"The People's Song Book": Union in Song
March 4, 2012 8:23 PM   Subscribe

"The People's Song Book," published in 1948, was intended to be "a folio of freedom folklore, a weapon against war and reaction, and a singing testament to the future," according to its foreword, which was written by Alan Lomax. "[T]hese songs have been tested in the fire of the people's struggle all around the world. They emerged quietly and anonymously in the vanguard of apparently lost causes, where men of good will have fought to keep this a decent world to live in. ... These folk, heritors of the democratic tradition of folklore, were creating for themselves a folk-culture of high moral and political content."

Edited by Lomax, Waldemar Hille, Peter Seeger, Earl Robinson and Irwin Silber, the selections are grouped into four parts: Part 1, "Songs that helped build America"; Part 2, "World freedom songs"; Part 3, "Union Songs"; and Part 4, "Topical-political songs" (complete listing of contents here).

"Union Songs" includes:

"Farmer Labor Train" (Performed by Woody Guthrie)
"Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" (Performed by The Almanac Singers; previously)
"He's a Fool" (Partial lyrics: "He worked every night till eighty-thirty/And then asked if he could leave/The boss gave a look that was dirty/Or else he just laughed up his sleeve")
"Hold the Fort" (Performed by ?)
"The Horse With the Union Label" (Performed by ?)
"I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister" (Performed by The Almanac Singers)
"It's My Union" (scroll down for lyrics)
"Picket Line Priscilla" (Partial lyrics: "Had a chassis so damn cunnin'/Auto union men came runnin'")
"Roll the Union On" (Performed by Raging Grannies of South Florida; more original version here)
"'Round and 'Round the Picket Line" (Partial lyrics: "I wish I had a needle, I wish I had a thread, I wish I had a raise in pay, I reckon I'm a Red")
"The Scabs Crawl In" (Partial lyrics: "The scabs crawl in, the scabs crawl out, the scabs crawl under and all about")
"Solidarity" (Performed by Pete Seeger & The Weavers)
"Talking Union" (Performed by The Travellers)
"Union Maid" (Performed by Old Crow Medicine Show)
"The Union Man" (Partial lyrics: "Last Christmas the presents he gave her/Were a very good point in his favor/But he had a distinct union flavor/And the union with her was taboo")
"The Union Way" (Partial lyrics: "Oh ho ho, you and me/Union button, how I love thee/Shorter hours and higher pay/A better life the union way")
"We Got to All Get Together" (Partial lyrics: "Got a union in the country/Got a union in the town/That's the only way to keep from getting pushed around")
"We Shall Not Be Moved" (Performed by Mavis Staples)
"Which Side Are You On?" (Performed by Billy Bragg)
"The Whole Wide World Around" (Performed by Peter, Paul & Mary)
"You Gotta Go Down" (Performed by The Twin Cities Labor Chorus)

As B.A. Botkin wrote in the preface, "[T]hese hard-hitting, hard-times songs are participation songs, mass-singing and mass-action songs, unity songs, marching songs, fighting songs. Singing them, each of us feels that he is not alone but that the many are singing and marching and fighting beside him."

This "singing testament to the future" is both an interesting piece of American history and a timely reminder of its relevance.
posted by MonkeyToes (25 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
Which is why I cringed at the title "Party Rock Anthem". Damn kids wouldn't know a real Anthem if it shoved them up a flagpole. How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

"I wish I had a needle, I wish I had a thread, I wish I had a raise in pay, I reckon I'm a Red"
Truer today than ever...
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:48 PM on March 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


There was also The Bosses' Songbook (1959) (fookin' PDF) with classics like:
Which Side Are We On?

My father is a member
Of the bourgeoisie,
And I will talk for freedom
While he's supporting me.
He's a bourgeois slob,
But I don't have a job.

posted by hexatron at 8:50 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know, I went down to the Occupy camp and hung around and waited for the songs but all they had was a drum circle.

These kids today don't know how to protest.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:00 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

Well, um... The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello's acoustic alter ego) springs immediately to mind, but I'm certain there have been others in recent years.
posted by hippybear at 9:05 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which is why I cringed at the title "Party Rock Anthem"

LMFAO sucks, but the existence of music that's just for fun doesn't preclude the existence of political music. It would be a pretty dismal world if every single song was a dead-serious protest song.

I don't have time to put together a playlist of contemporary protest songs, but Bright Eyes' "When The President Talks to God" isn't a bad place to start.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:13 PM on March 4, 2012


I grew up with a copy of the Little Red Songbook kicking around. Possibly because my uncle was a wobbly. Oh, here we go: a html version.
posted by hoyland at 9:17 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

Green Day?
posted by SisterHavana at 9:23 PM on March 4, 2012


Since any current musical star or superstar is an end-to-end product of the major labels, and has been since the early 2000s, you will never again hear a protest song on commercial radio. You won't even hear a song that's vaguely angsty about something that might be construed as a class issue.


I don't have time to put together a playlist of contemporary protest songs, but Bright Eyes' "When The President Talks to God" isn't a bad place to start.

You should do that because that's the only one that came to my mind as well. There was APC's emotive but apart from one song all the other pieces on the album were just covers of 60s protest songs.

I know there are protest songs from indie bands because occasionally I hear them, but never in a situation that's lets me find out who the fuck I'm listening to.
posted by clarknova at 9:24 PM on March 4, 2012


Great stuff. Many of these songs - and many many more - can be heard in the incredible, huge compilation Songs for Political Action from Bear Family Records. (Here is a nice complete track listing with performer names and everything, for easier looking-for).

(Shelling out and buying the actual compilation is totally worth it because it comes with an amazing, well researched book in lieu of program notes that goes into the historical context of The People's Song Book and similar musical artifacts of the period)
posted by bubukaba at 9:26 PM on March 4, 2012


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

I don't know about the USA, but in the UK a lot of the popular folk scene is still pretty left wing. The most obvious to me being Martyn Joseph and Show of Hands.
posted by howfar at 9:50 PM on March 4, 2012


Since any current musical star or superstar is an end-to-end product of the major labels, and has been since the early 2000s, you will never again hear a protest song on commercial radio. You won't even hear a song that's vaguely angsty about something that might be construed as a class issue.

How about Ke$ha?
Jonathan Bradley included “TiK ToK” in his list of protest songs for Occupy Wall Street; the argument can be made that most or all of her debauched dance songs have more than an element of class protest to them, but “Party” is the one that actually has violent and destructive assembly as its backbone.

In it, Ke$ha rallies any of the desperate impoverished willing to listen into hijacking a limo to the rich dude’s house and “fight[ing] til we do it right.” I don’t know what “it” is, or if it’s really anything, but I’d rather spend my time recognizing “fight” as the most important word in this song. She puts out her cigar in the caviar (Ke$ha! Where did you even get a cigar!), she pukes in the closet (Ke$ha! How did you aim so well!) and she pisses in the Dom Perignon (Ke$ha! What are you doing! You’re supposed to drink alcohol! You like drinking alcohol, remember! Not peeing in it! Geez!). These were, presumably, performed while drunk, but you get the sense that it was all planned sober.

The big deal here is that the excitement of the chorus – Whoooooooaaaaa there’s a party at a rich dude’s house!!!!!! – is at no point inspired by a desire to win some of that Dom Perignon trickling down the teat of the wealthy. The free alcohol is certainly an attractive point, but when you only want to get drunk and puke strategically, the price tag on the bottle doesn’t so much matter. This is one of the happiest and most relieved songs I’ve heard in years, and it’s because Ke$ha is Just. That. Excited. about the prospect of destroying a rich person’s property. This is protest. This is not the kind of protest that anyone else would find useful – cue every single soundbite of every talking head that complained about Occupy’s lack of a “message,” ignoring the fact that occupation itself is a message and if you can’t interpret it, fuck off anyway. “Party” is protest because it’s about relieving oneself (pun intended) via responding violently to a system that is violent, daily, to the poor, and forcing it to actually witness the existence of the bodies of the unwealthy as they destroy your shit. If we’re being dramatic. This is about being violent and – as is the only possibility in Ke$ha’s universe – using weaponized partying to achieve her goals (it’s not “Fight For Your Right to Party”, it’s “Party for Your Right to Fight”).She doesn’t need to think that her actions will actually create any systemic changes; they obviously won’t. But the act of getting relief and release and a great fucking story at the expense of one’s oppressor is, in my estimation, much more than what’s needed to consider one a political dissident.
-- #OCCUPYRICHDUDESHOUSE
posted by dustyasymptotes at 10:24 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]




Any sheet music / chords available for any of this stuff? I was excited to see your link to the Little Red Songbook, hoyland, but it's only lyrics. Which are, of course, the most important stuff, but I'd like to learn some of these songs.
posted by Jimbob at 1:56 AM on March 5, 2012


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

There's also M.I.A..
posted by motty at 3:36 AM on March 5, 2012


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

How about Eminem's Mosh?
posted by ZsigE at 4:48 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


MonkeyToes, you're my new hero. I'm in love with this.

That is all.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:19 AM on March 5, 2012


To really appreciate the Solidarity Forever song and video, watch it along with this music video for The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

It's pretty weird to see the same tune twisted to such different ends.

I wonder which side John Brown, whose tune it is, would be on?
posted by edguardo at 5:45 AM on March 5, 2012


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

Pink, "Dear Mr. President" among others, Ben Harper, much of the metal my son listens to, the Nightwatchman and Green Day as mentioned above...
posted by headnsouth at 5:59 AM on March 5, 2012


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

Answers from the green:

When were the first protest songs about Iraq?
Fortunate son
Political Protest Songs
What songs protesting government reaction to 9/11 came out after the event itself and before its 1st anniversary?

*cough* Steve Earle, much of; but most recently, his insanely catchy political ditty "Little Emperor" *cough*
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:25 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I went through the 'complete listing of contents' link and tried to find everything I could on Spotify. Here's the playlist. There were 20ish that I couldn't find, but the majority of it is there. It's pretty Seeger-heavy...
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:58 AM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Frederic Rzewski's North American Ballads is a collection of piano pieces based on labor songs. Here's Which Side Are You On, but they're all worth hearing.
posted by dfan at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2012


Hard to believe it's from 1973, but one of my all time favourite political songs is Lamont Dozier's Fish Ain't Biting.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:25 PM on March 5, 2012


Neil Young's "Living with War" is a good recent left-leaning political album, but that is almost 10 years ago.
posted by dgran at 2:21 PM on March 5, 2012


How long has it been since anybody but Springsteen has put out any political music that wasn't terrifyingly right-wing?

What
posted by desuetude at 9:47 PM on March 6, 2012


Yeah, there are artists making political music in recent years. Some of them aren't necessarily the most popular, but they've been continuing the torch carrying. Indigo Girls have written expressly political songs all along their careers (although not so much on their last album or two). Dixie Chicks had a couple of 'em, although reflecting from a much more personal place (Not Ready To Make Nice comes immediately to mind). And I guess I'm enough of a hippie to find songs calling for radical manifestation of Love in the world as overtly political, although they may not be interpreted as such by everyone.

Also there are the social commentary songs, such as a lot of material done by bands such as System Of A Down. Are those political? They seem to be on some level, to me anyway.

I do think we might need a renaissance of truly overt political song-writing right now. The problem is the consolidation of media combined with the general reluctance for large corporations to do anything which might be seen as controversial means any market for such things is going to be largely underground. Unless that system is broken and a new one takes its place, the only way people would ever hear about such songs would be through word of mouth instead of casual exposure. And casual exposure (and the subsequent in-taking of messages which results) is the only way such songs really can affect the world.
posted by hippybear at 6:23 PM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


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