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Which Side Are You On?: Revisiting Classic Anthems from the Labor Movement

It's International Workers Day! Here's the soundtrack to your solidarity march.

by Kim Kelly
May 1 2015, 8:18pm

The people of the United States have a long, fierce tradition of penning protest songs, and those words still echo throughout the centuries. For example, the Kentucky coal miners' anthem "Which Side Are You On?" has been adopted as a worldwide rallying cry, and the song's own history is steeped in struggle. Florence Reece wrote this song when she was twelve years old and her father was out on strike, then later revised it after she and her union organizer husband Sam Reece were subjected to harassment and intimidation by Sheriff J. H. Blair during the 1931 Harlan County strike. Her husband died from black lung in 1989, and Florence soldiered on, spending the rest of her life fighting for workers' rights.

In honor of International Workers Day, I put together a playlist of some of the labor movement's most important songs (most of which can be found in the Industrial Workers of the World's famed Little Red Songbook). To show just how much farther we have to go in the battle for equality, I decided to eschew the original versions in favor of covers done by newer artists who are continuing to uphold the values their forebears fought and died for (and if this isn't enough, there are about a billion covers of "The Internationale" on Youtube, too). Which side are you on?

"Bread and Roses" - Bronwen Lewis

The phrase "bread and roses" was coined by feminist labor union leader and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Rose Schneiderman. As she said in 1912, "What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too."

The phrase became associated with the Lawrence textile strike of that same year, as the so-called Bread and Roses Strike saw poor workers from 51 different nationalities rise up against unfair pay cuts and terrible working conditions. It reappeared as the title of a poem by writer James Oppenheim, and was later set to music by Mimi Fariña, the organizer of the still-active Bread and Roses Benefit Agency and sister of folk singer Joan Baez. The song (and several others on this list!) is currently enjoying an uptick in interest thanks to an emotional scene in the 2014 film Pride, which follows the LBGT activists who raised money for families affected by the Welsh miners' strike of 1984. In the movie, Welsh singer Bronwen Lewis stands up during a pivotal moment and launches into the first verse; it brings the house down, and her recorded version is just as beautiful.


"Which Side Are You On?" - Panopticon

Panopticon's Austin Lunn was born and raised in Tennessee, and it shows. The bulk of his discography revolves around social issues, einvironmental activism, and leftist political ideals; throw in some inventine black metal riffs and honest-to-god bluegrass, and you end up with Lunn's genre-busting 2012 album Kentucky (for which, full disclosure, I did promo). One of the album's most evocative tracks is his stripped down cover of "Which Side Are You On?," which is interspersed with snippets of the old folk song "O Death" to land an extra punch to the gut.

"The Preacher and the Slave" - Mischief Brew

Joe Hill was a Swedish-American labor activist and prolific songwriter whose pen lay claim to some of the American labor movement's most memorable anthems. "The Preacher and the Slave" started as a parody of a Salvation Army hymn, reflecting the tug-of-war that went on between religion and labor activists for the attention of migrant workers; Hill's lyrics lampoon the Salvation Army's promises of bounty in the hereafter ("You will eat, bye and bye/In that glorious land above the sky/Work and pray, live on hay/You'll get pie in the sky when you die"). Philadelphia folk punks Mischief Brew have a history of addressing workers' issues in their own music, and do this tune plenty of justice with a raggedy, rollicking cover version.

"There Is Power In A Union" - The Mountain Goats

Also written by Joe Hill, "There Is Power In A Union" is a rousing ode to the strength and resilience of the working people, and the importance of organizing to protect one anothers' rights. The Mountian Goats frontman John Darnielle's impassioned acoustic cover is a touching show of solidarity, recorded during the protests surrounding the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill (which attacked union workers' collective bargaining rights) in 2011.

"The Red Flag" - Billy Bragg

English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has spent his long, fruitful career advocating for the grassroots left-wing political causes he holds dear and speaking out against oppression. His cover of "The Red Flag" is buoyant and joyful, proclaiming proudly, "The people's flag is deepest red." Originally written by Irish activist Jim Connell in 1889, and resonmated so strongly with the working class people it championed that it appeared as the first song in the first edition of the Little Red Songbook in 1909. It remains a political anthem in the UK, sung at conferences for the British Labour Party, the Northern Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Irish Labour Party.


Tom Morello & The Nightwatchmen - "Solidarity Forever"

Written by IWW labor activist Ralph Chaplin in 1915, "Solidarity Forever" is up there with "Which Side Are You On?" as one of the best-known union anthems. Sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the lyrics have been updated over the years to better reflect the plight of working women, immigrants, and people of color. Former Rage Against the Machine guitarist and activist Tom Morello is no stranger to political commentary, having vocally supported the Occupy movement, immigrants' rights, collective bargaining rights, and many other labor campaigns. He and System of a Down's Serj Tankian co-run Axis of Justice, a political nonprofit dedicated to social justice organization. Morello and his band The Nightwatchmen's cover of "Solidary Forever" rings strong and true.


Kim Kelly is on Twitter right now, and will be at this May Day Rally later.