Why Labor Songs Still Matter

I recently got the chance to record a full-length album about my grandparents’ experience as immigrants living in Anthracite Coal Country. One of my favorite parts of recording Come From A Coal Town was the chance  to share some of the labor songs that I heard as a child.  

Although my grandfather died of black lung before I was born, I remember happily turning the pages of my grandmother’s International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) songbook to find a variety of songs from “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover” and “Bicycle Built For Two” to union hymns like “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum.” It was clear to me that music wove that group of dressmakers together and kept their spirits high.

Union hymns, or labor songs, like these were instrumental in the growing fight for workers’ rights. During the tough days of early organizing, some clever and creative folks decided to take the tunes to popular songs and give them a pro-worker twist.  For instance “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” became “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister,” with lyrics about an honest person looking for a good job at decent pay. “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum” (1908) uses the tune “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord (Revive Us Again).”  The song was written at a time when tens of thousands of workers found themselves completely out of work with no other options than being “on the bum.” The lyrics take on the false assumptions that were hurled at so-called “hobos” during those hard times:

“Oh why don’t you work like other folks do?

How the hell can I work when there’s no work to do?

“Oh why don’t you keep all the money you earn?

If I didn’t eat I’d have money to burn.”

Why Labor Songs Became So Popular

The idea of using hymns or popular tunes as the musical setting for labor songs was a stroke of genius! Since, at the time, everyone knew a fiddle melody like “Red Wing,” it was easy to write a set of lyrics, put them on a song card and have a whole crowd singing “There once was a union Maid… Who never was afraid.” And then there were the hymns. I think some of the early writers like John Brill took a special delight in putting new words to religious hymns because organized religion was often used as an excuse not to organize or seek a better life. If people accepted that their lot in life was to suffer now and get “pie in the sky when they die,” then they happily accepted the inequities of the world around them. Using the melodies of popular hymns was a way to create a new fervor, but this time for a movement that would help everyone in the community advance in this life.

“Dump The Bosses Off Your Back”

One of my favorite songs has always been “Dump The Bosses Off Your Back” (John Brill, 1916), sung to the tune of “Take It To The Lord In Prayer.” The lyrics accurately describe the harsh conditions and deprivations that folks like my grandfather suffered while doing a dirty job working in the mines, often for 12 or more hours a day, in an unsafe environment, all so that coal was available for those who could pay. And yet, about ten miles away from these mines like J + D Coal in Jermyn, Pennsylvania, there were elaborate and ornate mansions on the hill for bosses who never saw coal dust or got their hands dirty and who often worked at cross purposes to every miner’s basic needs.

It isn’t a mystery why miners liked songs like “Dump The Bosses Off Your Back”. You can hear my version from the new album here:

Do Labor Songs Speak To Us Today?

Fast forward about 80 years from when my grandfather worked the mines, and the world does look very different. So does that mean that these songs are obsolete or only interesting historical pieces? Here’s why I don’t think so.

Right now the majority of the poor and those in a declining middle class are struggling to make ends meet, especially in pandemic conditions. Many folks are working three jobs or struggling to find one. Many of us are in the situation where one health crisis can bankrupt the family and leave us homeless. Kids hoping for a better future start their job search saddled in student debt. The picture is different than 80 years ago, but equally bleak. There is still lots of room for organizing on every level to direct change in a way that genuinely improves all of our lives.

Although today’s bosses don’t wear top hats and monocles, like the banker from Monopoly or the ones in these old labor songs, the economic truth is that the super rich have been getting richer. At the same time, their rising tide has not lifted all boats. While some have been garnering astronomical riches, the rest of us may not have enough food to get us through the week or the month. So maybe many of these old songs are worth dusting off or even rewriting a bit to bring them up to date.

Without a doubt, these old labor songs are worth a listen.


Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou is a musician, songwriter and educator. She’s lived and worked in cultures around the globe and has a degree in ethnomusicology. Her parents came from the small towns of Mayfield and Jermyn, north of Scranton in Anthracite Coal Country.

2 comments

  1. David Panckeri · ·

    I do think we need an updated ALBUM of labor songs promoting unions.

    Today’s kids and people in their 40’s have all been fed anti-labor lies their whole lives. There is NO sense of how important labor history is to new or prospective members.

    Putting labor words to a song like “Let it Be” or “We are Family” would be a fun project for musically inclined poets or just songwriters !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Edward Moran · ·

    Thank you for such a spirited article. Credit for collecting and preserving many of these songs rests with folklorist George Korson (1899-1967) who grew up in Wilkes-Barre at the same time my grandfather was working in the local coal mines. Korson initially donated his rich archive to the King’s College Library, which in 2004 agreed to let the Library of Congress remove it for its American Folklife Center, conceding that Korson’s work would receive “better preservation and more use” in Washington.

    Yes, organized religion often promoted “pie in the sky” to counter union organizing, but let’s not neglect the pr0-labor ethos of the Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism and the work by Dorothy Day and other Catholic friends of the working class, including Fr John Curran of Wilkes-Barre. These movements also produced its own body of protest music: It has been argued that “We Shall Overcome” was derived from an 18th century Catholic hymn.

    Again, thanks for calling attention to this rich tradition in the “bread and roses” tradition.

    Like

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