Sometimes when activists set out to create agitational music, it can be cringe-worthy or over-earnest. But you’re reminded when reading The Big Red Songbook that the “Wobblies” — as the IWW were known — avoided this trap.
A brilliant audaciousness was such a trademark of their agitational style. There’s a bold, sharp humour — it comes from staring the perpetrators of a violent, oppressive system in the eye as you condemn and mock them. Dump The Bosses Off Your Back asks, “Are you poor, forlorn and hungry? Are there lots of things you lack? Is your life made up of misery? Then dump the bosses off your back.” There’s such a sweet simplicity to it.
There’s a real wit in the way the songs expose the contradictions in how we’re told to interpret the world in such a way that anyone who knows poverty and exploitation can instantly grasp.
They take on the promise, sold to the poor, of salvation in the afterlife. An example is the hilarious T-Bone Slim’s Lumber Jack’s Prayer. It opens, “I pray dear Lord for Jesus’ sake, Give us this day a T-bone steak”. It’s silly but clever in disarming what was a powerful pacifier of resistance. It ends, “Oh hear me Lord, I’m praying still, But if you won’t our union will, Put pork chops on the bill of fare, And starve no workers anywhere”.
The IWW’s agitation saw them frequently leaping onto soapboxes, rabble rousing, speeches interspersed with song. Many were women. America was one of the most hostile environments for unions. Brutal state violence against strikers was the norm. Private agents, thugs and spies were used to break unions and even shoot strikers dead on picket lines.
Most socialists know of Joe Hill who was framed on a trumped up murder charge and executed in 1915. To this day activists around the world sing the beautiful and defiant anthem, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.
Maybe fewer know of Frank Little, a talented IWW organiser, lynched by the copper bosses’ vigilantes in 1917. The songbook includes songs that are pure anger, condemnation and determination. To Frank. H. Little is one such cry of indignation. It rails, “They couldn’t still your voice, So they strangled it; They couldn’t chill your heart, So they stopped it; They couldn’t dam your life blood, So they spilled it”. Like the Joe Hill song, it celebrates that part of us they can never steal — our capacity to not be broken, our resilience in defying injustice.
Essays in the songbook draw out how the songs went hand in hand as a form of agitation, alongside organising strikes, and bred collective involvement of masses of workers. There are fascinating descriptions of IWW halls where singers kept crowds captivated between speeches.
US musician Tom Morello, who wrote the forward to the book describes it as “people’s poetry”, underlining the social and political role of song in enabling workers to express the soul of the struggles to sustain them. The songs were very much rooted in activity.
The IWW was established in 1907 — a revolutionary industrial “One Big Union” for all workers. It emerged in response to the sectionalism and inertia of the American Federation of Labour (AFL).
In John Newsinger’s The Revolutionary Journalism of Big Bill Haywood, he introduces writings by the great IWW organiser and writer. The book gives brilliant insight into their fearless day-to-day work, standing alongside workers in the most intense and bitter struggles of the early 20th century.
Haywood’s articles open up the period to us in rich detail, capturing it moment by moment — down to highlighting the impact a solidarity message can have amid brutal repression.
Newsinger brings to life the huge personality of Haywood and his incredible talent as an organiser, always in the front lines of any picket battle. Haywood was framed in 1906 and spent a year and a half in jail awaiting his expected execution. In 1911, when released on the back of thousands of workers demonstrating, he declared, “I am not a law abiding citizen… no socialist can be.”
The introduction frames the articles, succinctly drawing out strengths and weaknesses in the politics of Haywood and the Wobblies.
For their militancy — and as the only US union yet to welcome women, black and migrant workers — the Wobblies were a source of tension for the leadership of the official movement. Their revolutionary union proved its capacity to lead struggle, its membership rocketing in strike periods.
Yet its weakness was that it failed to sustain itself, with thousands passing through the other side of its ranks as struggles ebbed. As Newsinger says, it “did not recognise uneven consciousness… that the great mass of the workers were not always ready for a fight to the death with capitalism.”
For anyone wanting to immerse themselves in the history of the US working class in the early 20th century, to really feel it breathe — both books bring the fighting spirit of those struggles to life.
The Big Red Songbook
Published by PM Press, £21.99
The Revolutionary Journalism Of Big Bill Haywood by John Newsinger. Published by Bookmarks, £9.99
Next month John Newsinger will be starting a column on the Wobblies