The History of Songs in the Labor Movement


In 1791, America’s first factory, a textile mill, opened in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Industrial Revolution had arrived, and with it, all the miseries of capitalism, wage-slavery and exploitation. Many of the industrial labor songs were about the textile mills, like “The Factory Girl,” which was written in 1830. In fact, “The Factory Girl” is considered to be the oldest textile song in America.

[Factory Girl]

Textile mills were springing up all over the country and they hired not only men and women, but children, as well. In fact, children as young as five, six, and seven worked in the mills, the mines, and the factories throughout the 18th, 19th, and even into the 20th centuries.

Asa Candler, the founder of Coca-Cola, summed up the industrial bosses’ attitude when he said, “The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor.”

Workers were exploited in every way possible, from starvation wages and long hours to horrendous and inhumane working conditions. Workers were beaten and their pay docked at the slightest pretext; children worked from sunup to sundown and many died from disease and starvation; women were regularly subjected to rape by bosses and fired if they resisted. And always they were forced to worked harder, faster, longer.

When a manager at the Holyoke Mills in Massachusetts found that workers were “languorous after eating breakfast,” he solved the problem by “working them without breakfast.” He was delighted when the women produced 3,000 more yards of cloth each week.

By the 1900s, the mills of Massachusetts were filled with immigrants from all over the world, and in 1912, the state of Massachusetts finally enacted a shorter work week for women and children—from 56 hours to 54 hours a week.

But in Lawrence, a town where some 30 different nationalities worked in the mills, the mill owners responded by speeding up the machines and cutting wages that were already at starvation levels. The average pay for adults was $6.00 a week, for children about $5.00—that is, when mills were in full production.

On January 11th, the pay envelopes were passed around in the Everett Cotton Mill. The Polish weavers, mostly women, counted their money and began shouting, “Not enough pay!” The women sat at the machines and refused to work. In the Washington Mill, it was the Italians who started protesting when they opened their pay envelopes.

By nightfall, 1,850 operators had left their looms. The next morning, the strike spread to other plants. The women went from room to room, smashing light bulbs, cutting belts, shredding cloth, and pulling non-strikers from their machines, shouting “Better to starve fighting than to starve working!”

By the following night, 22,000 women, men, and children had left their jobs.

Several things were unique about this strike: To begin with, no union called the strike. It was a spontaneous, mass action, and although the union called the Industrial Workers of the World quickly lent their support, it was the people—especially the women—working in a communal effort, who initiated and carried out the strike.

Secondly, most of the strikers spoke very little English. In fact, there were some 45 different languages spoken. As a result, they found other methods of communicating with each other, one of which was singing.

Finally, this was the Bread and Roses strike which became famous for its singing.

[Bread and Roses]

Ray Stannard Baker, the famous muck-raking reporter of the times, described the strike like this:

It is the first strike I ever saw that sang. I shall not forget the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song. And not only at the meetings did they sing, but at the soup houses and in the streets. I saw one group of women strikers, who were peeling potatoes at a relief station, suddenly break into the swing of the “Internationale.”

During the strike, the city of Lawrence became an armed camp. The state sent in 1,400 militiamen to back up the police and state troopers already there. Clashes took place nearly every day. Thousands of workers formed endless chain picket lines surrounding the mills. They wore white armbands reading, “Don’t Be a Scab.” Police and militiamen responded by beating strikers—men, women and children. But the strikers fought back—both women and men.

As the strike wore on and money and food became scarce, the strikers decided to send their children away to supporters in other cities. The following account by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, described what happened:

On February 17, the first group of 150 children were taken to New York City. A New York Committee came to Lawrence to escort them. Five thousand people met them at Grand Central Station. People wept when they saw the poor clothes and thin shoes of these wide-eyed children. They picked them up and carried them on their shoulders to the El Station. They were taken to the Labor Temple on East 84th Street, where they were fed, and examined by 15 volunteer doctors, then turned over to their eager hosts, all of whom had been carefully checked by the committee. There were not enough children, and many New Yorkers left disappointed not to be to have a Lawrence child. There was a long waiting list, until another group came later.

The Lawrence authorities did not like all the attention and publicity the strikers were receiving throughout the country, and again Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described what they did about it:

On February 24, a group of 40 strikers’ children were to go from Lawrence to Philadelphia. A committee came from there to escort them, including a young Sunday school teacher. At the railroad station in Lawrence, where the children were assembled, accompanied by their fathers and mothers, just as they were ready to board the train, they were surrounded by the police. Troopers surrounded the station outside to keep others out. Children were clubbed and torn away from their parents and a wild scene of brutal disorder took place. Thirty-five frantic women and children were arrested, thrown screaming and fighting into patrol wagons. They were beaten into submission and taken to the police station. There the women were charged with “neglect” and improper guardianship and ten frightened children taken to the Lawrence Poor Farm. The police station was besieged by enraged strikers.

The attack led to a Congressional investigation of the strike, which then led to President Taft approving an investigation of labor conditions throughout the nation.

The Bread and Roses Strike was settled in March—ten weeks after it started—when the American Woolen Company gave in to all the strikers’ demands. The other mills gave in, as well, and wages for the 250,000 textile workers throughout New England were raised 5 to 20 percent.

During one of the many parades conducted by the strikers, a group of young girls carried a banner with the slogan, “We want bread — and roses, too!” This inspired James Oppenheim to write his poem, “Bread and Roses,” for which the strike was named, and which was set to music by Caroline Kohlsaat.

Key to the success of the Bread and Roses Strike was the involvement of the labor union, the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World), also known as Wobblies. The Wobblies, in addition to being the most radical union of their time, were different from other unions in that they believed in (1) the formation of one big union, and (2) the abolition of wage slavery.

One of the most famous IWW organizers was the Swedish immigrant Joe Hill, who was also one of the most famous labor troubadours of all time. Joe Hill, more than anyone, turned the IWW into a singing organization; he would sing at meetings and rallies, on street corners and picket lines. Most of the songs he wrote are still sung by union singers today, such as “The Preacher and the Slave” and “Union Maid.”

[Joe Hill song]

In January of 1914, Joe Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City on a murder charge, a common tactic used by the bosses to get rid of labor organizers back then. By 1914, there was an all-out war between the miners throughout the western states and the owners of the mines—including the Utah copper bosses who owned the police, the judges and the government.

Joe was an effective organizer; as far as the bosses were concerned, he was a trouble-maker and they wanted to get rid of him. Despite worldwide protest and more than enough evidence to prove his innocence, on November 19, 1915, Joe Hill was murdered by a firing squad in Salt Lake City.

His body was brought to Chicago, where the Wobblies had their headquarters, and 30,000 mourners marched in one of the greatest funeral processions ever seen in any U.S. city. Eulogies were delivered in nine different languages. Some twenty years later, Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes wrote their famous tribute called “Joe Hill.”

Although still in existence, the IWW was nearly wiped out by a series of government attacks. One of these was carried out by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer on September 5, 1917. Known as the Palmer Raids, mass arrests of Wobblies took place throughout the country on charges of espionage, sedition and anti-war activity.

Some of labor’s most enduring and most powerful songs have come out of the mines. Miners and their families were a particularly prolific group of workers when it came to writing labor songs. Country singer Merle Travis came from a mining family in Kentucky, and he went on to write songs about the mining life. The popularity of his songs helped publicize the awful conditions of the miners, and one of them, “Sixteen Tons,” became so popular, it won a gold record for Tennessee Ernie Ford. Another song he wrote about the miners, “Dark As A Dungeon,” was sung by many other singers, including Harry Belafonte.

The songs of the miners deal primarily with the terrible conditions, the viciousness of the bosses, and the many deaths they’ve suffered, not only in the mines, but at the hands of the militia, the police, and the murderous private detective agencies like Baldwin-Felts and Pinkertons.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency was founded in the 19th century by Allan Pinkerton, who made himself and his company rich by spying on, infiltrating, and busting unions for the owners of mines, mills, factories, and other companies. Pinkertons and Baldwin-Felts infiltrated just about every union in the country. In addition, they were hired to break up strikes with clubs, guns and bombs, burn down union halls, and frame up unionists.

Songs played an important part in the history of the miners, particularly in the Southern mountains where most of the songs came from. After all, singing is a rich tradition in these mountains and, as descendants of the Irish, songs are part of the oral history. These mountains also produced some of labor’s finest bards. One of them was the labor organizer Sarah Ogan Gunning, who wrote the song “I’m Going To Organize.”

[I’m Going To Organize]

Sarah Ogan Gunning was born in 1910 in the coal mining country of eastern Kentucky. Her father was a member of the Knights of Labor and then the United Mine Workers, and so she was raised as a strong unionist. When her first husband, who was a miner, came down with TB, she tried to get him to a local hospital, but was told by the authorities that none of the local hospitals would touch a miner with no money. They advised her to have him sleep on the floor so the rest of the family wouldn’t get TB, too.

Her lyrics were famously blunt, like her song, “I Hate the Capitalist System.” Another one, “Come All You Coal Miners,” has the famous line: “Let’s sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of Hell.” She had plenty of reason to hate the poverty and exploitation of the capitalist system: because of their lack of money, TB killed her husband, and two of her children died during the depression of starvation and disease. As she wrote in one of her songs, “I Am A Girl Of Constant Sorrow”:

Well, we call this hell on earth, friends,
I must tell you all goodbye.
Oh, I know you all are hungry,
Oh, my darlin’ friends, don’t cry.

Sarah’s sister was also a famous labor organizer and a prolific bard of the miners: Aunt Molly Jackson. Like Sarah, Aunt Molly wrote and sang about the hardships, the events and the sorrows of the miners. And they both wrote from personal experience.

Sarah and Molly lost their mother to TB, their father was blinded in a coal mine, and their brother was killed in a coal mine. Molly’s husband and son were killed in the mines, and her second marriage broke up because of her union activities. In his book American Folksongs of Protest, folk music scholar John Greenway writes that during her 47 years in the coalfields, Aunt Molly Jackson “saw a great many troubles, tragedies, struggles, and victories, all of which she chronicled in song, so that the other miners and miners’ wives would neither forgive nor forget.”

One of her songs, about a young union organizer, is called “The Death of Harry Simms” which she wrote with her brother, Jim Garland.

[The Death of Harry Simms]

It was in 1932, during the labor battles in Harlan County, Kentucky, and Harry Simms had been sent there by the National Miners Union to help the striking workers. So the Brush Creek Coal operators (the bosses) put a price on Harry’s head of one thousand dollars. One morning, as Harry was going to meet a group of miners to take them to town to pick up five truckloads of food and clothing for the miners’ families, he was shot in the stomach.

But Harry didn’t die right away; the authorities found him and, as Aunt Molly tells it: “They left Harry Simms sitting on a rock in front of the town hospital with a bullet in his stomach. He sat there on the rock an hour or more with his hands on his stomach, bleeding to death. He was sitting there because the hospital wouldn’t take him in till somebody guaranteed to pay his bill. After a while a man said he would pay the bill, so the took Harry in, but it was too late.”

One of the most famous union songs, “Which Side Are You On?” was written by Florence Reece, the wife of a miner.

[Which Side Are You On?]

In 1931, 11,000 coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, went out on strike to protest a 10 percent wage cut. The National Guard arrested strike leaders and escorted scabs into the mines. Armed company deputies roamed the countryside, terrorizing the mining communities, looking for union leaders to beat, jail or kill. Florence’s husband, Sam, was one of the union leaders, and one afternoon, when she was alone in the house with her seven children, Sheriff J.H. Blair busted in with his men looking for Sam. They ransacked the whole house, then kept watch outside, ready to shoot him down if he came back. A few days later, Florence tore off a sheet from the wall calendar and wrote the song.

Miners in the West have had a similar history, though not as many songs still exist to chronicle it. One of the most famous labor singers, Woody Guthrie, wrote a number of powerful songs that chronicle the experiences of the western miners. One of his songs is “The Ludlow Massacre” about one of the most brutal and bloody incidents in American labor history.

It happened in Ludlow, Colorado, outside the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company mines on April 20, 1914. The striking workers and their families—1,200 people—had erected a tent city after the mine operators had evicted them from their homes. They spent a hard winter in the tents, but still maintained their strike. Finally, John D. Rockefeller had had enough of the strike and he ordered the Colorado National Guard to get rid of them. The National Guard attacked, spraying the camp with machine guns, setting fire to tents, and killing eighteen women, children, and men.1

Another one of Woody Guthrie’s songs, “1913 Massacre,” is about an incident took place in Calumet, Michigan, on Christmas Eve.

Sixteen thousand miners had walked out on the copper companies, and the strike was in its sixth month. The Calumet businessmen had formed a Citizens’ Alliance whose purpose was to drive the union—the Western Federation of Miners—out of copper country.

On December 24, 1913, the strikers and their families were upstairs in the Italian Hall celebrating Christmas party, when a man wearing a Citizens’ Alliance button opened the downstairs door and yelled, “There’s a fire!” He and his accomplices then barricaded the door so that no one could get out. Over 70 people died, mostly children who smothered to death.a, 2

Woody Guthrie also wrote songs about migrant workers. One of them was written as a result of a brief news item he read in the paper about an airplane that crashed near Coalinga, California. All it said in the paper was that the plane was carrying “Mexican deportees” and all 28 of them had been killed. So he wrote the song, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” (also called “Deportee”). Another one of his songs about migrant workers is “Pastures of Plenty.”

[Pastures of Plenty]

One of the most famous labor songs of all is “Roll The Union On.” The first verse was written by John Handcox, who adapted it from the gospel song “Roll The Chariot On,” then other folks kept adding verses.

It was written as an organizing song for the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in the 1930s, which was the first attempt to organize sharecroppers.  John Handcox was himself a sharecropper; he was also an organizer for the Union, and he described what happened when the tenant farmers tried to organize in 1936:

When the planters in East Arkansas saw that the people were joining the union they told them to git off the land. They didn’t wait for some of them to git—they threw them off. It was a cold winter. The hungry people had no place to go. When they held union meetings the laws clubbed them till they lay like dead on the ground. It didn’t make no difference if they was men or women. They killed some union members and threw some others in jail. In the spring, we began to talk about a strike. Most of us was workin’ from sun up to sun down and making less than 70 cents a day. We wanted $1.50 a day for ten hours’ work. There was about 4,000 altogether who said they would go out on strike. The planters got scared. The laws arrested every man they could get ahold of and took them back to work at the point of guns. They beat up men and women, and they shot some and they ran a lot of folks out. But they couldn’t break the strike. We had marches. We all lined up, sometimes more than a hundred of us on a line, and marched through plantations, cross country. In lots of places where we marched the choppers stopped work and went on strike with us.

And, of course, they sang while they marched.


[Roll The Union On] [We Ain’t Gonna Give It Back] [Solidarity Forever] [The Internationale]



The Note to The History of Songs in the Labor Movement

a: No one was ever caught for the crime and the official version was that some “unknown” persons held the door closed as a prank. In fact, the town of Calumet has never come to grips with what happened and a great deal of animosity and denial still exists. However, in the 1990s, a friend of mine from the area told me that a well-respected leader of the community, who had been a member of the Citizens League, finally confessed to the crime on his death bed. The confession created even more controversy in Calumet, and half the town is still in denial that any of their “upstanding” citizens would commit such a crime.