Writing Home: Commentary
11. Joe Hill, IWW Songs
Between its founding convention in 1905 and the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) became one of the most active labor unions in the country. The widespread appeal of the union’s goal—nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism—and its commitment to forming “one big union” of all workers were key factors in the union’s growth, but its organizing tactics also played an important role. The IWW created music that appealed to workers in ways that political pamphlets and other forms of propaganda did not. The union’s songbook, Songs of the Workers (or The Little Red Songbook), which originated among the members of the Spokane, Washington, branch of the IWW, captured that music.
The IWW’s gravitation toward music and song developed partially in response to the union’s rivalry with organized religion. Wobblies thought that religion only diverted workers’ attention away from the ills of the capitalist system by promising “pie in the sky” rewards. Yet they recognized the appeal of religion and the enthusiasm generated by religious organizations such as the Salvation Army. The IWW turned to music to beat the Salvation Army at its own game and began to compete with it, literally on the same streets. When a Salvation Army band met in public to sing and play music, Wobblies often would converge to sing their own lyrics to the band’s tunes. The famous militant Christian song, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” for example, became the famous Wobbly parody, “Christians at War,” which opened with the biting stanza (quoted in Winters 1985:42):
Onward Christian soldiers! Duty’s way is plain;
Slay your Christian brothers, or by them be slain;
Pulpiteers are spouting effervescent swill,
God above is calling you to rob and rape and kill;
All your acts are sanctified by the Lamb on high;
If you love the Holy Ghost, go murder, pray, and die.
Using humor and brutal honesty, Wobbly songwriters ridiculed the pretensions of organized religion and appealed to workers at the same time.
Yet the IWW crusade against religion was not the only factor motivating the union’s embrace of singing. The famous Wobbly songwriter, leader, and martyr, Joe Hill, wrote:
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; and I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song and dress them . . . up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science (quoted in Winters 1985:41).
Most of the workers who formed the IWW’s power base, especially the unorganized migrant workers of the Pacific Northwest, had little time or inclination to read union pamphlets or participate in political debates. Memorable, humorous, and politically-charged songs, however, could attract and educate a crowd of workers. Songs sung with enthusiasm could even inspire workers to join the union; as Richard Brazier recalled, “What first attracted me to the I.W.W. was its songs and the gusto with which its members sang them” (Brazier 1968:91).
J. T. Walsh and other Wobblies affiliated with the Spokane branch of the union began to push the IWW Executive Committee for a songbook in 1908. The IWW already made use of a songcard containing a few songs and poems, but Walsh wanted a full songbook that would take advantage of the musical talents of Joe Hill and other Wobblies and be recognized and used at meetings and rallies across the country. According to Brazier, Walsh and other advocates called for a book full of songs that would run the gamut of emotional and political messages:
We will have songs of anger and protest, songs which shall call to judgment our oppressors and the Profit System they have devised. Songs of battles won, . . . songs that hold up flaunted wealth and thread-bare morality to scorn, songs that lampoon our masters and the parasitic vermin, such as the employment-sharks and their kind, who bedevil the workers. These songs will deal with every aspect of the workers’ lives. They will bring hope to them, and courage to wage the good fight. They will be songs sowing the seeds of discontent and rebellion. We want our songs to stir the workers into action, to awaken them from an apathy and complacency that has made them accept their servitude as though it had been divinely ordained . . . (Brazier 1968:97).
Walsh won his campaign for a songbook, and a committee of rank-and-file members began collecting songs—most of them written by Spokane-area Wobblies. The first edition of The Little Red Songbook was published in 1909. We include here three songs from the eighth edition of the songbook, published just five years later. Joe Hill wrote two of the songs, both of them among the best-known songs to appear in the songbook: “The Preacher and the Slave” and “There is Power in a Union.” The third song, “Where the Fraser River Flows,” alludes to one of the union’s battles to organize railroad-construction workers in British Columbia.
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