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Strike Songs of the Depression

Strike Songs of the Depression

Timothy P. Lynch
Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    Strike Songs of the Depression
    Book Description:

    The Depression brought unprecedented changes for American workers and organized labor. As the economy plummeted, employers cut wages and laid off workers, while simultaneously attempting to wrest more work from those who remained employed.

    In mills, mines, and factories workers organized and resisted, striking for higher wages, improved working conditions, and the right to bargain collectively. As workers walked the picket line or sat down on the shop floor, they could be heard singing. This book examines the songs they sang at three different strikes- the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile mill strike (1929), Harlan County, Kentucky, coal mining strike (1931-32), and Flint, Michigan, automobile sit-down strike (1936-37).

    Whether in the Carolina Piedmont, the Kentucky hills, or the streets of Michigan, the workers' songs were decidedly class-conscious. All show the workers' understanding of the necessity of solidarity and collective action.

    In Flint the strikers sang:

    The trouble in our homesteadWas brought about this wayWhen a dashing corporationHad the audacity to sayYou must all renounce your unionAnd forswear your liberties,And we'll offer you a chanceTo live and die in slavery.

    As a shared experience, the singing of songs not only sent the message of collective action but also provided the very means by which the message was communicated and promoted. Singing was a communal experience, whether on picket lines, at union rallies, or on shop floors. By providing the psychological space for striking workers to speak their minds, singing nurtured a sense of community and class consciousness. When strikers retold the events of their strike, as they did in songs, they spread and preserved their common history and further strengthened the bonds among themselves.

    In the strike songs the roles of gender were pronounced and vivid. Wives and mothers sang out of their concerns for home, family, and children. Men sang in the name of worker loyalty and brotherhood, championing male solidarity and comaraderie.

    Informed by the new social history, this critical examination of strike songs from three different industries in three different regions gives voice to a group too often deemed as inarticulate. This study, the only book-length examination of this subject, tells history "from the bottom up" and furthers an understanding of worker culture during the tumultuous Depression years.

    Timothy P. Lynch is an associate professor of history at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has been published in theMichigan Historical Reviewand theEncyclopedia of American Social History.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-672-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: “Their Sharpest Statement”
    (pp. 1-11)

    Autoworkers had already taken control of a key General Motors (GM) plant in Flint, Michigan, when Maurice Sugar wrote “Sit Down” in 1937.¹ The song was an immediate hit among the sit-down strikers in Flint. Sugar later recalled, “They went for ‘Sit Down’ in a big way.”² As an attorney for the United Auto Workers (UAW), Sugar’s greatest contribution to the organization effort in Flint was providing legal counsel for the union, not composing music. Nonetheless, from his years of labor activity, Sugar understood the importance of maintaining strikers’ morale and building worker solidarity.³ “Sit Down” promoted the power of...

  5. Chapter 1 “Mill Mother’s Lament”: Gastonia, North Carolina, 1929
    (pp. 12-48)

    As Ella May’s coffin was lowered into the ground, Katie Barrett sang one of Ella May’s best-loved songs, “Mill Mother’s Lament.”¹

    We leave our homes in the morning,

    We kiss our children good bye

    While we slave for the bosses

    Our children scream and cry.

    Ella May’s five children stood by the grave site and heard the words their mother had composed. Possibly only the eldest, Myrtle, understood why her mother had died. Ella May’s coworkers knew why she was killed, however. “The bosses hated Ella May because she made up songs, and was always at the speakings,” many contended....

  6. Chapter 2 “Dreadful Memories”: Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931–32
    (pp. 49-84)

    Four years had passed since the National Miners Union (NMU) had withdrawn defeated from the coalfields of Harlan County, Kentucky. Aunt Molly Jackson was gone as well. The most famous troubadour of the Harlan County miners of the early Depression years had moved to New York City’s Lower East Side, leaving her home and family behind. But her memories were still with her. She had witnessed too much pain and suffering to ever forget. They were terrible memories, to be sure, memories of grief and loss, torment and anguish, hate and struggle. They were memories of dying infants. With such...

  7. Chapter 3 “Sit Down! Sit Down!”: Flint, Michigan, 1936–37
    (pp. 85-123)

    Less than four months after the successful conclusion of the General Motors (CM) sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, Merlin Bishop, educational director for the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW), addressed the National Conference of Social Workers. Commenting on the use of singing and music in the union, he noted:

    Our purpose of arousing interest in [singing and music] is entirely different from that of the employing class. For years the employers have promoted and financed various cultural activities. . . . But for what reason? The answer is obvious. It was to give the workers a means of escape from...

  8. Conclusion: “Better Than a Hundred Speeches”
    (pp. 124-127)

    In 1963, twenty-six years after the strikers at Flint had walked out of the plants singing of their victory over General Motors, Merlin Bishop lamented the decline of singing among the members of the United Auto Workers (UAW). The former educational director of the UAW reflected: “One thing I think is lacking today is the use of songs.... People really sang. There was a real life and spirit. We have lost that in the CIO. I think there is a great need for it. Maybe if we had more of it, we would be growing instead of slipping backwards as...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 128-148)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 149-164)
  11. Index
    (pp. 165-170)