This article discusses how the early IWW used music both as an organising tool and as a means of developing a sense of community among its members. It puts these activities in the context of the politics and practical activity of the IWW during this period.
The Creation of a Working Class Counter-Culture
“It is we who ploughed 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.
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.”
- From Solidarity Forever
This excerpt from probably the most famous song of the American labor movement shows us something important; even though labor movement theory typically assumes that the class position of workers will naturally give rise to class identity, conscious efforts to create such an identity have often been an integral part of labor organizing efforts. Historically we can talk about efforts to create a counter-culture, i.e. conscious efforts to create an acting community, a 'we' (the workers) that stands in opposition to a 'them' (the employing class). In “Solidarity Forever” this is clearly exemplified: A 'we' – the workers who have constructed everything, and who now stand starving midst the wonders they have made – is put in opposition to a 'them' – the bosses, owners and politicians who have never toiled a bit, but who nevertheless control all the wealth. The solution to this is that the we must organize and fight to get back what rightfully is theirs.
In these efforts to create a revolutionary counter-culture the labor movement has almost always had to compete with other groups that have tried to create competing identities and counter poles, which often have been hostile to the labor movement's schism between employers and workers. One example is religious groupings, who usually try to build up a schism between heathens and believers. Another is nationalist and racist groupings, who often try to create a schism between native born people and immigrants, or a hostility towards other nations and ethnic groups. This latter type has tended to flourish especially in times of war and crisis. In all of these movements the creation of a common culture has been crucial and this culture has included but not been limited to; sports teams, theatre, poetry readings, film screenings, educational work, dance events, as well as music.
The creation of a counter-culture has almost always included the creation of specific institutions, rituals and symbols. In the labor movement one of the clearest examples of this is the celebration of International Workers' Day, of which music has always been an important part. One function of this music has been to spread agitational and/or educational lyrics. “The Internationale”, which was written after the Paris rebellion in 1871 is perhaps the best known example of this. This text imparts many of the labor movement's core values such as internationalism, anti-militarism and union struggles and it is sung to this day by almost everyone on the left wing. Another important function of music (and more specifically, song) in the labor movement is that it can help to create a feeling of belonging to a greater whole, and thus to meld a community together.
These general remarks about music in the labor movement can also be applied to the American labor movement, and are especially relevant in relation to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as cultural elements, particularly music and song, were often a key element in their struggles. I will turn back to this use of culture and music after giving a short introduction to the basic historical and political traits of the IWW.
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – Politics and History
Foundation and the Industrial Tactic
The IWW was founded the 27th of June 1905 with the cooperation of elements from the Socialist Labor Party/Socialist Trades & Labor Alliance, the Socialist Party of America, the Western Federation of Miners and survivors of the International Working People's Association. A principal reason for the establishment of the IWW was a recognition that there was a need for a revolutionary labor union that could organise on a national level. In the preamble to the constitution that was passed at the founding meeting one could read the following:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
Another motivation for the founding of the IWW was that there was a need for a union that didn't organise its members based on craft, as for example the biggest labor union at that time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) did, but rather organised on the basis of industries or economic sectors. Organising workers on a craft basis made it possible for employers to pit different craft unions against each other. For example, an employer could make a deal with a union entitling them to union scabs if another union at one of their workplaces went on strike. This happened in 1911 when the workers on the Harrison line went on a strike, and sixteen different unions wanted to bargain as one federation. They were denied this, and the strike lasted four years without the unions getting their demands met, primarily because five other unions supplied Harrison with scabs.
The murdered wobbly and songwriter Joe Hill who I will discuss further below, wrote the song 'Casey Jones the Union Scab' in support of the strikers. In the song, 'Casey Jones' (a name which at that time was synonymous with a train driver) who as the title suggests didn't want to join the strike at his workplace, is killed when his train goes off the track. He ends up in heaven where St. Peter offers him a job as a scab musician, as all the angels are on strike. The song ends with him being kicked down to hell by 'The Angels Union No. 23'. Around the same time Hill wrote a little note to the magazine The Industrial Worker which said:
“Union scabbing is as if you're about to be hung, and as you were led to the scaffold the executioner turned to you and said: “Gee, I hate to do this, but if it is any consolation the scaffold was built by union carpenters, the rope was made by union rope makers and here, sir, is my card.””
The industrial tactic that the IWW promoted aimed at creating cohesion in the working class and ensuring that union organized workers would stand together and support each other when there was a strike. Because of this, it was important for the IWW to organize groups of workers that the AFL were hesitant to organize and in some cases directly hostile to, as for example women, unskilled workers, unemployed workers, black workers and immigrants. The IWW reasoned that if they didn't organize these groups the employers could use them to lower the wages and working conditions of the working class as a whole, or use them as scabs to defeat strikes. The AFL's solution to this was to exclude these groups, and in some instances even to try to prevent them from getting work. In 1901 for example, they lobbied Congress to reauthorize the “Chinese Exclusion Act”, which in 1882 had made immigration from China to USA illegal for ten years. In relation to the industrial tactic the IWW preamble stated:
"The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because the trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. The trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These sad conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all."
The end of the first paragraph – “The trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employer” – is probably directed at the AFL who proposed that the road to better conditions for the working class went through the capitalist system and in cooperation with the employers and political parties.
The Politics - Marxist, Syndicalist or Anarchist?
In their recent book 'Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism' Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt argue that the IWW should be considered a part of the syndicalist tradition because of their use of the industrial tactic among other reasons. More specifically, it should be seen as part of syndicalism's 'Glorious Period' which lasted from 1895 to 1920, during which time syndicalist unions like the Spanish CNT, the Italian USI, the Portuguese CGT and the Argentine FORA-V and FORA-IX more than doubled their membership. Syndicalism also had some major breakthroughs in Africa, Latin-America and Asia in the same period. The IWW itself grew from less then 10 000 members in 1910, to 14 000 in 1913, 30 000 in 1915 and 100 000 in 1917, this being the highest peak of the union's membership.
Schmidt and van der Walt also argue that syndicalism can be seen as part of what they call 'The Broad Anarchist Tradition' and as an anarchist strategy, a way of doing revolutionary work in the present which carries in itself the possibility of creating a new society. The syndicalist tradition, including the IWW, can thus be seen as a successor of the Bakuninist rather than the Marxist section of the First International. Schmidt and van der Walt suggest that the reason that there have been so many misunderstandings around the political background of the IWW has much to do with all the misunderstandings that continues to flourish around anarchism and syndicalism and how they relate to each other and other movements. There is not enough space here to go into these misunderstandings in detail, but we can still look at some of the main characteristics of the IWW that makes it syndicalist.
First, the IWW argued principally for what is known as economic action rather than political action. In other words, the union opposed organizing a parliamentary party which would capture state power and use it to introduce socialism (this strategy originated from Marx' position in the First International, commonly known as political socialism). Instead, they argued that the working class should organize democratically in unions that would use direct action – e.g. strikes, boycotts and sabotage, to force through reforms and at the same time “rehearse” for the taking over of power through the general strike. The IWW was, in keeping with this line, against collective bargaining and parliamentary reformism, which they believed would strip the working class of their initiative.
The IWW viewed the general strike as the means to overthrow capitalism (defined as an economic minority rule) and usher in socialism. In other words, they agreed with the syndicalist 'embryo theory', which can be summarized with the slogan “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”, a phrase which still can be found in the preamble to the IWW constitution. This theory proposes that through direct action, a democratic union (i.e. one without a leadership beyond the members control) can grow and become stronger until it consists of the vast majority of workers within the society. This union can then take over workplaces during a revolutionary general strike and the democratic structures that it is based on will become the basis for the new society. In this way syndicalism and the IWW – as well as anarchism or libertarian socialism – distinguished themselves from political socialism, which imagined a period between capitalism and socialism where a political party would rule a strong workers state (the so called dictatorship of the proletariat that in the 20th century could be seen in practice in countries like China, the Soviet Union and Cuba).
The IWW's Use of Music
In their struggle to promote these politics, the IWW was a singing union. In the period between 1910-1960 the IWW's songbook 'The Little Red Songbook', which is still in print, was regarded by many workers as one of their most beloved possessions besides, of course, their red IWW membership cards. The songbook was one of the IWW's most important documents and its songs were sung in numerous situations: around hobo campfires, in boxcars, in Wobbly halls, in the streets, on picket lines, at strike rallies, in court, on the way to jail and in jail. The songs were a crucial aid in recruiting new members, and they were important in building a sense of fellowship and in keeping spirits up in hard situations. Paul Garon writes in his book 'What's the Use of Walking if Theres a Freight Train Going Your Way? Black Hobos and Their Songs' (2005) that a mixed group of hobos sitting around a campfire would be more likely to sing Wobbly songs than Blues, Country or Vaudeville songs. This tells us something about the popularity these songs enjoyed.
Free Speech Fights – Conflicts with the Salvation Army and Street Theatre
As already said, these songs were used in many different ways, but one story about how The Little Red Songbook came to life can show us one of the most interesting, and perhaps most important use. Some of the first struggles the IWW was involved in, and some of the first struggles that gave them national attention, were the free speech fights that were fought from around 1910, only five years after the union was founded. The first place one of these struggles was fought was in Spokane, Washington from 1909 – 1910. At first the IWW focused on getting rid of the so called hiring agencies (or “Job Sharks”, as they also were called) who sold jobs to the workers, and monopolized the contact with the big employers in the area. The work that workers got typically lasted for only a short period because the big employers tended to split the jobs up between the many agencies that existed. This put the workers in a very precarious situation as they constantly had to look for new jobs, and as every time they got one they had to pay for it. It was even worse if you had nothing but two empty hands to start with, and couldn't afford to pay for a job.
In the beginning the IWW focused on getting a boycott of the agencies running and tried at the same time to give workers a chance to get work without having to pay for it. They established their own 'Union Hiring Halls' but these were trashed or burned down by company goons. But they kept on propagating their idea through street speeches, often on old soap boxes close to the hiring agencies. As time went by the IWW began making progress with this strategy, in response the agencies started sending out the Salvation Army (Called “The Starvation Army” by many IWW members and sympathizers) and other religious groups to drown the IWW speakers with trumpets, drums and psalms. The IWW countered this by handing out cards with alternative lyrics to the psalm tunes, and got the people who had gathered to sing along. Joe Hill wrote his first known song in connection with this struggle – “The Preacher and the Slave” – to the melody of the hymn “In the Sweet By and By”. The original chorus went as follows:
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
In Joe Hill's parody the chorus was changed to:
You will eat, bye and bye,
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)
This song became so popular that it introduced a new phrase in the English vocabulary: “Pie in the sky”. Today this expression is possible to find in most dictionaries and encyclopedias, and is usually defined to mean something like “An unrealistic enterprise or prospect of prosperity”. Joe Hills text then went on the criticize the notion that if you are pious and obedient and accept your earthly situation you'll get your reward in heaven. Instead of this he argued that workers have to organize and fight if they want to improve their conditions, before he ends the song by ridiculing employers, politicians and other “spongers”:
You will eat, bye and bye
When you've learned how to cook and how to fry
Chop some wood, 'twill do you good
Then you'll eat in the sweet bye and bye (That's no lie)
These songs – and so also the IWW's political message – were introduced to people in other innovative ways. On the album We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years the singer, guitarist and Wobbly Utah Phillips tells about how this song was introduced to a crowd in Spokane, through an element of street theater:
"They got together a little band [...] They stood in the doorway, waiting to leap out at the unemployed, and regale them with song. They used a shill to build the crowd, you know, a carnie shill: Somebody uses tricks to build the crowd. His name was Tresco, but he wore a black suit , a black bowler hat and a string tie with an umbrella and briefcase and looked like a banker. He walked down where they were hiding in the doorway and suddenly he started to yell: “Help! Help! Help! I've been robbed! Help! I've been robbed!” Everybody ran across the street: “What's the matter? What's the matter?” As soon as he got the crowd together he yelled: “I've been robbed by the capitalist system, fellow workers!” He talked to them for ten minutes, and then the boys would leap out and start singing."
In a radio feature about the Little Red Songbook Utah Phillips also talks about a more direct, practical use of the songs in demonstrations and strike rallies:
"If there was a strike on the docks [ ... ] you don't know how you're going to feed your kids. Somebody pits up a brick to throw at a goon, or a company guard. Fred Hanson would jump in with a song, get everybody singing. Because when people were singing together they weren't throwing punches and they weren't throwing rocks."
“Detourné” of Popular Songs
This practice of changing the lyrics of psalms and other popular tunes of the day became the basis for most of the songs that were published in the Little Red Songbook. There are many likely reasons for this practice besides simply acting as a counter move when the Salvation Army tried to sabotage their rallies, but two that strike me as especially relevant are: 1) that many of the songwriters didn't necessarily have any kind of musical education or background, and therefore weren't able to write their own melodies, and 2) that by using popular tunes of the day it became a lot easier for workers (who usually couldn't read notation) to instantly recognize the melodies and sing the songs themselves. As a bonus, the new song could criticize the original lyrics and the function of the song, as for instance “The Preacher and the Slave” does. This practice would later be theorized by the Situationists (a group of politicized artists founded in 1957) as an integral part of the concept of “Detourné”, the practice of remaking old art such as songlyrics, movies, cartons, and literature to give it a critical, anti-capitalist message. As well as providing an alternate form of propaganda, the practice of detourning subverted the typically passive relationship between people and the media they consumed, by forcing them to react to the collision of two opposing frames of meaning. Other things than art could also be detourned, such as commercials and political theory.
Another example of a song that refers back to, and criticizes, the original lyrics is the “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back”, a text written by John Brill to the psalm “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. Two verses of the original song went as following:
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
John Brill changed this to:
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.
Are your clothes all patched and tattered?
Are you living in a shack?
Would you have your troubles scattered?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
Are you almost split asunder?
Loaded like a long-eared jack?
Boob--why don't you buck like thunder?
And dump the bosses off your back.
All the agonies you suffer,
You can end with one good whack--
Stiffen up, you orn'ry duffer--
And dump the bosses off your back.
In this way Brills offers a pretty clear cut critique of the notion that workers' problems could be solved by taking them “to the Lord in prayer”, and at the same time suggests that dumping the bosses of their backs would be a more realistic solution that offered a more immediate salvation. Humor is of course also an important element at work here.
One of the main reasons that so many of the IWW songs are directed at religion in general, and Christianity specifically, is that religious groups were those who most strongly opposed the IWW's attempts to create a revolutionary counter-culture. Furthermore, the fact that these groups were used directly against them, as in the example from the hiring agencies use of the Salvation Army in the Spokane Free Speech fight, and that there was frequently made exceptions for them in laws limiting the IWW's organizing attempts, are probably also important factors that provoked Wobblies to write these songs.
Anti-militarism, Community Building Songs and Songs to Remember
Still, it's important to remember that the IWW had more than enough of other issues to protest against besides religion, and that it also was important for them to fill the texts they wrote with a positive message that communicated their basic analyses and solutions. For example IWW-songwriters made a lot of songs that dealt with current issues such as the world wars or the economic crisis, in addition to songs that were mainly intended to build up their own sense of community. “Solidarity Forever” and “Casey Jones – The Union Scab” are examples of the latter, besides innumerable others. As an example of the former we can look at a text Joe Hill wrote to the Irish traditional tune “Colleen Brawn”:
We're spending billions every year
For guns and ammunition
Our Army and Our Navy dear
To keep in good condition
Why do they mount their Gatling guns
A thousand miles from oceans?
Where hostile fleets could never run
Ain't that a funny notion?
Another important function of the IWW songs was to remember and celebrate martyrs and important historical incidents. Among all the IWW martyrs Joe Hill is probably the most important, particularly in a musical connection, even though there were numerous others. Joe Hill was born in 1879 in Gavle in Sweden. He was originally named Joel Emmanuel Haggland, but when he in 1902 went with his brother to USA he changed his name to Joseph Hillström, which later was shortened to Joe Hill. Little is known about Joe Hill's first ten years in USA, but around 1910 he started writing radical songs and by then he had joined the IWW. In December 1914 he was arrested and charged with the murder of a local store owner. By the following year he was prosecuted and sentenced to death without anything but circumstantial evidence having been presented at the trial. One of the reasons this happened was that Hill believed that he didn't have to prove his innocence. He felt that it was up to the court system to prove that he was guilty, and therefore did not give any testimony to what he was doing the night of the murder, as the court system couldn't prove that he even could have been at the site of the crime. Of course, the fact that he was a well known IWW organizer and songwriter didn't help his case much, but it was an important reason for the large popular protests that greeted the outcome of the trial. This reaction was echoed eleven years later when the two anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in Boston eleven years later. The day before he was executed Joe Hill wrote a little note that was smuggled out of the prison. It said:
My will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide
My kin don't need to fuss and moan
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? - Oh. - If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again
This is my Last and final Will
Good Luck to All of you
Joe Hill 
This note is usually recited by performers singing the well known song 'I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night', which was written by Alfred Hayes about fifteen years later. In addition, Ethel Raim has also written a melody for the note itself. The two most important verses of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" are probably the following:
And standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes
says Joe "what they can never kill, went on to organize.
From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill,
where working-men defend their rights, it's there you find Joe Hill.
These two texts, together with a short message Joe Hill telegraphed to Bill Haywood (at that time general secretary of the IWW) containing three famous words: “Don't mourn – Organize!”, has made Joe Hill into one of the most well known symbols and martyrs of the American labor movement. This is probably one of the reasons why this song was sung by so many artist during the 50s and 60s folk revival. Artists who sung this song in this period include artist like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie. Guthrie's repertoire included many other songs about labors martyrs and important historical events, for example the entire album “Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti” was written in memory of the executed anarchists, while the song “Ludlow Massacre” commemorates the eleven children and two women who were killed by the national guard during a strike in April 1914.
Among other songs that remember and celebrate historical incidents, both victories and losses, we could name “John Golden and The Lawrence Strike” by Joe Hill and “Bread and Roses” by James Oppenheim (lyrics) and Mimi Baez Fariña (music) as examples. Both are about the same historical event: The Lawrence strike of 1912 for higher wages and better working conditions that was won by the workers after a long and bitter struggle. The song by Joe Hill is pretty similar to the ones we already have looked at, and is also written to a Christian Hymn, “A Little Talk With Jesus”, but in contrast to the others this text is not mainly critical or ridiculing, but positive and celebrating:
That's one time Golden din not
make it right, all right;
In Spite of his schemes
The strikers won the fight.
When all strikers stand,
United hand in hand
The world with all its wealth
Will be at their command.
On the album “Fellow Workers”, Utah Phillips talks about the Lawrence strike, and offers some thoughts on why these songs can maintain their relevance for the labor movement generation after generation:
I never had to work underground in Pennsylvania at the age of twelve in a coal mine. My sister never had to work at the of eight or nine at the looms in Lawrence, Massachusetts, or anybody else. None of us have had to do those sort of thing, and why? Why do we have that eight hour day? Why do we have those mine safety laws? Why do we have all those laws busting the sweatshops? Were they benevolent gifts from an enlightened management? No, they were fought for, bled for, died for, by people lot like us. They died not on the battlefield to fight another dumb bosses war. They died on the picket line to give all of us a better future. 
● Big Bill Hayward (Manchester University Press, 1987) - Melvyn Dubofsky
● Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism – Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt (AK press, 2009)
● Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter - Dean Noland and Fred Thompson
( http://zinelibrary.info/joe-hill-iww-songwriter )
● The Big Red Songbook (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 2007) – Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont and Salvatore Salerno
We Have Fed You All For Thousand Years – Utah Phillips
Fellow Workers – Utah Phillips
“The Little Red Songbook” feature from NPR Music News
( http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5764742&ft=1&f=1033 )
From the IWW's official homepage ( http://www.iww.org/culture/chronology/ )
Ibid ( http://www.iww.org/culture/official/SaintJohn1.shtml#preamble )
Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter by Dean Noland and Fred Thompson ( http://zinelibrary.info/joe-hill-iww-songwriter ) p. 5 - 7
Retold by Utah Phillips on the album We Have Fed You All For 1000 Years, track 11. (All coming quotations from Utah Phillips are written down from audio tracks by me.)
Ibid p. 164 - 169
Big Bill Hayward (Manchester University Press, 1987) by Melvyn Dubofsky p. 81 - 95
It might be mentioned that a minority fraction centered around Daniel DeLeon argued for the creation of a party that would work within the parliamentary system, and who through a electoral victory synchronized with the general strike would help bring about the revolution. This fraction was however never able to convince the rest of the union of their views, and therefore split with the union to make a new Detroit based union called Workers' Industrial International Union.
From The Big Red Songbook (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 2007) by Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont and Salvatore Salerno p. 13 - 14
Ibid p. 15
Utah Phillips: Fellow Worker, track 5
Noland and Thompson p. 4
Merriam-Webster Online ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pie-in-the-sky )
Utah Phillips:We Have Fed You All For 1000 Years, track 9.
 “The Little Red Songbook” feature from NPR Music News
It should be mentioned that there are a lot of exceptions from this. Joe Hill did for example write some melodies himself («Rebel Girl», amongst others) and the composer Rudolf von Liebich – the composer of «We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years» – wrote songs for the IWW.
See for example A User’s Guide to Détournement (http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm) or thesis 204 – 209 in The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
Nolan and Thompson p. 1 - 2 9 - 15
Ibid p. 17, A picture of the note can be found on wikipedia.com: http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Joe_Hill_will.pdf
Peoples History of the United States – Howard Zinn p. 346 - 349
Utah Phillips: Fellow Workers, track 8
|Music and the IWW the creation of a working class counterculture - RudolfTB.pdf||1.16 MB|