Words by Ryan Bridgewater

As our lecturers go on strike from Monday to defend their pensions, now is the perfect time to reflect on the history of workers’ and trade union anthems. Music has the power to bring people together and has played an important role in movements for change all over the world. From the folk music of Woody Guthrie to punk and hip-hop, protest songs have taken many forms. Here I will choose three enduring folk songs that exemplify working class pride, power, and unity.

  1. Joe Hill – ‘There is Power In a Union’

Joe Hill was not only a songwriter but a trade unionist too. Born in Sweden, he emigrated to the United States where he worked as an itinerant labourer. He became involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the ‘Wobblies’. They believe that workers should organise together as a whole class and use the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. Hill wrote many songs, including ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ in which he coined the phrase ‘pie in the sky’. His song ‘There is Power In a Union’ (1913) similarly contrasts the promises of the afterlife with the actuality of real life: ‘Would you have wings up in heaven to fly, and starve here with rags on your back?’ Workers have power when they ‘stand hand in hand’ but ‘if you want nothing before you are dead, shake hands with your boss’.

  1. Florence Reece – ‘Which Side Are You On?’

The melody of this song is taken from the hymn ‘Lay the Lily Low’. Florence Reece was the wife of Sam Reece, a miner and trade union leader in Harlan County, Kentucky. The mine owners hired law enforcement to intimidate the Reeces and when Florence was at home with her seven children the Sheriff and his men entered the house illegally and ransacked the place. Florence Reece wrote the moving ‘Which Side Are You On?’ (1931) once the thugs had left. The song has been covered and sampled numerous time, including in the 2010s by rappers Talib Kweli and B. Dolan. The B. Dolan hip-hop track of the same name samples the 1941 version by the Almanac Singers and challenges homophobia in the hip-hop industry. He raps that ‘hip-hop is folk music grown from the struggle’ and accuses homophobic rappers of betraying this tradition by perpetuating a form of prejudice used to divide working class people.

  1. Billy Bragg – ‘Never Cross A Picket Line’

Billy Bragg is the songwriter in Britain most associated with the labour movement. His repertoire includes both love songs and political songs and he has also done many cover versions that keep the radical music of the past alive. Bragg’s 1986 cover of ‘There is Power In a Union’ introduced the song to a new generation and featured new lyrics. The following year he released a cover of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ with lyrics referencing the 1984-85 British miners’ strike. The rough-hewn guitar tone inspired by punk music gives these versions an edge and underlines the history of struggle and raw feeling that these songs contain. His original song ‘Never Cross A Picket Line’ rams the message home: collectively withdrawing our labour is the best weapon that working people can wield against concentrations of wealth and power. To cross a picket line means to undermine and weaken this collective power.

Photo from BBC South East Today

Categories: Arts Music

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