THE BIG RED SONGBOOK
Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, Salvatore Salerno (eds.)
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The 2007 publication of The Big Red Songbook is long overdue. Folklorist Archie Green has been in possession of 29 editions of the legendary Little Red Songbook of the IWW since Wobbly folklorist John Neuhaus entrusted them to him in 1958. Published between 1909 and 1956, the IWW songbooks in the Neuhaus collection vividly embody the humor, philosophy and history of the working class. Millions of copies of these little songbooks have been sold, giving the IWW its well-deserved reputation as a “singing union.” For those of you saying “IWWWhat?” — here’s a little history.
Few chapters of American labor history are as exciting as the story of the IWW — the Industrial Workers of the World. The Industrial Workers of the World, also known as “the Wobblies,” proclaimed in their preamble: “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 the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.” They urged all workers, regardless of race, gender, trade, or immigration status, to join in one big union to abolish “wage slavery” and create a “workers’ commonwealth.” Since its founding convention in 1905, the Wobblies have fascinated and inspired generations of workers, scholars, and labor enthusiasts.
The IWW organized and welcomed workers that the craft-bound AFL shunned: unskilled, seasonal, and temporary workers, young girls in the textile mills, immigrants, African Americans, and Chinese. The IWW was more radical than the CIO (formed 30 years later.) From its inception, the IWW scorned collective bargaining agreements and believed solely in direct action — shop floor actions, wildcat strikes, slowdowns, walkouts, and occasionally sabotage. The IWW reviled the wealthy, lampooned politicians, skewered union bureaucrats, and held a special place of ridicule for “Mr. Block” — the kind of worker who believes everything the boss tells him: that hard work will make him rich, that politicians and bosses care for the interests of workers.
From the beginning, the Wobblies were loved by many for the great humor and irreverence in their songs and artwork — and despised (and feared) by bosses and politicians, and even by the mainstream labor movement. The IWW had some glorious victories, most notably the Lawrence, Massachusetts “Bread and Roses” strike, and some spectacular defeats, like the Paterson, New Jersey Silk Strike. Wobblies were staunch defenders of civil rights — especially free speech and freedom of assembly. They rode the rails and converged on towns like Spokane, Washington to proclaim and demand workers’ rights. There would be mass arrests and the IWW would fill the jails during their “free speech” campaigns. IWW offices were raided and burned, their leaders were jailed, deported, or even murdered . There are many poems and songs about Wesley Everest, Frank Little, and the most famous Wobbly martyr of all — Joe Hill. Some of the IWW’s earliest songs are still sung today, including labor’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” written by Wobbly Ralph Chaplin. This space does not permit telling the whole story of this colorful union, but the IWW still exists today despite decades of persecution. Today the IWW is organizing Starbucks workers, among others. Their website is www.iww.org.
The Big Red Songbook is 538 pages long, and contains over 250 IWW songs and many wonderful IWW poems, cartoons, and graphics. It’s clearly not intended to be read in one sitting. Unfortunately, the songs do not have music with them. Some are parodies, written to tunes still remembered (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye,” “Oh Christmas Tree”). The majority of the songs are to original melodies, or parodies of long-forgotten tunes. There is an extensive discography at the end of the book for those who want to hear the songs.
Some of the essays, which accompany the songs, are fascinating. The best are the four essays by IWW songwriters — Harry McClintock, Jim Connell, Carlos Cortez, and Richard Brazier. Brazier helped to gather the songs for the 1909 songbook, and his vivid writing links us right to the founding days of this union. His 1968 essay on this process is fabulous, as is IWW member Carlos Cortez’s essay on “Joe Hill and the Wobbly Song Tradition.”
Some of the other essays were clearly written for and read at academic conferences and will be of less interest to all but the most serious scholars. The book is also infused with random didactic political commentary supporting the decision not to include any of the IWW songbooks published after 1973.
In July, I paid a visit to the home of editor Archie Green in San Francisco to discuss this editorial decision, and the book in general. Archie welcomed me into the modest home he and his wife Louanne bought in 1950. He fixed me a delicious salad and could not have been more gracious and charming. At 90 years of age, and just recovering from eye surgery, Archie Green is a marvel. He is sharp as a tack with an encyclopedic knowledge of the labor movement and an astonishing ability to recall it. I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon with Archie, even though we spent most of it arguing, and I left unconvinced.
Archie Green divides labor music into three distinct categories which he describes as follows: 1) Popular Front or communist songs as exemplified by Pete Seeger; 2) Social Democratic songs as exemplified by Joe Glazer; and 3) anarcho-syndicalist songs as exemplified by Utah Phillips. Archie Green (and presumably the other editors) decided that only anarcho-syndicalist songs belong in the Red Songbook. Even though the IWW itself opted to include songs from these other categories (for example, Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and Les Rice’s “Banks of Marble”) in various editions of the Little Red Songbook, the editors of The Big Red Songbook have decided to protect the purity of the IWW philosophy as they see it.
The Big Red Songbook includes every song from the Neuhaus collection and songs from the next five editions of the songbook (1962-1973). The IWW’s 35th edition (1984) and 36th (1995) editions did not meet the political standards of the editorial board, and the 100th anniversary songbook, printed in 2005, arrived too late for the editors’ consideration. Green himself has never carried an IWW red card. While excluding songs that the IWW subsequently included in its songbooks, The Big Red Songbook makes room for what it calls “lost” Wobbly songs — songs that were never included in the songbooks. Some are interesting, some are less memorable, some are red-baiting songs that the Wobs probably passed over with good reason.
Green didn’t have much good to say about contemporary labor music, or for that matter, about contemporary labor. Even though many IWW songs used the melody and style of popular tunes of the day, Green disdains this tactic in the 21st century. He says, “Applauding monocultural music is like applauding George Bush.” The only labor musicians (in the English language) that Green was able to cite with favor during our conversation were Utah Phillips, Hazel Dickens, and Elaine Purkey. Archie Green doesn’t care much for “folk music” as labor music, either. He maintains that the folk revival of the 60s was communist-inspired. Presumably then, contemporary folksingers are at best “innocent dupes,” and not heirs to the legacy of Joe Hill. He maintains, “to the extent that Wobblies understood the folk process, they rejected it.” Not one to mince words, Green asserted about contemporary labor music — “I don’t like the people, the music or the message.” This made for a very lively afternoon of conversation.
In short, there’s nothing “red” in The Big Red Songbook if you get the $24.00 version. If you want anything RED in The Big Red Songbook, you’ll have to spend $36.00 for the deluxe version with the red cover. One could infer from The Big Red Songbook that its editors think that the IWW and labor culture ended in 1973. They didn’t even call this book Volume I. Without being able to give Archie Green equal time to respond, I’ll just say that, for my part (and I think this is true for most contemporary labor singers), I don’t worry about whether a song is a popular front song, a social democratic song, or an anarcho-syndicalist song — I ask if it’s a good song, and a song that says something important and says it well. There are many wonderful labor songs being written today . . . songs that I think Joe Hill would love. You can find some of them at laborheritage.org/catalog.html. You’ll also find plenty of them in The Big Red Songbook. You can buy it through ILWU Local 5, the union at Powell’s Books, at www.powellsunion.com/shop-smart/shop-smart/buy-books.
Pittsburgh-based singer Anne Feeney is a member of the IWW, as well as the American Federation of Musicians. Utah Phillips calls her “the best labor singer in North America.” Judge for yourself at annefeeney.com. This review first appeared in the September issue of the UE News, publication of the United Electrical Workers union (UE).