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Songs of the Labor Movement
March 7, 2013 3:16 PM   Subscribe

For Camp NaNoWriMo, I am planning a sci-fi book in which labor politics play a significant role in the plot. I'd like to listen to music associated with the historical labor movement while I'm planning and writing. I only speak English, but will listen in any language. What have you got for me?
posted by gauche to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Classic Labor Songs
posted by entropicamericana at 3:18 PM on March 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Listen to almost anything by Woody Guthrie.
posted by erst at 3:20 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The People United Will Never Be Defeated
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:23 PM on March 7, 2013


Utah Phillips
posted by Leon at 3:26 PM on March 7, 2013


Came in to second Woody Guthrie, and add Joe Hill.
posted by jsturgill at 3:28 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


That Smithsonian collection is fantastic, though it omits 'There Is Power In A Union', from the Wobblies' Little Red Songbook.

I'll throw in a pretty comprehensive modern history of 'Blackleg Miner', although its origins are a lot murkier.
posted by holgate at 3:30 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Little Red Songbook is my goto for this sort of thing. You can read it online and the songs are Googleable.
posted by jessamyn at 3:31 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most of Chumbawamba's English Rebel Songs.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:39 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maria Dunn has written a few labor history albums:

We Were Good People focuses on working folks in Alberta in the first half of the twentieth century.

Piece By Piece grew out of a multimedia history project about the women who worked at the Great Western Garment company.
posted by Hellgirl at 3:40 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd think "The Internationale" would count.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:42 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Billy Bragg has a whole album of these, most covers, along with a version of the Internationale.
posted by The Whelk at 3:43 PM on March 7, 2013


The March Of The Jobless Corps.
posted by The Whelk at 3:45 PM on March 7, 2013


Depending on your definition of 'historical', Swan Arcade - Coal Not Dole
posted by Jofus at 3:46 PM on March 7, 2013


Pete Seeger, and lots of stuff collected by Alan Lomax.
posted by steinsaltz at 3:49 PM on March 7, 2013


There are many versions of the song Which Side Are You On? Notable versions include the ones by Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg. The song has had its lyrics changed many times to be modified to fit many different labor battles. I could be wrong as it's been years since I've seen it, but I believe there's a powerful version of it in the seminal labor documentary Harlan County, USA.

Beyond that, while you're checking out Woody Guthrie, look into Pete Seeger's catalog, too. He recorded a ton of pro-union songs.
posted by smoq at 3:50 PM on March 7, 2013


I like this updated version of "Union Maid", from Pete Seeger's 90th birthday tribute. It's sung by Billy Bragg, Mike & Ruthy Merenda, Dar Williams, and the New York City Labour Chorus.

The original lyrics had a final verse that reflected the traditional gender roles of the time (1961):
You girls who want to be free
Just take a tip from me
Get you a man who's a union man
And join the Ladies Auxiliary
Married life ain't hard
When you've got a union card
And a union man has a happy life
When he's got a union wife
Oh dear. Anyway, the new verse in this version goes
You women who want to be free
Just take a tip from me
Join your hand with a union man
Into the 21st century
As Angela Davis found
We're all together bound
That race and class and gender join
to stand for common ground
Seconding The Whelk's recommendation for Billy Bragg's album Internationale. His cover of the title song is my favourite of all the versions I've heard, by far. He rewrote some of the lyrics to update them, so it's not traditional, but I prefer it this way.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:53 PM on March 7, 2013


If you're on a harsher bent: the album Test Dept. made with the South Wales Striking Miners' Choir is the album I thought of immediately (here). It's interestingly both a seminal "classic industrial" work and something of a historical document, being recorded on and performed for the benefit of the peak of the UK miners' strike.
posted by zer0render at 4:03 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just seconding Billy Bragg. Your novel sounds interesting.
posted by loveyallaround at 4:08 PM on March 7, 2013


Oops I guess I was thirding Billy Bragg. Apologies.
posted by loveyallaround at 4:08 PM on March 7, 2013


New York City Labor Chorus and their repertoire.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:14 PM on March 7, 2013


Bread and Roses is both a poem and a song.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:35 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Bourgeois Blues
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:45 PM on March 7, 2013


I think More Than a Paycheck is the most beautiful song ever writtern that explicitly concerns the right to a safe workplace.
posted by gingerest at 5:16 PM on March 7, 2013


"The People's Song Book": Union in Song (self-linked FPP) and its comments might provide some good listening.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:44 PM on March 7, 2013


Step by Step is beautiful. (Youtube video with hammered dulcimer)
posted by Jeanne at 5:57 PM on March 7, 2013


Nthing Billy Bragg

Natalie Merchant does a nice (kind of sinister) version of Which Side Are You On?

It may not be traditional union, but Patti Smith's People Have the Power always features in my lefty playlists:
Listen, I believe everythin' we dream
Can come to pass through our union...
posted by libraryhead at 5:59 PM on March 7, 2013


I believe there's a powerful version of it in the seminal labor documentary Harlan County, USA.

The whole soundtrack from that film makes me go quiet. It's on iTunes, here.
posted by mochapickle at 6:10 PM on March 7, 2013


Rosalie Sorrels!
Check out Bob Bossin and Stringband for some hilarious Canadian retakes (Mail Sortin man being by fave)
Maria Dunn's We Were Good People is amazing.
posted by chapps at 6:13 PM on March 7, 2013


"In the United States, coal miners led the labour movement for workers rights. In 1933, the efforts of a group of organized and committed miners led to the National Industrial Recovery Act which granted workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively. A folk song inspired by the movement, called "Fire In The Hole" was written by Hazel Dickens in the 1950's. Dickens grew up in the coal mining villages of West Virginia during the depression, and some of her lyrics are directly referenced in the Hip's "Fire In The Hole." A re-recording of Hazel's song was released in 1987 for the film soundtrack to "Matewan" on the Hip's current US record label: Rounder Records." (Source)
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:20 PM on March 7, 2013


Phil Ochs Links on a Chain.

And since no one's mentioned it that I saw (aside from Pete Seeger), there are probably a million versions of Solidarity Forever.
posted by hoyland at 7:32 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


zer0render has mentioned it, but the miners' strike article has a section on music.

There should be a couple more Phil Ochs songs, too.
posted by hoyland at 7:44 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Look for the union label.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:08 PM on March 7, 2013


It's worth mentioning that "work songs" are a traditional form of music that predates the labor movement and the subsequent explosion of labor-specific folk music. African-American work songs such as field hollers and the chants of gandy dancers were foundational elements of what would become known as the blues. Appalachian coal mining songs (such as the Carter Family classic, "Coal Miner's Blues"), as mentioned above, were another rich source of inspiration for musicians in the labor movement.

(And those field hollers will chill your soul and invigorate your spirit. Like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:56 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Phil Ochs' "A Toast To Those Who Are Gone" is about more than the labor movement, but it's definitely in there.
posted by ifjuly at 10:10 PM on March 7, 2013


You want the 10 disc set, Songs for Political Action, all 300ish songs worth. If you're fortunate, your local library will have it in their collection.
posted by mumkin at 11:06 PM on March 7, 2013


I bet the lyrics to virtually every labor-related song ever recorded are no more than 3 clicks removed from The Labor Movement page at Folkarchive. Although there are only a few audio files on the website, most of the songs can be found on YouTube.

Re I'd like to listen to music associated with the historical labor movement while I'm planning and writing. I wish I had your discipline (or more interesting work), but it's clear that my productivity drops precipitously when this music is playing. Case in point: I came here to make a quick suggestion for you playlist. A google search for lyrics returned the above website. Long story short, that was almost 3 hours ago.

This is what I came to say:

Cotton Mill Colic is one of three songs by Dave McCarn* regarding the lives of Piedmont mill workers.


When you buy clothes on easy terms,
Collectors treat you like measly worms.
One dollar down, then Lord knows,
If you can't make a payment, they'll take your clothes.
When you go to bed you can't sleep,
You owe so much at the end of the week.
No use to colic, they're all that way,
Pecking at your door till they get your pay.
I'm a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
'Cause you can't make a living at a cotton mill.
When you go to work you work like the devil,
At the end of the week you're not on the level.
Payday comes, you pay your rent,
When you get through you've notgot a cent
To buy fat-back meat, pinto beans,
Now and then you get turnip greens.
No use to colic, we're all that way,
Can't get the money to move away.
I'm a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
'Cause you can't make a living at a cotton mill.

Twelve dollars a week is all we get,
How in the heck can we live on that?
I've got a wife and fourteen kids,
We all have to sleep on two bedsteads.
Patches on my britches, holes in my hat,
Ain't had a shave, my wife got fat.
No use to colic, everyday at noon,
The kids get to crying in a different tune.
I'm a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
'Cause you can't make a living at a cotton mill.

They run a few days and then they stand,
Just to keep down the working man.
We can't make it, we never will,
As long as we stay at a lousy mill.
The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer,
If you don't starve, I'm a son of a gun.
No use to colic, no use to rave,
We'll never rest till we're in our grave.
I'm a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
'Cause you can't make a living at a cotton mill.



*My 3rd cousin, 3x removed.
posted by she's not there at 11:46 PM on March 7, 2013


(Probably not what you're looking for, but this just occurred to me: Panopticon's "Kentucky" is a bluegrass/black metal concept album about Kentucky coal miners and the labor movement. It has samples of labor songs and traditional bluegrass woven into, well, black metal.... It's actually really, really good, if you dig that sort of thing....)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:28 AM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bandiera Rossa, the Italian socialist anthem, makes a great appearance in the film Matewan - starting at around 2:55 in that clip.
posted by Azara at 1:53 AM on March 8, 2013


Raggin' by Redgum
posted by h00py at 3:08 AM on March 8, 2013


This isn't music to listen to, per se but Rise Up Singing has a whole labor section, usually with citations for recordings, or at least a performer/composer. Might be some food for thought. I spent last summer working for a conservation corps and oddly enough, a lot of our get togethers involved singing stuff directly from that book and that section, including "No Nos Moveran", the Spanish version of "We Shall Not Be Moved" which includes an entire verse on overthrowing the government. Good times.

Woody Guthrie has been mentioned already, but my two favorite songs of his are labor songs- "Pastures of Plenty" and "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." The version by Barbara Dane is one of my favorites.

For a slightly different field, but still related to the working person, try "The Farmer is the Man Who Feeds Them All." This awesomely creepy minor version by the Freight Hoppers is my favorite.
posted by Polyhymnia at 5:04 AM on March 8, 2013


"Sixteen Tons," the chorus of which goes "I owe my soul to the company store," is definitely a labor song in its implications.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:17 AM on March 8, 2013


Utah Phillips has a lot of albums that focus on old labor songs, but 1983's "We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years" is the best one, and excellent for what you're looking for. It is available for purchase on Amazon and other places.
posted by RedEmma at 10:07 AM on March 8, 2013


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