A New Album of Old Labor Songs Revives a Forgotten Era of Class Struggle

On the anniversary of songwriter and union organizer Joe Hill’s execution by firing squad, a new album revives early 20th-century labor movement songs, capturing the original spirit of loud, raucous brass bands.

Wobblies rally in solidarity with the Laidlaw, Colorado, strikers on May 1, 1914. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

One hundred and eight years ago today, the great songwriter and union organizer Joe Hill was executed by firing squad in Utah after getting framed on trumped up murder charges. On the anniversary of his death, an album of never-before-recorded songs from the Industrial Workers of the World, as they would have been sung on the street during the union’s heyday, is available for presale from PM Press. Starvation Army: Band Music No. 1 is a historical memory project from conductor Chris Westover-Muñoz; the Brass Band of Columbus, Ohio; and Sing in Solidarity, the choir of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, of which I am a member.

At the height of its power in the early twentieth century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) was renowned not only as a fighting union, but as a singing union. Joe Hill — alongside fellow Wobblies Richard Brazier, John Brill, Ralph Chaplin (lyricist of “Solidarity Forever”), and many other now nameless workers — wrote labor songs that remain popular over a century later. Their Little Red Songbook continues to be the bible of American labor songs, and is in its thirty-seventh printing 114 years after first publication.

In the booklet accompanying the new album, conductor Westover-Muñoz, quoting Jackson Albert Mann in Cosmonaut magazine, describes how The Little Red Songbook was repopularized decades after the IWW’s decline by musicians like Pete Seeger during the Popular Front communist folk revival of the 1940s. “Indeed,” Mann writes, “almost all contemporary recordings of IWW music are done in an Appalachian-derived instrumental style borrowed directly from the CPUSA-affiliated musical group, the Almanac Singers.” But Wobbly songs were not mountain music — they were innately urban, intended to be sung on city streets and in noisy union halls. The songs were often accompanied by brass bands, which grew to interest Westover-Muñoz, a wind ensemble conductor, and inspired him to create a new album of songs from The Little Red Songbook with brass accompaniment.

The story of how brass instrumentation came to dominate labor music in the early twentieth century goes back to some of the earliest Wobbly direct actions and the origins of their singing culture. In a labor context, the brass band’s volume, militance, and immanent organizational presence sends a strong message. Intimidating and unapologetic, it is a natural accompaniment to IWW songs, which bluntly communicate class struggle in everyday language.

IWW organizer and songwriter Joe Hill. (Wikimedia Commons)

While Wobblies wrote original lyrics for classics like “Solidarity Forever,” “Power in a Union,” and “Preacher and the Slave,” they borrowed melodies from the popular songs of their era, choosing songs that average workers already knew. This is a common left-wing folk music evolution, wherein the Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” became “The Red Flag” or the traditional Irish song “The Praties They Grow Small” became the labor song “Step by Step.” The Wobblies took it a step further: true to their reputation as feisty, soapboxing street organizers, they often wrote parodies that deliberately inverted the meaning of an original song.

These parodies came out of the clash of class enemies and conflicting ideologies that regularly took place at IWW organizing sites. The Wobblies recruited members from among jobless, homeless, and itinerant workers. Unable to find jobs through the existing craft union, the American Federation of Labor, these workers were vulnerable to predatory employers. In Westover-Muñoz’s introduction to Starvation Army, he describes how in Spokane, Washington, which was home to some of the IWW’s early street battles, unskilled laborers fell prey to employment agencies that would charge them a dollar to place them in logging or construction. The work itself was short term and low paying. Sometimes the agencies would take money for jobs that didn’t even exist. Bosses and employment agencies (“job sharks” as they were known to the Wobblies) worked in league with each other and would split the money from the workers. The faster the turnover in workers, the more money they made. The high turnover, besides being criminally exploitative, was also designed to prevent workers from forming or joining a union.

IWW organizer J. H. Walsh went to Spokane in 1908 to grow the local chapter and begin a “Don’t Buy Jobs” campaign. He went to the city’s skid row and “soapboxed” directly to the workers outside the offices of the job sharks. Known as a powerful orator who clapped back at hecklers and commanded his soapbox like a general, he speechified right out on the pavement.

Unfortunately, the IWW wasn’t the only group on skid row trying to organize the destitute. The Salvation Army, the evangelizing Protestant charitable organization, competed with the Wobblies for the hearts and minds of the working class. Parking themselves near the employment agencies, with their sharp military uniforms and loud brass band, they fought for the same space and the same workers. In his essay, “The Story of The Little Red Songbook,” IWW lyricist Richard Brazier describes how The Salvation Army “delighted in trying to break up the IWW street meetings with blare of trumpet and banging of drums.”

The Salvation Army band would place themselves catty-corner to the soapboxing IWW organizers and try to drown out their speeches with hymns played on brass instruments at ear-splitting volumes. According to Brazier, the IWW’s parodies of traditional hymns or patriotic songs came from this context. When the Salvation Army played, the rambunctious Wobblies sang over them, using the band as accompaniment but changing the words of the hymn into a labor anthem. “At times we would sing note by note with the Salvation Army at our street meetings,” writes Brazier, “only their words described Heaven above and ours Hell right here — to the same tune.”

The Salvation Army did charitable works, but not without prejudice. According to Tara Forbes in Singing Solidarity: Class Consciousness, Emotional Pedagogy, and the Songs of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Salvation Army refused to feed socialists, anarchists, or members of the IWW. Their refusal to feed the destitute if they did not like their politics was how they earned the IWW’s nickname for them: “the Starvation Army.”

IWW lyricists wrote stinging parodies of some of the Salvation Army’s Protestant hymns. One such song, recorded for the first time on Starvation Army: Band Music No. 1, was “Christians at War” by John F. Hendrick. This was the IWW’s take on “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

The original hymn begins:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before!
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle, see his banner go!

The IWW parody recomposes the original as follows:

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

The IWW lyricists relied on workers’ prior knowledge of the song, with its pounding rhythm and assertive melody, not merely for convenience of singing but also to function as satire — turning its optimism and ferocious moral righteousness on its head.

Another popular nineteenth-century hymn parodied by the Wobblies was “In the Sweet By-and-By,” recomposed by Joe Hill into the raucous “Preacher and the Slave.” The chorus of the original repeats the line “In the sweet by-and-by / We shall meet on that beautiful shore.” Joe Hill’s “Preacher and the Slave,” even more than “Christians at War,” is a direct indictment of all slum missionaries that inserted themselves between socialist organizers and workers:

You will eat by-and-by
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (That’s a lie!)

From out of the clash of IWW street organizing, the Wobblies eventually formed their own brass band, with uniforms deliberately resembling the Salvation Army’s. At last they were able to effectively compete with their evangelizing adversaries for the attention of workers standing in line at the job agencies.

The IWW lost hold of their organizing territory in Spokane when in 1909 the employment agencies pressured the city council into drafting an ordinance prohibiting street speaking. The city made it illegal for the Wobblies to organize where the workers were. Religious organizations like the Salvation Army, however, were exempt from these provisions. Presenting no challenge to the police or the job sharks, they could continue to proselytize to the destitute.

Rather than ceding the ground, the IWW undertook a mass civil-disobedience action, openly defying the ordinance. The Wobbly newspaper the Industrial Worker put out a notice: “Wanted — Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane.” Hundreds of IWW members showed up to mount a soapbox on skid row, commit the crime of public speaking, and get arrested. Within weeks the city jails were overflowing with Wobblies who were said to have sung in their prison cells and preached class struggle to the guards. In 1910, the ordinance was rescinded when the Spokane city coffers were overburdened from the cost of jailing so many. The IWW members were released from jail, and the employment agencies were regulated or shuttered. The IWW, through sacrifice and showmanship, won a victory over the job sharks.

Reading the grainy newsprint of the Industrial Worker can’t compete with the visceral experience of listening to the songs on Starvation Army. Through these songs, contemporary union organizers can reach back and touch the organizers of a century ago, and find solidarity and good structural lessons in their work. A contemporary union organizer who has held a picket line for weeks at a time may be familiar with the dramatic clash of humanity that comes through on the album. They are more likely to stand on a folding table than a soapbox, but their fight is one and the same. Like the Wobblies of old, they are compelled by their love of the working-class struggle to lay claim to those inches of pavement for as long as is necessary.