PM Press Blog

Working-Class Heroes Reviewed in Labour/Le Travail

By Mark Leier
Labour/Le Travail
Spring 2021

Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore have put together an inspiring collection of American labour songs, ranging from iww classics by Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin to less-known songs from the 1930s by Sarah Ogan Gunning, Aunt Molly Jackson, and others. The book contains lyrics, chords, and sheet music, the last especially important when few peo- ple can be counted on to know the gospel and Tin Pan Alley melodies many of the songs were based on. The authors provide insightful notes on the songs and useful biographies of the writers. Pictures and newspaper clippings illustrate events such as the murder of National Miners Union organizer Harry Simms, itself the subject of one of the songs. Two es- says outline the broader history of events, the role of the Communist Party in the 1930s, the blacklist, folklore, and historical memory, drawing on recent scholar- ship and the authors’ deep knowledge. The result is a publication useful to re- searchers, teachers, and its primary audience, activists.

Most of the songs come from Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, a book first put together in the 1940s by folklorist Alan Lomax and musicians Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but unpublished until 1967. This puts some constraints on Callahan and Moore, and they are forth- right about the limitations of the collection. Apart from the iww songs, many of the contributions are by white men and women from coal mining communities in the eastern United States. While African- Americans are represented by John Handcox and Paul Robeson, there is nothing from “Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican agricultural workers on strike in California… autoworkers in Michigan and Ohio, sharecroppers in Alabama, or maritime workers on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.” (5) This reflects the experience, sensibilities, and limits of the original collectors. Folklorists today cast their net more widely and inclusively, but then and now the songs of coal miners may be taken as metaphors for the struggles of other groups, while the vision of “The Commonwealth of Toil” has lost none of its power.

This is an important collection. As Callahan and Moore note, there are “striking similarities” (5) between the period these songs were written, that is, between about 1909 and 1939, and today. These similarities include years of systemic economic crisis, the rise of fascism and related movements, and the threat of war. We need these songs. As Joe Hill observed from his prison cell in Utah a year before he was executed on a murder charge,
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; and I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress the facts up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.

But the labour movement does little political and economic education either, and it rarely sings. That is no accident. Certainly the labour bureaucrat looking to be appointed to government boards such as those of bc Hydro and Canada Post, win an ambassadorship to Ireland like Dennis McDermott, or line up to receive the Order of Canada is unlikely to encourage the singing of all the verses of “Solidarity Forever,” which includes lines such as “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite who would lash us into serfdom and would crush
us with his might,” and “All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.” Nor would they appreciate the verse in Joe Hill’s song “Mr. Block,” a song that might have been included here, where a mistreated worker turns to “the great af of l” for help, hoping Samuel Gompers would “fix that fore- man right.” Instead, “Sam Gompers said ‘You see, you’ve got our sympathy.’” As another Wobbly songwriter, Al Grierson, used to say, “You know, you can sub in the name of every afl and clc president from Sam Gompers on in this song and it scans perfectly. Coincidence? I think not!” These songs remind us that the la- bour movement has a rich, militant, and radical history. They are also one way to help invigorate a movement that has been throttled by sclerotic leaders for decades and is only recently showing signs of new life. Sarah Ogan Gunnings’s “I Hate the Capitalist System” is a good place to start.

Callahan and Moore have also record- ed these songs in an accompanying cd. Their sparse arrangements and strong vocals evoke the origins of the songs and deliver them with power and verve. They remind us that singing together is itself a small exercise in solidarity: a few people start off, others join in, and if it is a little rough in places, we get it more or less right by the end as we support and lift each other. We need more collections, notably from those groups omitted from this collection and from contemporary workers and struggles, but this is “a history of struggle in song,” meaning it is neither “the” history nor an attempt to gather up the music of people today. It fulfills its function as history with the precision of the scholar, the engagement of the folksinger, and the hope of the activist.