Working Class-Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song: A Songbook

Working Class-Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song: A Songbook


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Working-Class Heroes is an organic melding of history, music, and politics that demonstrates with colorful evidence that workers everywhere will struggle to improve their conditions of life. And among them will be workers who share an insight: in order to better our lot, we must act collectively to change the world. This profusely illustrated treasury of song sheets, lyrics, photographs, histories, and biographical sketches explores the notion that our best hope lies in the capacity of ordinary working people to emancipate ourselves and all of humanity. Featuring more than a dozen songwriters, from Joe Hill to Aunt Molly Jackson, Working-Class Heroes delivers a lyrical deathblow to the myth that so-called political songs of the 20th century were being written by intellectuals in New York. The songs collected here have a striking relevance to current affairs and invite us to explore the historical conditions that inspired their creation: systemic crisis, advancing fascism, and the threat of world war. These working-class songwriters showed courage and heroism that is immortal, and such heroes and their work should be celebrated still today. The heroes featured in this collection include Sarah Ogan Gunning, Ralph Chaplin, Woody Guthrie, Ella May Wiggins, Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, John Handcox, Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, Alfred Hayes, and Joseph Brandon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629637020
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 09/01/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 781,476
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Mat Callahan is a musician and author of five books including The Explosion of Deferred Dreams and A Critical Guide to Intellectual PropertyYvonne Moore is a singer and bandleader. Her exploration of the songs of Sarah Ogan Gunning led to the making of Working-Class Heroes.

Read an Excerpt


There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land

The songs we chose have specific characteristics that make them particularly timely today, as is illustrated by John Handcox's "There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land." But this goes beyond their lyrics or melodies to the facts of their origin and the purposes to which they were originally put. These origins and purposes make these songs more than mere relics of a bygone era or curiosities of an "old, weird America." As songs and as evidence, they challenge many widely accepted notions concerning music, history, and politics.

For example, it might at first appear that these songs are anomalies or that Hard Hitting Songs is merely the product of Lomax's, Guthrie's, and Seeger's ideological bias. In fact, there is an inexhaustible supply of such songs. We chose these not because they were exceptional or rare but because they are exemplary and typical. A similar collection could have been made from songs written by Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican agricultural workers on strike in California at the same time the Harlan County War was raging. A collection could have been drawn from songs composed by autoworkers in Michigan and Ohio, sharecroppers in Alabama, or maritime workers on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. At the very moment Aunt Molly Jackson and John Handcox were composing their lyrics, the United States was convulsed with a workers' uprising of unprecedented size and scope. And this was in conjunction with struggles raging in many parts of the world. Indeed, it's the national and international impact of these struggles, more than any local dimension, that gave them their greatest significance. Why should it surprise us that songs would be written by the people involved?

We stuck to the time period and geographical parameters set by Hard Hitting Songs not due to any romantic attachment to coal mining, the South, or the 1930s, but because there are striking similarities between the first three decades of the twentieth century and the first two of the twenty-first. Deep systemic crisis, advancing fascism, the threat of world war — these are ominous symptoms making comparison inevitable. So, too, are efforts to divide the working class — even to deny it exists — especially along the ages-old black/white divide, but also along the divide of Americanism vs. everyone else that typified the early part of the twentieth century.

But if these songs are timely now, they were above all timely when they were created. By and large, they were composed in the heat of battle and were meant to serve immediate needs, not to become "classics" of a "genre," let alone monuments to their composers. Nevertheless, their relevance to current affairs invites us to explore the historical conditions that inspired their creation. We found not only that the "mists of time" enshroud the period but that a host of misconceptions and falsehoods have obscured them as well.

Clearing the Fog

Fortunately recent scholarship has begun to penetrate the fog. Several books published since the late '90s provide not only important data but analysis that puts persistent controversies in a new light. Two outstanding examples are The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, by Michael Denning, and American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927–1957, by Richard and JoAnne Reuss. Both books first of all acknowledge that the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party and efforts to organize the workers of the United States are factors contributing to music and other artistic expressions that are now commonly referred to as American. Second, both take into account the role of anticommunism as more than simply a predictable response to the Red Menace on the part of capitalists, exposing it as an ideological formation independent of anything the CPUSA or the USSR may have said or done. Indeed, anticommunism has little to do with communism as a philosophical or political idea, instead using the word as a synonym for unspeakable evil or infectious disease. Propagated by A. Mitchell Palmer in the First Red Scare of 1919, anticommunism became the founding principle for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, America's secret police. The purpose of anticommunism was, above all, to crush working-class resistance, but it had the further task of making it appear that such resistance never occurred and that even the existence of classes is a figment of deluded imaginations. This strategy brings to mind John Lennon's "Working Class Hero," where he sings, "Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/And you think you're so clever and classless and free." This furthermore helps explain many of the misconceptions that have developed subsequently regarding the period and the music that emerged from it.

Perhaps the biggest misconceptions surround the Great Depression. There is no question that the Crash of '29 and the misery that followed were of epic proportions. It's no wonder so many pundits compared the financial crisis of 2008 to its predecessor. But this is far from the whole story. The period would more accurately be characterized by massive protests such as the Bonus Army March or the Farmer's Holiday Movement but most significantly by wave upon wave of strikes. "If 1929 became a symbol of despair and ruin, an emblem of the crash of an economy and a way of life," writes Michael Denning, "1934 stands as one of the lyric years in American history ... an emblem of insurgency, upheaval, and hope." In 1934, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo were rocked by general strikes. Longshore and maritime workers in the first, teamsters in the second, and auto parts workers in third led militant resistance to employers' attacks, shutting down entire cities and demonstrating the power of organized labor. Also in 1934, four hundred thousand textile workers from Maine to Alabama, walked out while in California agricultural workers staged the largest agricultural strikes in American history. Not all these battles ended in victory for the workers. But they nonetheless were part of a social movement that was to profoundly affect public policy and popular culture for decades to come. This provides a basis for understanding the optimism and fighting spirit of the songs in this collection. It is also convincing evidence of the enthusiasm with which workers at the time must have received them.

Another misconception concerns the role of communism in general, and the CPUSA in particular. Within living memory, this subject inspired heated debate in the realms of politics and music. As recently as the 1960s, the subject of folk music and figures such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Robeson were all embroiled in this controversy, which of course related to the fact that the Soviet Union still existed. Now Robeson's and Guthrie's visages grace U.S. postage stamps. Seeger performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama. It would appear that with the collapse of communism in 1991, the system has indeed "moved on" and can now confidently honor partisans of a cause that once made them targets of wholesale government repression.

Yet even a quarter century later, when it would appear that communism is dead and gone, it is impermissible to speak of it without all sorts of qualifiers and disclaimers. This is a ritual and a loyalty oath we've all witnessed or enacted without realizing, perhaps, the contradiction it presents. At the very moment independent thought and unfettered inquiry are being upheld they are restricted within predetermined limits. It is as if the word "communism" still has the power to put you in the witness box at a HUAC hearing to be grilled by Richard Nixon! In short, adopt the requisite anticommunism and you will be permitted to discuss it, otherwise you are anathema.

It is inconceivable that, once upon a time, millions of ordinary workers actually debated the question seriously and without prejudice. It is impossible to reconcile anticommunism with the views expressed in 1937 by black coal miner Angelo Herndon:

The bosses, and the Negro misleaders like Oscar Adams, told us that these Reds were "foreigners" and "strangers" and that the Communist program wasn't acceptable to the workers in the South. I couldn't see that at all. The leaders of the Communist Party and the Unemployment Council seemed people very much like the ones I'd always been used to. They were workers, and they talked our language. Their talk sure sounded better to me than the talk of Oscar Adams, or the President of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. who addressed us every once in a while. As for the program not being acceptable to us — I felt then, and I know now, that the Communist program is the only program that the Southern workers — whites and Negroes both — can possibly accept in the long run. It's the only program that does justice to the Southern worker's ideas that everybody ought to have an equal chance, and that every man has rights that must be respected.

Herndon was arrested in Georgia, convicted of insurrection according to an arcane slavery-era statute for leading a peace march and was sentenced to twenty years on a chain gang. His case was taken up by the ILD (see below). Herndon gained international renown, eventually being freed when the U.S. Supreme Court found the law that convicted him to be unconstitutional.

Among the songs in this collection are those written by people who openly embraced communist ideals and joined efforts led by communist militants. This presents both logical contradictions in anticommunist dogma and factual evidence refuting anticommunism's most basic claims. Some may find it embarrassing to admit, but in their own struggle to better their lives, workers grasped the communist idea better than many intellectuals. They furthermore saw dedicated, self-sacrificing representatives of this idea fighting and dying at their side.

The story behind Ella May's song "Toiling On Life's Pilgrim Pathway" is a case in point. The chorus, "Come and join the ILD," refers to the International Labor Defense, an organization of which Ella May was herself a member. A quick Wikipedia search provides the outlines: "The International Labor Defense (ILD) was a legal advocacy organization established in 1925 in the United States as the American section of the Comintern's International Red Aid network. The ILD defended Sacco and Vanzetti, was active in the antilynching movement and the civil rights movement, and prominently participated in the defense and legal appeals in the cause célèbre of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s. Its work contributed to the appeal of the Communist Party among African Americans in the South. In addition to fundraising for defense and assisting in defense strategies, from January 1926 it published the Labor Defender, a monthly illustrated magazine that achieved wide circulation."

Reading the Labor Defender is quite an eye-opener. Not only does it document countless battles in many parts of the United States and the world, it demystifies the period, making clear what was at stake. It's no wonder, as Denning writes, "the propertied classes genuinely feared insurrection and revolution, and young radicals envisioned a Soviet America." It's also no wonder why this episode in American history and its expression in culture needs to be hidden. How could it be that in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave there were any so disloyal as to imagine a world without war, poverty, and oppression?

Outside Agitators

Even those who've rejected anticommunist hysteria still often uncritically accept the view that workers are content with their lot and that foreigners with strange names are responsible for stirring them up. The fact that this is a well-known tactic of employers and politicians attempting to isolate workers from each other and their supporters does not automatically reduce its effectiveness. Partly, this is because the "outside agitator" is subtly implied, rather than explicitly invoked, in contexts other than workplace actions or political movements. The prime example is found in the marketing strategies of the music industry, where "hillbilly," "race," and other labels, identified who was in and who was out of a given "community" or social stratum. But this was not simply packaging products to fit already-existing social distinctions. It was reinforcing divisions and creating new ones. Publicists for the music industry were not only selling what was profitable but were purging the music they were selling of any subversive content. Any reference to class struggle or political revolution was systematically excluded.

When Aunt Molly Jackson sang, "I was raised in old Kentucky, Kentucky borned and bred, and when I joined the union, they called me a Rooshian Red," she knew what she was singing about. She ridiculed the charge at the same time she defied those making it. Obviously, coal miners knew this, as well. Furthermore, they knew what lay behind the charge: a revolution their enemies hated and feared. It should come as no surprise that an attack on Ella May Wiggins and her comrades in the Textile Workers Union was led by a mob chanting, "We're all 100 percent Americans and anybody that don't like it can go back to Russia ... Long live 100% Americanism!"

The murder of Harry Simms and Jim Garland's song of that name concentrate all the foregoing in one powerful example. Harry Simms, as the song says, was killed on Brush Creek, Kentucky, in 1932. He was the typical outside agitator having been born in Springfield, Massachusetts, only coming to the South to organize, first in Birmingham, Alabama, and later in Kentucky. But what was Harry Simms outside of? He was not outside the working class. His parents were workers, and he went to work in a textile mill at the age of fourteen. He spent four months in jail after being arrested at a demonstration of the unemployed. Upon joining the Young Communist League, Harry headed south to support the Sharecroppers Union in Birmingham. He fought the frame-up of a black miner, Willie Peterson, campaigned for the Scottsboro Boys, and aided in the battle of sharecroppers at Camp Hill. When he moved to Kentucky to organize relief for the striking miners, he was immediately befriended by miner Jim Garland. Jim loved Harry like a brother, and every line in the song is true. So we're forced to decide. Either these people were all dupes and fools or they were among the bravest and most committed fighters the working class has produced.

The Commonwealth of Toil

The core premise of this project is that workers will struggle to improve their conditions of life. Among them will be workers who share an insight: in order to better our lot, we must act collectively to change the world. The songs here prove that this premise is true. It follows, therefore, that our best hope lies in the capacity of ordinary working people to awaken to the need to emancipate themselves and all humanity and to act accordingly.

Sustaining this hope, however, requires more than the courage and determination to fight. Courage and determination need the nourishment of the "glowing dream" that inspired Ralph Chaplin's great song "The Commonwealth of Toil." This dream is as much a part of the present as of the future it foretells. Here and now, the vision of a world transformed is a guide as well as a destination, a star in the heavens that will not be dimmed. At every turn it is met by cynical disdain and violent repression. Yet this vision has sustained the downtrodden for millennia and it will remain a beacon until its promise has been fulfilled.



Ella May Wiggins

(September 17, 1900, Sevierville, Tennessee–September 14, 1929, Gastonia, North Carolina)

Ella May Wiggins was a union organizer and balladeer who was murdered during the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. At the time, the Loray Mill was the largest of its kind in the world, and the mill owners had already violently attacked the strike. She was driving to a union meeting in Gastonia with fellow union members when an armed mob confronted them. They turned back. After driving about five miles, a car blocked their path, and several men got out and started shooting at them. Wiggins, shot in the chest, was killed. She was survived by five children, who were sent to orphanages.

Her great-granddaughter, Kristina Horton, published a biography in 2015, Martyr of Loray Mill. Horton said in an interview: "When Communist labor organizers came south to the Loray Mill, Ella May joined right away. She was a secretary for the Union. As the strike progressed, she took a more vocal role. ... The last year of Ella May's life was an extremely violent time. The spring [the family] received their water from was poisoned; Myrtle, Ella May's eldest child, was raped when she was 11 in front of her sisters and brothers."

Commenting specifically on May's organizing of black mill workers at the height of Jim Crow, Horton said: "There were no airs about her. Most whites living in the Piedmont at the time thought of themselves as superior to black workers. But Ella May didn't grow up in a place where there was much prejudice or even classes. She carried that heritage with her. She saw black workers as her equals. When she'd go to Union meetings, there'd be a rope dividing whites and blacks. She was the only white person who would go across to the other side. And honestly, she was as poor as them. She lived in a black mill community. She suffered alongside of them. She knew what they were going through, because she was going through it too."


Excerpted from "Working-Class Heroes"
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Copyright © 2019 PM Press.
Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents

There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land,
Singers, Songs, and Heroes: Biographical Sketches,
Notes on the Songs,
Words and Music,
Come All You Coal Miners,
There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land,
I Am A Girl Of Constant Sorrow,
Come On Friends And Let's Go Down,
I Am A Union Woman,
I Hate The Capitalist System,
Mama Don't 'Low No Bush-Wahs Hangin' Around,
Dreadful Memories,
The Murder Of Harry Simms,
The Mill Mother's Song,
Toiling On Life's Pilgrim Pathway,
Rock-A-Bye Baby,
Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad,
A Fool There Was,
The Preacher And The Slave,
Joe Hill,
We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years,
No More Mournin',
The Commonwealth Of Toil,
Appendix: Music and Historical Memory,
About the Editors,

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