Folk Songs and the Labor Movement
I was inspired by Faith's announcement
about the Bread & Roses Festival to do a little research
into the relationship of folk music to the labor movement.
This info came from Kim Ruehl at
Folk music has a long relationship with labor struggles, and particularly labor unions. From the Baptist hymns adapted by Joe Hill, to the IWW song handbook, to the protest tunes of Billy Bragg, here’s a peek at some of the most notable, most fun, and most poignant labor tunes in Folk history.
1. Bread and Roses
This song was written by James Oppenheim, and it absolutely encompasses the sentiments involved with labor struggles. The song is based on the old phrase “bread and circuses” (as in, feed the people and entertain them, and they will do as you say). In this song, the workers are basically saying, “feed us, but give us a quality life as well.”
2. Solidarity Forever
This traditional song has been recorded by Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Anne Feeney, Ella Jenkins, and tons of other folks. The lyrics talk about the power of community and solidarity, and speaks to the notion that when people organize, no matter how powerless they feel alone, there is great power in solidarity.
3. Union Burying Ground
This tune was written by Woody Guthrie to commemorate all the folks killed in the labor struggles of the early 20th century. During this period, when labor unions were just beginning to spread, workers literally risked their lives when they went on strike. Often the militia was owned by the boss, and was brought in to shut down union strikes. This song pays tribute to the workers killed for standing up for better pay and reasonable work conditions.
4. Dump the Bosses Off Your Back
This tune was made by a Wobbly worker named John Brill in 1916, and was included in the 9th edition of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. Wobblies) songbook. In classic union protest song form, this song is sung to the tune of an old Baptist hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Its lyrics talk about the basic points behind a union strike: better pay and better work conditions.
5. There Is Power In a Union
Joe Hill, before he died, said “Don’t waste time mourning. Organize!” Billy Bragg, however, took the sentiment and updated it to apply to modern times with his original version speaking of the strength of solidarity.
6. Pie In The Sky
Joe Hill was incomparable when it came to adapting Baptist hymns to talk about the labor struggle. This little gem was penned by Joe in the beginning of the 20th century, to spin off on what laborers were being told by the Salvation Army (or, as the Wobblies would have it, the Starvation Army), who promised full bellies and comfort of living in the afterlife.
7. Casey Jones
This song was supposedly written by a friend of the real Casey Jones, and has been recorded by Johnny Cash and Dave Van Ronk, among others. It tells the story of a train conductor and his death on the line. The story of Casey Jones has lived throughout labor history, and has even inspired a song by the Grateful Dead.
8. John Henry
This old, old narrative song is about a boy who grows up to be a steel worker. This tune sings about something that happened unfortunately often in the early part of the 20th century — a man dying on the job.
9. Maggie’s Farm
This tune was popularized by Bob Dylan in the 1960s, but actually has a much longer history that includes Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs. Other artists who have sung this song include everyone from Hot Tuna to Rage Against the Machine. The song sings about a guy who’s just had enough of his work conditions.
10. Blowin Down That Old Dusty Road/Going Down the Road Feeling Bad
This Woody Guthrie song features the recurring line, “Going down the road feeling bad, lord lord / and I ain’t gonna be treated this a’way.” There’s not a whole lot more to say about labor songs that doesn’t get summed up in that one statement.