streak creates new forms of resistance to old ills. No matter how much the world changes, some things—the power of music, the power of the people—never will.

I.W.W. Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent: A Facsimile Reprint of the Nineteenth Edition (1923) of the “Little Red Song Book”

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