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Working and Music

We are approaching a holiday that signifies many things to people on the calendar: Labor Day.  For children and teachers, it’s back to school. For the sports fan, anticipation for Friday night high school football (and half-time shows; a shout-out to the band kids) and Sunday afternoon professional leagues. But I would like to remind everyone this holiday should be remembered for its origin: recognition of tradesmen and the workers.  I haven’t met anyone who endorses a return to 60+ hour work-weeks, no vacation and no sick leave.

Music, always reflecting the times, was an important part of the Labor movement. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were the spokesmen for the working man.

Pete Seeger with arm raised and holding banjo standing with microphones on stage.

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, facing left, singing and playing guitar

With Pete’s banjo and Woody’s guitar,  they traveled cross country supporting the labor movement and boosting morale in sing-alongs.  Sing-alongs are still a tradition in Wales at the local pubs, and in How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, he recalled the coal-miners singing on many occasions.  Perhaps some of this singing tradition transferred to the U.S., where the miners  were some of the first to organize unions and fight for better wages and working conditions. Hazel Dickens also supported the coal miners, and sang Fire in the Hole as well as Coal Miner’s Blues, with the latter heard on Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard: Pioneering Women of BluegrassDBM 03671.

Coal miners

Inside workers shaft #6 Pennsylvania Coal Company,. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.

We have Labor Ballads at DBM 00139, and a biography of Woody Guthrie at Legend of a Balladeer, DBM 00912, The Folk Singer, DBM 00854  and Woody Guthrie Remembered, DBM 00044. Paul Robeson recorded a salute to a union organizer with the song Joe Hill, available on The Collector’s Paul Robeson, DBM 03613.   In braille format, NLS Music Section offers American Favorite Ballads: Tunes and Songs as Sung by Pete Seeger at BRM 30421. This includes labor classics like Solidarity, We Shall Not Be Moved, and Which Side Are You On? The last song is taken from an actual event, in which law enforcement illegally entered the home of a union organizer, Sam Reece. Mr. Reece had escaped, but his wife, Florence, and their children remained. Later that night, Florence Reece wrote the lyrics in her kitchen and set them to a traditional hymn. It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than your family and sanctuary threatened just because you have an opinion and speak up about your rights. And we will soon have Classic Labor Songs, DBM 03558, a Smithsonian title available to download and borrow. Plenty of inspiration from these titles such as Bread and RosesBlack Lung, and De Colores, a song used by the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez.

Enjoy the picnics, parades and time off from work.  But remember these brave working men and women and be grateful for the working class.

Finding Jimi and Django

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The Festival That Changed American Music

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