September 2020 News, Concerts & Essay: Why We Sing Labor Songs
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
I hope that your Labor Day weekend was a chance to rest, and also a chance to enjoy the company of community in some way. I was hiking in the Adirondack Mountains for much of the weekend and was deeply restored by being in the presence of nature’s grandeur. So thoroughly did I enjoy time away from the computer and out in the woods, that I will be unplugging for much of the rest of September.
I have one concert this weekend and my next broadcast will be the first weekend in October. More information is available at: www.joejencks.com
This Friday, September 11th at 7:30 PM, I am thrilled to be presenting a concert in partnership with 6 On The Square in Oxford, NY. 6OTS has been a stalwart presenting partner for me, for more than a decade. Nancy Morey and Crew do an amazing job hosting concerts in person – and have moved to doing so in the virtual universe as well. This will be a rare ticketed event for me in the digital paradigm, but 6OTS has limited capacity even online. So please go to their website and get your ticket and link – and help support this beautiful and essential thread in the tapestry of Folk.
Please also see below an essay I wrote about the history of Labor Day in the US and Canada, and the fight for the Eight Hour Workday. Some fascinating stuff. I had fun researching and writing this one. Enjoy!
In Gratitude & Song,
~ Joe Jencks
PS - The project I was working on this summer for the American Folklife Center at The Library of Congress is finished and available online: https://www.loc.gov/concerts/folklife/joe-jencks.html
Why We Sing Labor Songs
Copyright ~ 2020 Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music
Labor Day is an intriguing holiday. It is inextricably tied to music, and yet we do not sing Labor carols, Labor hymns, Labor anthems or just plain Labor songs as a regular part of our society’s practice around celebrating this holiday. In fact, we don’t really celebrate this holiday much at all except for taking a three-day weekend. And ironically, many Working-Class people especially in the service sector, end up working overtime on a weekend that was designated as an homage to workers. Why is this? It’s not like there are no Labor songs to sing, there are thousands. So why don’t we give Labor Day gifts? Labor Day greeting cards? Why can’t I go into Target and buy worker-themed wrapping paper for all of the Labor Day gifts I give out each year? Why no Labor Day gift market, like a Crist Kindle Markt honoring workers? I promise I will get around to the musical part of this narrative, but bear with me while I delve into a little bit of backstory.
In October 1884, The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of The United States and Canada (FOTLU) decided that May 1st, 1886 was the date by which the standard 8-hour workday should be implemented. That organization became the American Federation of Labor a.k.a. the AFL. And later still joined with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO.
But back in 1884, there was a growing interest in improving the lives of workers. An increase in industrialization was taking a toll on worker’s health and safety, and working conditions were tragically poor in many places globally. As part of a larger global effort of working people, the FOTLU started to organize throughout North America in an effort to create a better situation for workers everywhere, in all trades and industries. May 1st 1886 was the designated day for international action. And in Chicago, various sources report that over 40,000 workers went on strike, marched in solidarity, and sang songs like the Labor hymn, Hold The Fort.
Hold the fort for we are coming
Unionists be strong
Side by side we battle onward
Victory will come
We meet today in freedom's cause
And raise our voices high;
We'll join our hands in union strong
To battle or to die.
Look, my comrades, see the union
Banners waving high.
Reinforcements now appearing,
Victory is nigh.
See our numbers still increasing;
Hear the bugle blow.
By our union we shall triumph
Over every foe.
Fierce and long the battle rages
But we will not fear.
Help will come whene'er it's needed.
Cheer, my comrades, cheer.
In their book Songs of Work & Freedom, Edith Fowke & Joe Glazer report that this song’s origin is in the US Civil War. Other sources say it was specifically written as an inspirational hymn in 1870 by Phillip Paul Bliss, a composer and evangelist who was inspired by the story of how Union Brigadier General, John M. Corse held his garrison at Allatoona Pass in Georgia, after receiving word form General Sherman to, “Hold the fort!” Mr. Bliss was moved by the story and saw corollaries in his own spiritual beliefs that he interpreted as “signs” telling him to “Hold the Fort” for his faith. Fascinating to me is that Mr. Bliss heard this story as told by Major Daniel Webster Whittle at a lecture given in Rockford, Illinois (my childhood home).
Regardless, in the 1880s the Knights of Labor was a progressive worker’s fraternal order that had over 700,000 members in the US alone, and they adopted the above-mentioned Labor-oriented version of the hymn. The Knights of Labor were radical in their day for wanting to organize across lines of color, race, ethnicity, and gender. Not unlike the later Industrial Workers of the World, they hoped to see One Big Union emerge from a more partitioned movement of the day. Their goal was for all workers to have the right to bargain collectively for better treatment, wages, and working conditions. They were singers, too!
In 1882, the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York and its Secretary, Matthew Maguire put forth an idea that we should have an annual national day of celebration for workers on the first Monday of September. On September 5th of that year, while the Knights of Labor held a General Assembly in New York, the CLU organized a large and peaceful public parade as a demonstration for worker’s rights. This is important to note as it set up a precedent for opposing ideas about when we should celebrate Labor Day.
But in 1886, the various Labor Movements across North America were poised for a General Strike on May 1st, and Chicago was the epicenter of the movement in the US. Workers had participated in well-organized events in many parts of the city on May 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. But on May 4th at Haymarket Square, things got ugly. It is asserted that one of the workers threw a pipe bomb at the police. But a corroborating preponderance of evidence in historic records suggest that it was one of the police themselves or possibly a private security guard like a Pinkerton, who instigated the violence. And then they opened fire on a crowd of protesters, ostensibly in retaliation. Sounds a little like Portland, Oregon… only just last month.
In the wake of The Haymarket Massacre as it came to be known, May 1st was henceforth declared International Workers Memorial Day. And globally, workers have celebrated May 1st as International Worker’s Day/ Labor Day ever since. It is a national holiday in many countries. And in spite of widespread advocacy to make May 1st the official US Labor Day, President Grover Cleveland was concerned that any acknowledgement of May 1st would only lend support to radicals and “unsavory elements” of society. As such, he pushed hard for the first Monday in September to be the US Labor Day, and declared it a national holiday in 1894. But his proclamation only affected Federal workers. It was not until The Great Depression of the 1930s, a time when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) led repeated strikes and calls for solidarity, that all 50 states recognized Labor Day as a truly national holiday. President Cleveland also put substantive pressure on Canada, which had been celebrating a May 1st Labor Day, to honor the September Labor Day. A footnote, Oregon State was the first to officially recognize a September Labor Day in 1887, as a statewide holiday. And it was not until 1916 that the 8-hour workday was adopted in the US.
Preceding the Colliery songs of the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish miners who emigrated to the American continent well before the US Revolution, we have had work songs, whaling songs and sea songs, songs of the spinning wheel and loom, field songs and other traditions that firmly anchor the Labor Movement to the arts in North American culture. And we know that the displaced indigenous peoples of North America also had work songs of their own. It is a centuries old tradition here, and likely even older in other parts of the world. It is my honor both as an interpreter of Folk traditions and as a modern songwriter, to dedicate some portion of nearly every concert I give to these songs, and the rich human legacy they represent.
In early 2019, I received a marvelous phone call from my friends Derek Black and Mitch Podolak in Winnipeg. In 1919, Winnipeg was the location of the most successful general strike in the history of North America. Workers seized the city for weeks, and more workers all over Canada, the US, and parts of Europe went out on strike as an act of Solidarity. Organizing tactics from Winnipeg were employed in Ireland during their war of independence, 1919-1921. The Winnipeg General Strike is perhaps the most important Labor event that most people have never heard of.
Mitch invited me to come to Winnipeg and sing, as he had many times before. But this event was to be extra special. Hosted by the May Works Festival, it was to be a huge celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. The day would start with a march of thousands, leading into a music festival at a park across the street from the provincial capital building. And I was one of only two US artist asked to travel to Winnipeg to perform in that festival. I told Mitch that I would write a new song just for the occasion. And I was honored to do so. I love Winnipeg. If you ever get a chance to go to the Ukrainian Labor Temple there, by all means do so. It is an under-appreciated city to be sure. And I think the reasons why it is not celebrated more are tied to the same reasons why we don’t sing Labor carols widely on Labor Day.
We are collectively (though not necessarily individually) ashamed of our Working-Class heritage. There is such a profoundly consistent message in our society that we should all aspire to “escape” work and reach for a “country club” lifestyle. I was not made aware of the idea that I could be proud of being Working Class until I met my friend Phil Amadon who inspired my composition, Song of The Rails among others. And then later in my 20s I learned about the Labor Heritage Foundation and The Great Labor Arts Exchange, founded by a community of artists dedicated to celebrating the trades including Labor’s Troubadour, Joe Glazer. In attending this conference several years in a row, I found immense pride, joy, catharsis, and hope. I realized I could be proud of being a worker. Even if I was successful in life and finance, I did not need to leave Solidarity behind. The people who have lifted me up, the good working people who raised me, they are still my people. Always will be.
And so, I sing Labor hymns. I write Labor songs. I give people Labor greeting cards, and many years I give presents on May 1st or on Labor Day. I am by no means alone. Many of my colleagues and fellow musicians care deeply about our proud working past and want to advocate and organize for a more hopeful future for those who follow in our footsteps. I am a proud member of the American Federation of Musicians of The United States and Canada – AFM Local 1000. I am always happy to talk with people about workers, labor history, about the songs, and most importantly about the actual dimensional people the songs are written about. It is because of centuries of Labor songs that we have insight into the history of many trades, as well as the very existence and partial narrative of people whose stories are not otherwise written down in history books. Songs preserve Working Class culture and have done so for centuries. It is an honorable musical tradition. And one we can all carry forward in some way.
So, here is what I wrote for Mitch Podolak and Derek Black, and the workers of Winnipeg past and present. For those of you familiar with the Industrial Workers of The World a.k.a. The Wobblies’ songbook – Songs to Fan The Flames of Discontent, you will note several “Easter Eggs” in this piece. Happy hunting.
Copyright ~ 2019 Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music, ASCAP
The year was 1919 and all around the world
People started marching with their victory flags unfurled
We’ve shed our blood on battle fields and slaved in deep dark mines
We rally to the banner, bread and roses it’s our time
Come gather Fellow Workers and raise your voices strong
We rise today in Winnipeg to sing our victory song
In Europe and in Canada, across the USA
We cry out for justice and for fair and equal pay
All sisters and brothers and all races here unite
We strive for One Big Union and defend our common rights
From Halifax and Thunder Bay, to the Fraser River’s shore
Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago hear us roar
From Boston on to Dublin town, are heard the people’s cries
No more to drudge and idler, when the workers organize
Though some of us were born of means and others not a dime
We spend our lives in service to a cause we hold sublime
All laborers in commonwealth, now let our voices say
That one way or another we will bring the greater day
So here’s to Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, and Eugene Debs
Along with Emma Goldman and Joe Hill and all the Reds
And all those Fellow Travelers who beckon to the call
An injury to one of us, is an injury to all
We may not win our struggle here, but sure as hell we’ll try
For the future of our children we are steadfast by and by
It’s only when our minds are joined with muscle we can stand
And bring to birth a new world, arm and arm and hand in hand
And so I say to you, Happy Labor Day! (Even if it is past Labor Day when you read this.) Celebrate the work you do in the world, and celebrate the work of others. Let us sing forth a value through our music that says we have the right to be proud of the labor of our hands and the labors of our ancestors. Let us learn, write, celebrate, and sing songs that help us find hope and joy in how we spend our days. My friend Phil Amadon said to me once, “If you cannot be proud of the work you are doing, either you need to do the work differently, or you need to do different work!”
Ralph Chaplin 1915
It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made
But the Union makes us strong
Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever,
For the Union makes us strong
In our hands is placed a power greater than their horded gold
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand-fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
When the Union makes us strong
The “union” that this anthem of the Labor movement is talking about is not a specific trade union. Rather it celebrates the Union of Workers internationally, collectively; and the power of collaborative and collective effort. I remain proud of the cultural work I do, and I am inspired by the many people I encounter who are diligently doing their work, especially now during the era of Covid-19. I go out of my way to thank workers in grocery and drug stores and in other essential services. I hope you do as well. I hope that you are proud of how you spend your time, talent, and days. And I wish for you to be comforted in the knowledge that you are part of a community of workers who claim you, even if you don’t claim them. You are a worker. In some way, at some time in your life, you have been a worker. You have earned a wage in exchange for your labors, talents, and ideas; and you have done so to the best of your ability. Celebrate that!
In Solidarity & Song,
~ Joe Jencks
For more information on the Labor Heritage Foundation or The Great Labor Arts Exchange, please visit: