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Celebrating a Voice of the Labor Movement

Pete Seeger left a long trail of fans and friends when he died Jan. 27. Among them was Michael K. Honey, a UW Tacoma Humanities professor.

They met in 1970 while Honey was a civil rights activist in the South and were drawn to each other as fellow activists, musicians and historians. That chance meeting and the long friendship that followed culminated in Honey’s most recent book, Sharecropper’s Troubadour, an oral history of black songwriter John L. Handcox, whose work Seeger memorized as a teenager. The book puts Handcox’s voice in context through Honey’s research about the 1930s labor movement in the South.

Honey, the Fred T. and Dorothy G. Haley Endowed Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma, will read from his book and perform Handcox’s work at two events on Thursday, March 13: from 3:30-5:30 p.m. at the UW Communications Building, and from 7 to 9 p.m. at the University Temple, United Methodist Church, The Sanctuary, 1415 NE 43rd Street. At the evening event, Seattle Labor Chorus will perform with Honey.

Handcox‘s songs, more recognizable than his name, have been rallying workers for more than 75 years. As recently as last year, Roll the Union On was echoing from the rafters of the Wisconsin state capitol rotunda while cameras recorded police arresting and handcuffing Wisconsin public employee union supporters He wrote Roll the Union On around 1937 when he was helping to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union to combat the nearly feudal power cotton planters and landowners had over farm workers in the Arkansas Delta. Pete Seeger’s father, Charles, recorded Handcox singing his labor songs in 1937 for a Library of Congress project. Pete was a teenager at the time and recalled being “bowled over” by them, memorizing many and passing them on to others.

When Seeger helped convene the Great Labor Arts Exchange near Washington, D.C. in 1985, both Handcox and Honey were there, and the seeds of Sharecropper’s Troubadour were planted.

Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie brought Handcox’s songs into the broader national labor movement and popularized many of them, but his personal story—living in one of the hardest places and times to be black in America — was left untold until now.

“John evocatively described harsh depression-era conditions, challenged people to solve problems, and created his own genre: the freedom music of the cotton fields,” says Honey.

Handcox also was able to combat landowners’ efforts to splinter workers along racial lines and helped build a labor movement strong enough to “challenge their shared poverty and powerlessness.”

Roll the Union On, with a cadence perfect for hand clapping and marching, is a zipper song, a musical form in which a few words can be changed to create a new verse. Many African American spirituals were created just this way. The form has kept the song relevant through decades of protests as new verses are applied to new situations. Handcox used this style very effectively.

“Songs and poetry gave him a way of seeing, explaining and remembering his world. In telling a story, he would frequently break into song or recite a poem to convey an event, idea or feeling, often in a style close to rap,” Honey says.

Handcox’s music is available on Honey’s faculty website.

2 Responses to Celebrating a Voice of the Labor Movement

  1. Peggy Willingham says:

    Interesting article. I missed this event but look forward to tracking down the book.

  2. Jackie D says:

    Sorry to miss it too. Now I want to listen to the music. There’s a few versions on YouTube if anyone is interested.

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