Solidarity Forever: The IWW and the Protest Song
By John Pietaro
Of all US radical organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World is perhaps that which has most fully embraced the notion of the revolutionary cultural worker. Many, many of its early organizers were writers, musicians or visual artists (often all three!) and successfully used the arts as a tool in organizing workers across the globe. The Left’s focus on folk arts as a representation of cultural and national heritage has been a foremost tool in outreach since the turn of the 20th century. This foray into a “culture of the People” became a major point of identification by the proponents of the masses and was the natural outgrowth of the use of songs by workers and others in trying situations. Folk song collectors grew in prominence during the first decades of the 20th century, producing a ‘folk revival’, which, by the 1940s, had blossomed. Ironically, in the United States, the political Left (the Socialist and Communist parties primarily) did not acknowledge the important role of folk arts for decades, though this media was a vastly important historical point of reference. Particularly in the IWW.
Accounts of Wobbly musicians have been recorded as early as 1906, but one year after the IWW’s founding. The Spokane branch was approached by a highly active Socialist Party orator/organizer, Jack Walsh, who developed a plan to aid the Wobblies’ somewhat stunted organizing attempts. Though Walsh was able to draw a considerable crowd in the depressed tenderloin district of the city, he was encountering purposeful disruptions by the missionaries of the Salvation Army and one of their particularly pious brass bands. Not to be outdone by the cacophony, Walsh and the Spokane Wobblies soon had its own powerhouse Industrial Workers Band. Blaring on cornets and marching to the thunderous pulse of drums and tambourines, the Wobbly band were said to have devastated all whom they crossed. The band, clad in black overhauls and red work shirts, left no corner safe for the street evangelicals.
Walsh organized a brass band of his own, in which Mac McClintock played an E-flat baritone horn and a giant lumberjack beat, as McClintock recalled, the “b’jeezuz” out of a bass drum. Walsh’s band learned four tunes and hammered away at these over and over until the evangelists capitulated. (Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page174-175)
The Industrial Workers Band, taking a cue from the popular parodies of the evangelists’ songs, began to perform their own such lampoons of the Religious Right of its day. Among them was “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”, was well as songs by Harry ‘Mac’ McClintock (1883-1957), already a noted songster in the hobo jungles, and Richard Brazier. Armed with this minimal repertoire and copies of song-lyric leaflets they printed up, the Band embarked on something of a tour of the Pacific Northwest coastal towns.
‘Mack’ McClintock had come to the IWW with an arsenal full of topical original songs including “Halleluiah, I’m a Bum” and “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and he helped to popularize many of Joe Hill’s songs including “The Preacher and the Slave”. He traveled the country, organizing for the IWW, spending much of his time in the “hobo jungles” of the period, where he had been a frequent guest since his teenage years. Prior to the IWW, McClintock had worked as a railroad switchman in South Africa and then, according to Wobbly historian Joyce Kornbluh, he
…bummed his way to London to attend the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. He was a civilian mule skinner in the Spanish American War, and had also made his way to China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. (Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 29)
Of course McClintock also had the honor of leading that first IWW marching band, which became a fixture in the Pacific Northwest for several years. McClintock, like others of his generation, remained a Wobbly throughout his life. He began to perform songs of labor and struggle on radio broadcasts in 1925 and he continued to have a show through the mid-1950s. In addition to his IWW membership, McClintock had also joined the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 in California, but he is best known as a songwriter of the IWW.
Ultimately the Industrial Workers Band and the IWW Spokane branch dispensed with its early leader Jack Walsh, whom they saw as a shrewd businessman, largely out for his own profit. But the dye had been cast and the cultural workers among the Wobbly ranks had come to be seen as celebrated by the people and notorious by the powers that be.
…his idea had taken root, and before long street singing and organization became the principal activity of the struggling Pacific locals. The national policy board bestowed its benediction on topical singing as a weapon of revolt, and Walsh’s four-page leaflet grew larger year by year.(Greenway, page 176)
Another important songwriter associated with the IWW was T-Bone Slim (dates unknown, c. 1890-1942), whose actual name was Matti Valentine Huhta. T-Bone served the movement as a highly active Wobbly musician/organizer, though he was a journalist by profession in addition to laboring in other fields over the years. He became affiliated with the IWW by approximately 1910 and quickly began to write for their various periodicals. He also put many of his poems to music, the best known of which was “The Popular Wobbly”, a parody of the then-hit “The Girls Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me”, which Slim transformed into a sardonic protest song. The Wobblies’ own historical documents call T-Bone Slim one of the most famous and popular of Wob writers, as he penned numerous pamphlets in addition to a number of songs. He would remain an active Wobbly throughout his life.
Starting with 1909, the Wobblies began publishing the Little Red Song Book (“songs to fan the flames of discontent”) which made songs of labor and social change available to all workers.
Richard Brazier was an IWW musician who was part of the committee which produced the first IWW songbook. He described how the music of the Industrial Workers first drew him in:
What first attracted me to the IWW was its songs and the gusto with which its members sang them. Such singing, I thought, was good propaganda, since it had originally attracted me and many others as well; and also useful since it held the crowd for Wobbly speakers who followed. (Brazier, Richard, “The Story of the IWW’s Little Red Song Book”, Labor History number 9, Winter 1968, pp. 91-92; source: Salerno, Salvatore, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World. NY: State University of New York Press, 1989, page 28)
Wobbly historian Salvatore Salerno clarifies:
Cultural expressions such as songs, cartoons and poetry became a critical form and means of communication between the IWW and its members. While IWW worker intellectuals had a major role in disseminating knowledge of the activities, principles and tactics of industrial unionism, worker artists went beyond formal political expressions to create a language and symbolism that made the IWWs principles meaningful within the context of the workers’ cultural and social alienation. (Salerno, Salvatore, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World. NY: State University of New York Press, 1989, pp149-151)
A Wobbly poet/organizer of almost legendary proportions, later an associate of the Socialist Party, was Arturo Giovannitti (1884-1959). This Italian anarchist relocated to the USA in 1901 and became entrenched in the cause of radical labor and developed powerful journalism skills along the route. Giovannitti worked as a coal miner and joined the Italian Socialist Federation of North America and soon his writing skills led him to the post of editor of Italian-language Left periodical Il Proletario. Quickly, Giovannitti joined the IWW and focused his efforts on organizing the textile workers in Lawrence Massachusetts. He and organizer Joseph Ettor led this groundbreaking 1912 strike during which both men were arrested on a bogus murder charge. During their jail term, Giovannitti was encouraged to write about it and he composed the multi-verse book-length Arrows in the Gale, which spoke of the struggle and brandished an introduction by Helen Keller. It included the haunting poems “The Walker” and “The Cage” which told of the sense of eternal hopelessness of the men he encountered in jail. A 1913 article in Current Opinion magazine wrote of Giovannitti and his poetic works:
He has the soul of a great poet, the fervor of a prophet and, added to these, the courage and power of initiative that mark the man of action and the organizer of great crusades…This jail experience of Giovannitti’s has given the world one of the greatest poems ever produced in the English language…‘The Walker’ is more than a poem. It is a great human document (Current Opinion, January 1913; source: Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 184)
More so, a piece in Forum magazine of the day stated:
The significant thing is that here we have a new sort of poet with a new sort of song…He and his songs are products of something that few Americans yet understand. We do not comprehend the problem of the unskilled just as we do not comprehend the IWW that has come out of it. A poet has arisen to explain…In ‘the Walker’ he has pointed the prison as no man, not even Wilde, has done. (McGowan, Kenneth, Forum, October 14, 1913; source: ibid)
The charges against Giovannitti and Ettor were overturned on appeal and the pair were freed after five months. Upon release, they’d found that their strike had been a success and the mostly Italian immigrant workers had won. Indeed, they’d secured not only a voice on the job but fair and just wages. Following this, Giovannitti participated in the unsuccessful Patterson strike of the IWW and wrote for significant Left magazines in both English and Italian including the Masses and the International Socialist Review. He also created his own anti-war organ, Il Fuoco as World War One erupted. Giovannitti, long considered one of the Labor movement’s greatest orators, was expelled from the IWW in 1916 along with Ettor and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn due to their activities in a Minnesota iron-ore strike that IWW leaders did not agree with. (source: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAgiovannitti.htm).
Joe Hill (Joel Emmanuel Haaglund, aka Joseph Hillstrom, 1878-1915) was—and remains--the IWW’s guiding cultural force. A model for the fighting cultural worker, Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most famous pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones, the Union Scab”, “There is Power in the Union”, “Mr. Block” and “Where the Fraser River Flows”, amidst a stream of others. He performed on piano, guitar and various other instruments, composing songs in bars and IWW halls at night, so that he would have them ready for union meetings, pickets and other functions the next day, spreading the word of this global industrial union through music. Hill came to the US from Sweden as a young man and saw firsthand the terrible conditions workers had to endure in the first part of the twentieth century; shortly thereafter he pledged allegiance to the cause of the IWW. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his infamous unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me---organize”. Hill, for all the mythology that surrounds him, has been the subject of numerous biographical sketches; his life, and the frame-up which ended it, have been the viewed as a principal to the labor historians’ repertoire.
IWW members Dean Nolen and Fred Thompson’s detailed booklet offers considerable insight, even if some of it remains shrouded in the Joe Hill legends. While they cite that Hill’s first years in the United States were often a rather desperate attempt to find employment (he became something of a “wharf rat”), the first accounts of his cultural work date back to 1906. Hill was then living in San Francisco and chronicled the great earthquake for his hometown paper. Living in New York later, he worked as a porter by day and played piano in downtown saloons by night. But much more to the point,
The earliest parody written by Hill that we know of went to the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, a Salvation Army favorite. It was already in circulation before it appeared in the 1911 edition of the IWW songbook (Nolan, Dean and Fred Thompson, Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter. Chicago General membership Branch, IWW, 1979, pp 4-5)
The IWW’s official historical document, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology describes Hill’s cultural work thusly:
Hill’s songs and writings articulated the simple Marxism of the IWW Preamble and the Wobbly philosophy of “direct action..Wobblies, socialists, communists, AFL-CIO members transcend sectarian differences to sing Joe Hill’s songs and share his lore.” (Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 131-132)
John Greenway’s American Folksongs of Protest tells of Hill’s first possible encounter with the Wobblies as well as his presentation of “The Preacher and the Slave” to the IWW:
One evening late in 1910 Joe Hill walked into the Portland, Oregon IWW hall with a song he had written to the tune of the popular Salvation Army gospel hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. He gave it to the secretary of the local, George Reese, who handed it to Mac McClintock, the local’s “busker” or tramp entertainer. Mac sang it to the men idling in the hall, and the tremendous applause that greeted its rendition convinced Reese that they had something. He and McClintock revised the song, and printed it in their little song leaflet which two years later was adopted by the IWW as the official songbook of the union. Hill was invited to join the Wobblies, and so began his fabulous career. (Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page 185)
As has been written of many times over the years, Hill’s organizing efforts in the state of Utah were successful enough that the powers that converged on both government and business sought the need to stop him at all costs. Not long after, he was arrested on a murder charge that has always been contested by the IWW and a wealth of others. Eugene V. Debs, the nation’s most celebrated Socialist and radical of the 1910s, offered the highest praise to Hill during the time of the Wobbly’s imprisonment. He wrote in an article in the American Socialist:
Joe Hill is of a poetic temperament and is the author of songs of labor of genuine merit; he is of a tender, sympathetic and generous nature and utterly incapable of committing the crime charged against him (Debs, Eugene, The American Socialist, August 28, 1915; source: Foner, page 117)
The story of Joe Hill is best remembered as one of martyrdom. He’d survived red-baiting, police assaults and vicious Pinkerton detectives’ dubious means of strike-breaking. He lived to tell of dockyard fights, barroom brawls, and back-room precinct house beatings. But he was not able to survive the Utah court which found him guilty and sentenced him to death in 1915. While imprisoned, Hill wrote prolifically and toward the end offered what was arguably his most famous prose, which today is simply recalled as “Don’t mourn---organize!”
While Joe Hill continues to put a face on the concept of Wobbly cultural workers, he was by far not alone in his role. Significant numbers of itinerant musicians, poets, bards and visual artists functioned as IWW organizers, traveling to areas which contained oppressed workers, often immigrant or home-grown unskilled laborers, who could be moved to action via the arts in a most profound way. Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) is recalled as one of the strongest cultural voices in the IWW, functioning as a writer and editor on several of their periodicals as well as offering visual artwork and music to many struggles. But Chaplin’s influences pre-date the IWW: as a boy he was a witness to the infamous Pullman Strike in Chicago and by his young adulthood was employed as an artist by the Charles H. Kerr publishing house, which released relevant early socialist books and also published the International Socialist Review, a guiding force for all progressive activists.
Chaplin’s activities with the IWW came early into the federation’s existence and he worked alongside such legendary figures as Mother Jones. His most important achievement, however, was his 1915 authorship of labor’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever”, written to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”, a theme of the Abolitionist movement. Over the years, Chaplin spoke of the struggle of the coal miners at a strike in a Kanawha Valley, West Virginia as the influence for his writing of this song. He was serving as editor of the union newspaper at the time, and he returned home returned home from the strike line one evening in January of 1915 and wrote the lyrics out to as he lay on his living room rug. The song was published immediately thereafter in the January 9 edition of Solidarity. This song continued to hold up as the primary anthem of labor and some of its more militant verses are heard only during the more radical gatherings, but in any event, it remains respected as the movement’s theme. He wrote of the song’s origins in Wobbly, an IWW organ:“I wanted a song to be full of revolutionary fervor and to have a chorus that was ringing and defiant” (source: Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 26)
Additionally, Chaplin penned other Wobbly songs that have been well-remembered including “The Commonwealth of Toil” and “Paint ‘er Red”. The latter song became a vehicle for the forces of reaction in their fervor to neutralize the IWW and it was cited in numerous court documents during the World War 1 era prosecutions of the IWW.
Ironically, by the 1930s, Chaplin became a voice for the more conservative end of organized labor and he stood as an outspoken critic of the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Communist-associated unions, though these were usually on the cutting edge of workers’ rights and engaged, on a mass scale, in the same industrial organizing the IWW had pledged itself to since its founding. His turn against his Wobbly comrades has never been fully explained.
The Industrial Workers of the World suffered the brutal assault of the reactionary US government’s initial Red Scare, that which targeted anarchists as ‘foreign terrorists’ and subjected the IWW offices to continual ransackings, its members to constant oppression. By the end of the organization’s first decade, it had already experienced significant damage and during the First World War, Wobs needed to largely take their operation underground. By the end of the 1920s, this noble union had become a shadow of its former self. While the IWW has had points of invigoration over the decades, it was often ravaged by times of deprivation. But the anarchist core found new alliances within the street and campus uprisings of the 1960s and ‘70s and could boast such members as celebrated folksinger/activists Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and especially Utah Phillips, who remained perhaps the most active Wobbly musician until his passing in 2008.
In the current day, the IWW stands as a dedicated force for social change, maintaining offices not only throughout the nation but internationally. In recent years, in the wake of the IWW’s centenary of 2005, increased attention has been brought to their struggle, such as the ongoing campaign to organize workers in Starbucks shops. Multiple accounts of compact disc collections have offered music dedicated to the cause and the publication of many new books on the Wobbly journey have brought it a newfound focus. As organized labor seeks to look into to its own radical heart, it cannot avoid the mission of these Industrial Workers, particularly when “Solidarity Forever” is next performed at a strike line or rally. These words of unity, this melody of rebellion, rings loud and true--now as then.
The noted journalist John Reed , a Wobbly in the 1910s before helping to found the Communist Party, wrote in a 1918 piece for the Liberator magazine of how the IWW was able to touch so many, so deeply. Here he offers perhaps the best possible description of the power of song within the Wobblies’ actions:
Let there be a “free speech fight” on in some town, and the “wobblies” converge upon it, across a thousand miles, and fill the jails with champions.
And singing. Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten...They love and revere their singers, too, in the IWW. All over the country workers are singing Joe Hill’s songs, “The Rebel Girl”, “Don’t Take May Papa Away From Me”, Workers of the World, Awaken”. Thousands can repeat his “Last Will”, the three simple verses written in his cell the night before execution. I have met working men carrying next their hearts, in the pockets of their working clothes, little boxes with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them. Over Bill Haywood’s desk in national headquarters is a painted portrait of Joe Hill, very moving, done with love…I know no other group of Americans which so honors its singers…(Reed, John, “The IWW In Court”, The Education of John Reed. NY: International Publishers, 1955, pp 179-181. Originally entitled “The Social Revolution in Court”, The Liberator, September 1918)