The Importance of Song in The Industrial Workers of the World

By X389468

On the left is the second verse of the song "Workers of the World, Awaken!"  To the right is a stylized picture of Joe Hill.
The above excerpt is taken from the song “Workers of the World, Awaken!” written and composed by Joe Hill. Joe Hill was murdered by the state of Utah for a crime he did not commit on November 19th, 1915.

Over the years, IWW members have written hundreds of songs. These range from the ever-popular “Solidarity Forever” to more forgettable numbers such as “There’s A Bright Way To Freedom” or “When You Wear That Button”. Some are still sung today, though many languish unsung between the pages of an old edition of the Little Red Songbook – and no doubt a good number have passed from collective memory altogether. More songs are being written today, and only time will tell which category they will fall into as the years pass. Song is given a spotlight in the IWW that it isn’t given in other unions, or even other leftist organizations. But what makes song so important to the IWW?

The answer, perhaps, can be seen in the content of the songs themselves. It is well-known among activists that chants and music can serve to raise morale and maintain unity in tense situations. However, song in the IWW was used not only to keep up morale on the picket line, but was also used to recruit new members, point out flaws in broader society, and maintain collective memory. There are also songs that outlined tactics workers could use in their workplaces – sabotage being a particularly popular theme – and songs that poke fun at individuals and organizations. Song, in other words, was one of the IWW’s strongest rhetorical tools and one of the primary means by which the Wobblies expressed the IWW way of doing things.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the range of IWW songs is to give some examples. The songwriter Ralph Chaplin is best known for “Solidarity Forever”, which has since spread outside IWW circles, but he was also one of the IWW’s more prolific songwriters and wrote many other pieces. Among these was the song entitled “That Sabo-Tabby Kitten”, which as the title suggests is about sabotage. Unlike earlier songs that touched upon the subject, “That Sabo-Tabby Kitten” gives a name to the tactic and gives a full-throated endorsement of it. The second verse and chorus of the song are as follows:

The boss has cream for his lordly dinner,
Feed him milk and make him thinner!
Hurry now! Wonder how? MEOW – SABOTAGE!
If you are down and the boss is gloating,
Trust in me instead of voting.
Hurry now! Wonder how? MEOW – SABOTAGE!

O, the rats all hate and fear me; meow! MEOW!
The softest paw can be a CLAW!
They seldom venture near me.
Hurrah! They saw your Sabo-tabby kitten!

Curiously enough, this song wasn’t used as evidence against the IWW in the Chicago trial of 1918 and instead the more anecdotal “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” was used as evidence of the IWW’s promotion of sabotage. As a result, “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” was removed from the Little Red Songbook. “That Sabo-Tabby Kitten” can be found in the current edition of the Little Red Songbook.

Joe Hill is perhaps the most famous songwriter in the IWW, primarily because he was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 for a double murder he didn’t commit but also because he was a very prolific and talented songwriter. He is most well known for his song “The Preacher and the Slave”, which introduced the phrase “pie in the sky” to the American vocabulary (but it had a very different meaning in the song than it does in modern speech). He also wrote “Casey Jones The Union Scab”, “Where the Frasier River Flows”, and “Mr. Block” among other songs. The song “What We Want” is one of the few IWW songs that mentions workers by their specific craft and is a good example of an IWW recruiting song. The second verse and chorus are as follows:

We want the sailor and the tailor and the lumberjacks,
And all the cooks and laundry girls,
We want the guy that dives for pearls,
The pretty maid that’s making curls,
And the baker and the staker and the chimneysweep,
We want the man that’s slinging hash,
The child that works for little cash,
In one union grand.

Come all ye toilers that work for wages,
Come from every land,
Join the fighting band,
In one union grand,
Then for the workers we’ll make upon this earth a paradise
When the slaves get wise and organize.

This song is a classic IWW recruiting song – not only because it encourages all workers from every trade and every skill level to join the union, but because it makes specific mention of foreigners “from every land”, women, and children. The IWW was remarkable at its founding for being the first fully integrated union, both along racial and gender lines, but even now some of the principles set forward in this song are revolutionary. In particular, the idea of organizing children into a union is radical and almost unheard of in the modern day labor movement.

Not all songs were written by Wobblies who wished to have their names known. A great many were written anonymously, such as “Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks” and “The Workers’ Marseillaise”, and more songwriters used pseudonyms or only their last name. One of these songs was “Overalls and Snuff”, a song that has been quite forgotten today but is an example of a Wobbly attempt to maintain collective memory. The song was written following the Wheatland Hop Riots of 1913 and the subsequent imprisonment of “Blackie” Ford and Henry Suhr on bogus charges. The last three verses of the song are as follows:

They have sentenced Ford and Suhr, and they’ve got them in the pen,
If they catch a wobbly in their burg, they vag him there and then.
There is one thing I can tell you, and it makes the bosses sore,
As fast as they can pinch us, we can always get some more.
We can always get some more, we can always get some more,
As fast as they can pinch us, we can always get some more.

Oh, Horst and Durst are mad as hell, they don’t know what to do,
And the rest of those hop barons are all feeling mighty blue.
Oh, we’ve tied up all their hop fields, and the scabs refuse to come,
And we’re going to keep on striking till we put them on the bum.
Till we put them on on the bum, till we put them on the bum,
And we’re going to keep on striking till we put them on the bum.

Now we’ve got to stick together, boys, and strive with all our might,
We must free Ford and Suhr, boys, we’ve got to win this fight.
From these scissorbill hop barons we are taking no more bluff,
We’ll pick no more damned hops for them, for overalls and snuff,
For our overalls and snuff, for our overalls and snuff,
We’ll pick no more damned hops for them, for overalls and snuff.

Aside from using a great deal of Wobbly jargon and some mild swearing in the last verse, the song served to both galvanize IWW members to make an effort to free Ford and Suhr from jail and to remind folks about what the bosses did to their fellow workers. The song no doubt fell out of use entirely once Ford and Suhr were released from jail in the mid-1920s, but it still retains historical interest today and it’s a pretty good song in the author’s opinion. Should any IWW members or others wish to revive this song, it would serve fairly well as a morale booster especially at an event that involves civil disobedience.

This is far from a thorough accounting of the types of songs that were written by Wobblies, or even of the songwriters who could be found in the pages of the Little Red Songbook. However, this hopefully does provide some inkling of the level of importance song had in the IWW and the sheer number of songs that were produced by IWW members over the years.

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