The Industrial Workers of the World blazed a path in American history and its influence is still felt widely today. The ‘Wobblies’ and music were interwoven helping to build morale, promote solidarity and lift the bleak spirits of the working-class during the bleakest days of American history. Here are twenty of those songs that can still lift our spirits decades later.
Welcoming into the union those that others shunned, the Wobblies from the start were the labour movement’s pioneers and innovators, unionising hundreds of thousands of workers previously regarded as “unorganizable”. The Wobblies, the name given to members of the IWW, at their peak in 1917, numbered near 200,000 but state repression, competition from other unions and the inevitable split led to a decline in membership that has seen this once great organisation become a mere shadow of itself. The IWW organised the first sit-down strike (Schenectady, 1906), the first major auto strike (Detroit, 1911), the first strike to shut down all three coalfields in Colorado (1927), and the first ‘no-fare’ transit-workers’ job-action (Cleveland, 1944). With their imaginative, colourful and world-famous strikes and free-speech fights, the IWW wrote many of the brightest pages in the annals of working class history.
Wobblies also made immense and invaluable contributions to workers’ culture. All but a few of America’s most popular labour songs are Wobbly songs and IWW cartoons have long been recognised as labour’s finest and funniest.
The IWW’s Use of Music
In their struggle to promote these politics, the IWW was a singing union. In the period between 1910-1960 the songbook ‘The Little Red Songbook’, which is still in print, was regarded by many workers as one of their most beloved possessions besides, of course, their red IWW membership cards. The songbook was one of the most important documents and its songs were sung in numerous situations: around hobo campfires, in boxcars, in Wobbly halls, in the streets, on picket lines, at strike rallies, in court, on the way to jail and in jail. The songs were a crucial aid in recruiting new members, and they were important in building a sense of fellowship and in keeping spirits up in hard situations. Paul Garon writes in his book ‘What’s The Use Of Walking If There’s A Freight Train Going Your Way? Black Hobos And Their Songs’ that a mixed group of hobos sitting around a campfire would be more likely to sing Wobbly songs than Blues, Country or Vaudeville songs. This tells us something about the popularity these songs enjoyed.
from ‘Music And The IWW: The Creation Of A Working Class Counterculture‘ by Rudolf TB
Rebel Voices. Songs Of The Industrial Workers Of The World was released on Flying Fish Records formed in the 70’s by Bruce Kaplan. Use to releasing left field folk music the label had split from the more famous Rounder Records who were more reluctant to release leftfield albums like this compilation. The presence of Utah Phillips looms large here. A combination of activist, organiser, songwriter, singer, and storyteller, there are few performers who can put across a song such as ‘The Two Bums’ as well as he could.
The album also combines its participants into various small groupings and a big ensemble finale, an idea that works just as well in an album sequence as it has on many folk festival stages. There are several numbers originating with Joe Hill, needless to say, but also a grand Malvina Reynolds cover by Faith Petric and a terrific take on the classic ‘Hallelujah, I’m a Bum’ by Bob Bovee. Besides delivering its intended messages, this collection also puts the spotlight on some fairly unknown performers in a context that brings welcome thematic strength and emotional power to their work.
Rebel Voices is an amazing collection of stories and songs, that gives a perfect history of working people. The songs call for solidarity is as relevant today as it was when the songs were originally written. The music provides a feeling of being connected, and makes you want to sing along. No matter what your interest, but especially if it’s the history of the labour movement, this is a wonderful and thought-provoking collection of music.
1. Preamble to the IWW Constitution
2. Organizer – Jeff Cahill
3. Little Red Hen – Faith Petric
4. Which Side Are You On? – Bob Bovee
5. Two Bums – Utah Phillips
6. Banks of Marbles – Fred Holstein
7. Put It on the Ground – Marion Wade
8. Popular Wobbly – Eric Glatz
9. Song of the Rail – Mark Ross
10. Hold the Fort – Bruce Brackney
11. We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years – Bruce Brackney
12. Ain’t Done Nothing If You Ain’t Been Called a Red – Faith Petric
13. Hallelujah, I’m a Bum – Bob Bovee
14. Boss – Utah Phillips
15. Preacher and the Slave – Jeff Cahill
16. Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life – Mark Ross
17. Stung Right – Fred Holstein
18. Jo Hill’s Last Will – Kathy Taylor
19. Mr. Block – Utah Phillips
20. Power in the Union
The Wobblies impact has reverberated far beyond the ranks of organised labour. An important influence on the 60’s New Left, the theory and practice of direct action, solidarity and ‘Class-War’ humour have inspired several generations of activists and are a major source of ideas and inspiration for today’s too. Indeed, virtually every movement seeking to “make this planet a good place to live” (to quote an old Wobbly slogan), has drawn on the IWW’s incomparable experience. The songs here are from the twentieth century but their relevance to current times invites us to explore the conditions that inspired their creation. In the face of oppression, these songwriters bravely took a stand. Such courage and heroism is immortal, such heroes should be celebrated and their songs can and still do lift our spirits.
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