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The Historical Origin of “The Singing Union”

A Very Musical Reputation

The early history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has become the stuff of legend for the U.S. socialist left. In its first decade, the IWW led massive strikes of industrial workers that cut across ethnic boundaries in the east and brutal free speech fights for the rights of its organizers to publicly promote industrial unionism in the west. Many of its organizers were assassinated by right-wing vigilantes or executed by the state, and some have become martyr figures for U.S. socialism and trade unionism. Key to the legendary status of the early IWW is the notion that the organization was a “singing union.”1

Less than a decade after its founding in 1905, the union had already gained a musical reputation.2 In early 1909, the Spokane, Washington, IWW chapter, one of the most dynamic in the western states, published an IWW songbook.3 It quickly became one of the union’s most popular pieces of literature. This was the first edition of what would eventually come to be known as the Little Red Songbook.4 Additionally, in order to better compete for the use of public space to promote the union, the Spokane chapter established an IWW-affiliated brass band and choral group.5 This was a direct appropriation of the street preaching tactics of one its main rivals in the fight for public space, the Salvation Army. Even some of the IWW’s songs were appropriated from the Salvation Army. IWW songwriters pilfered melodies from some of the Army’s standard hymns and produced new, IWW-themed contrafacta.

In the spring of 1912, an enormous IWW-led strike of thirty thousand textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, so impressed the journalist Ray Stannard Baker with its mass public singing that he described it as a “singing movement.”6 Three years later, the union’s status as an exceptionally musical organization was confirmed and entrenched when the most prolific contributor to the Little Red Songbook, a Swedish-American immigrant and IWW member who composed under the pen name Joe Hill, was arrested, charged, and executed for murder in Utah based on dubious circumstantial evidence. Many IWW members believed that Hill had been framed because of his trade unionism and, in the months leading up to the execution, the case became an international scandal. The publicity of the Hill case transformed the union’s best-known songwriter into a martyr of the international labor movement and led to the popularization of both his and other IWW songs well beyond the membership of the union.

While the martyrdom of Hill did much to consolidate the IWW’s status as “the singing union,” the union’s reputation as a musical movement had already been well established in the preceding years.7 A few aspects of the IWW’s cultural life, such as the union’s aforementioned songbooks, brass bands, workers’ choirs, and its use of mass congregational singing at pickets, are usually highlighted to explain this reputation. However, these were by no means particular to the IWW. The Socialist Party of America (SPA) and American Federation of Labor (AFL), as well as other contemporary socialist organizations and trade unions, all had similar forms of musical-cultural life. Mass singing at the events of AFL-affiliated unions was not unheard of and the SPA also had a number of songbooks, as well as affiliated workers’ choirs and brass bands.8

Some historians have foregrounded IWW songwriters’ production of parodic contrafacta and suggested that the supposed novelty of this practice explains why the union was perceived to be particularly musical.9 But the history of contrafacta in U.S. trade unionism long precedes the IWW and humorous parodies were popular within the ranks of the Knights of Labor (KoL), rendering it an insufficient explanation for why the Union was perceived as more musical than its predecessors and contemporaries.10

This is not meant to imply that the IWW was not especially musical—it clearly was. By 1915, when Hill’s case thrust the IWW’s music into the international limelight, there had already been numerous references to the unusual amount of singing done by IWW members in the socialist, trade union, and mainstream U.S. press.11 This, however, is an initial clue as to the real origin of the IWW’s musical reputation. Just like the IWW’s moniker, these references are to a specific kind of musical activity: singing. IWW members sang far more than members of contemporaneous U.S. socialist organizations and trade unions. The explanation for the extraordinary amount of singing done by IWW members can be found in the role of the Little Red Songbook in the activities of the union, which, as evidence will show, went far beyond that of songbooks produced by the IWW’s main contemporaries.

The Little Red Songbook and the IWW’s Singing Staff 

The first edition of what eventually became the Little Red Songbook was published by the Spokane IWW in January 1909.12 The Songbook Committee of the Spokane chapter continued to publish editions semi-regularly for the next three years. In early 1912, however, Walker C. Smith, editor of one of the IWW’s most important newspapers, the Industrial Worker, along with Los Angeles IWW leader Harry Weinstein, proposed a union-wide referendum on editorial control of the songbook.13 Believing that the staff of the Spokane chapter were “a lot of chair-warmers…[who were] kept up by the sale of the songs,” Smith wanted to use what he assumed to be the significant resources gained by these sales to stabilize the troubled finances of the Industrial Worker.14 Probably in order to avoid a confrontation, the Spokane chapter voluntarily transferred control of the songbook to the Industrial Worker staff on April 18, 1912, before the referendum was officially called.15

Smith was likely correct that the songbook was funding much of the activities of the Spokane chapter. Within months of its initial publication, the songbook exploded in popularity. This was long before Hill began publishing his songs. Although much has been written on the parodic elements of IWW contrafacta being foundational to their appeal, no scholar has pointed out that the songbook’s initial popularity was very likely due to the parodic appropriation of the very idea of a pocket-sized, red-bound songbook.16 The Salvation Army, as well as other Methodist sects, had for years been producing small, red-bound hymnals that were colloquially known as “little red song books.”17 In the hands of the Spokane IWW, the red color of these songbooks was infused with a militant socialist connotation that was anathema to the socially conservative, philanthropic mission of the Army. It was most likely this act of blatant, playful appropriation of the musical print format by which the Salvation Army and other Methodists spread their religious message that sent sales of the songbook skyrocketing within the IWW membership, as well as among the wider rank and file of the U.S. labor movement.

IWW newspapers soon began carrying reports of literature sales that included references to the songbook.18 In spring 1909, an IWW organizer in southern California wrote to the Industrial Worker claiming that the songbooks were “a howling success.”19 Another IWW organizer in Minneapolis wrote to the Industrial Worker in late 1910 reporting on songbook sales, claiming that it was “the best educator we have got in the field,” also mentioning that the Minneapolis IWW had formed a “singing society” to perform the songs.20 These sorts of reports appeared regularly in IWW newspapers for the next few years.21

That the popularity of the songbook must have continued to bring in considerable financial resources for the staff of the Industrial Worker after its transfer is confirmed by Smith’s behavior when he stepped down as editor in July 1913, after being elected secretary of the Spokane IWW. One of Smith’s first post-election actions was an attempt to return control of the songbooks to the Spokane chapter.22 This maneuver by Smith caused an enormous scandal, damaging his standing within the IWW, and precipitated a series of transfers of editorial power over the songbook, which ultimately ended up under the control of the IWW’s Chicago-based national headquarters in February 1917.23 Clearly, the songbook was a key asset of the union, not just as a method of building internal culture or propagandizing the cause, but as a means of stabilizing IWW activity financially. If this had not been the case, Smith likely would not have been willing to risk his reputation as a committed revolutionary organizer to maintain access to the resources its sales produced.

The role the songbook likely played in subsidizing the regular publication of the Industrial Worker is of key importance to understanding why IWW members were perceived as doing an unusual amount of singing. The IWW published dozens of newspapers in multiple languages during its early years, but only two had national reach, one of which was the Industrial Worker. This weekly newspaper was read by the vast majority of IWW members, as well as by a significant minority of trade unionists and socialists outside the IWW’s ranks.

The June 6, 1912, issue of the Industrial Worker, still under the editorship of Smith, carried several articles regarding best practices for IWW organizers. One short editorial on the songbook was also included. It stated:

In selling the song books at street and hall meetings it is well to announce the number of songs contained in the book, sing one of them if possible, read a portion of another and announce that the audience should join in the chorus. Then start the sales. Every local should have a bunch of these crowd gathering and interest holding song books on hand. See ad elsewhere.24

This editorial perfectly sums up the importance of singing by the early IWW’s membership. Smith, who was likely the author of this short statement, was directing IWW organizers to engage in regular public musical performance, both as soloists and collectively, with whoever was present, in order that they might better facilitate sales of the already popular songbook. Obviously, the popularity of the songbook—the union’s increasingly central piece of literature—was bringing a level of financial stability to the IWW’s press, which in turn produced an incentive to facilitate more sales. This led to an explicit push by the staff of the Industrial Worker for organizers to engage in regular public singing and song leading.

Assuming that this editorial described practices already in use and taken seriously by the readership, it would mean that IWW organizers were engaged in public singing as a regular part of their tactical organizing repertoire. If so, it would mark IWW staff out as distinct, since organizers from contemporaneous socialist parties and trade unions were not engaged in regular public musical performance, nor would they have had an incentive to be, since the songbooks of these organizations, unlike that of the IWW, were seen as auxiliary pieces of literature.25 It would also mean that in the years following the publication of the songbook, non-members’ first experience of the IWW would typically include public singing. Again, this is quite different from what one would experience in other organizations of the time, making the IWW particularly musical in comparison.

Entry into the world of the IWW, then, would have regularly been facilitated by public group singing led by organizers of the union. Speculatively, the normalization of public singing through its inclusion as a regular part of the tactical arsenal of IWW staff could explain why the IWW rank-and-file membership was, or at least seemed to be for non-members, so much more adept than other contemporaneous socialists and trade unionists at spontaneous mass song.

The Singing Union

This evidence reveals the IWW’s songbook to be far more than a “cultural” epiphenomenon of the union’s activities. Of course, the initial production of the songbook was simply the reproduction of a musical-cultural form deeply embedded in the practice of U.S. civil society, including U.S. socialism and trade unionism.26 However, the songbook’s surprising success, likely due to its parodic play on the little red songbooks of the Salvation Army and other Methodists, transformed it into an element of the union with a triple character: (1) it served as a means of producing the subjectivity of IWW members as a revolutionary proletarian collective, (2) it projected the ideology and objectives of the union beyond the boundaries of the organization, and (3) acted as a key component in the financial and therefore structural stability of the union as a national organization by subsidizing the IWW’s national press.

The latter element is pivotal, transforming the songbook into a basal element of the IWW’s social infrastructure and producing the union’s particular character as “the singing union.” The viability of the IWW as a national organization, itself predicated on the ability to produce a print-media infrastructure with national reach, found itself dependent on the commercial success of a piece of musical literature that, for the union’s contemporaries, would have been relegated to a marginal, auxiliary role. In the specific context of the IWW, songbooks were transformed into a part of the base on which the ability of the organization to reproduce itself rested. The consequences of this were profound for the practice of IWW organizers, who were pushed to incorporate singing into their regular tactical arsenal. This deeply affected the musical-cultural character of the union, likely normalizing the act of spontaneous, public mass singing among the IWW’s general membership to a greater extent than would have been the case for those in the labor movement at large, and, therefore, projected an image of hyper-musicality to those outside the union’s ranks. Indeed, all trade unions have sung and many have had songbooks. But the IWW is “the singing union.”

* You can find a playlist of IWW songs on YouTube here and on Spotify here.


1. The specific moniker of “the singing union” seems to have been coined by U.S. author Wallace Stegner in his fictionalized account of the life of Joe Hill originally published in 1950. This term has been widely reproduced in scholarship on the union ever since. See Wallace Stegner, The Preacher and the Slave (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 193.

2. Editorial, “Unions Jeered by Soap Box Orators: Profane Abuse Cast at Capital and Labor Alike by I.W.W. Speakers,” Morning Oregonian 51, no. 15911, November 23, 1911; Editorial, “Songs Jar Street: IWW and Apostolic Followers Arrayed in Noise Clash,” Morning Oregonian 50, no. 15963, January 23, 1912; Editorial, “Hallelujah I’m a Bum is Latest I.W.W. Song,” The Labor World 21, no. 18, October 4, 1913; Editorial, “Unemployed Smash Jail Windows and Sing I.W.W. Songs,” Grand Forks Daily 34, no. 33, December 9, 1914.

3. Richard Brazier, “The Story of the I.W.W.’s ‘Little Red Songbook,’” Labor History 9, no. 1 (1968): 100.

4. For the earliest use found by the author of the title “little red song book” to refer to the IWW songbook in the union’s press, see Editorial, “Japanese Jingoism,” Industrial Worker 4 no. 38, December 12, 1912.

5. J. H. Walsh, “National Organizer Walsh and I.W.W. Band,” Industrial Worker 1, no. 14, June 17, 1909.

6. Ray Stannard Baker, “The Revolutionary Strike: A New Form of Industrial Struggle as Exemplified at Lawrence, Massachusetts,” American Magazine 74 (May–November 1912): 30a.

7. Editorial, “Songs Sung For Those Who Work,” The Sun 80, no. 57, October 27, 1912; Harry Ward, “Songs of Discontent,” Methodist Review 29, no. 5 (September 1913): 720–29.

8. J. P. Roe, “Nebraska Party News,” The Socialist, no. 171, November 15, 1903; E. E. M, “Suggestions,” The Socialist, no. 189, March 20, 1904; Editorial, “Local Toledo,” The Socialist, no. 282, February 24, 1906; Charles Lapworth, “The Tour of the Red Special,” International Socialist Review 9, no. 6 (December 1908): 407.

9. Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 130; Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill: The IWW & The Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (Oakland: PM Press, 2015), 53–54.

10. Philip S. Foner, American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 151–52; Clark D. Halker, For Democracy, Workers, and God (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 114, 178–80.

11. Daniel De Leon, “The I.W.W. Convention,” Daily People 9, no. 89, September 27, 1908; Phineas Eastman, “The Southern Negro and One Big Union,” International Socialist Review 13, no. 12 (June 1913): 891; Austin Lewis, “Movements of Migratory Unskilled Labor in California,” The New Review 2, no. 8 (August 1914): 459–61. See also notes 2, 6, and 7.

12. Brazier, “The Story of the I.W.W.’s ‘Little Red Songbook.’”

13. Fred W. Heselwood, “Decentralizers are Desperate,” Industrial Worker 5, no. 19, August 14, 1913.

14. Joseph O’Neil, “Some History,” Industrial Worker 5, no. 19, August 14, 1913.

15. Editorial, “Song Books,” Industrial Worker 4, no. 4, April 18, 1912.

16. Conductor, musicologist, and IWW musician Chris David Westover-Muñoz briefly speculated on the possible connection between the design of Salvation Army hymnals and the IWW’s own songbooks in a recent interview. See Douglas P. Marsh, “Wobbly Musician Revives Historic Union Songs On Upcoming Album,” Industrial Worker, November 20, 2023.

17. Editorial, “Local Items or Doings of a Week,” Bottineau Courant, February 21, 1908; Editorial, “Sunday Songs Make Medley,” South Bend News-Times, August 25, 1913; Editorial, “First Ward News,” Fairmont West Virginian, December 27, 1913.

18. Albert V. Roe, “Trip of A.V. Roe,” Industrial Worker 1, no. 16, July 1, 1909; Editorial, “In a letter to a friend and fellow worker in New York City Fred Isler…,” Solidarity 1, no. 40, September 17, 1910; A. V. Roe, “More Recruits For Fresno,” Industrial Worker 2, no. 29, October 8, 1910; A. V. Roe, “One On Roe,” Industrial Worker 2, no. 38, December 8, 1910.

19. E. F. Lefferts, “From Holtsville, CAL.,” Industrial Worker 1, no. 9, May 13, 1909.

20. Heini, The Jungle Cook, “Chicago and Minneapolis,” Industrial Worker 2, no. 32, October 26, 1910.

21. Geo. W. Reeder, “Get Eight Hours in Harvest: Get Busy for the Eight-Hour Day This Summer—St. Louis I.W.W. Growing,” Industrial Worker 3, no. 2, March 30, 1911; Editorial, “Spokane locals held a successful street meeting on the night of July 4…,” Industrial Worker 4, no. 13, June 20, 1912; Editorial, “Calgary Notes,” Industrial Worker 4, no. 20, August 8, 1912; Editorial, “Local Notes,” Industrial Worker 4, no. 32, October 31, 1912.

22. Heselwood, “Who Stole The Mailing Lists?,” Industrial Worker 5, no. 19, August 14, 1913.

23. Archie Green et al., The Big Red Songbook (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2007), 481–82.

24. Editorial, “In selling the song books at street and hall meetings…,” Industrial Worker 4, no. 11, June 6, 1912.

25. According to historian Robert E. Weir, although the Knights of Labor engaged in regular music-making, this usually occurred in private, members-only settings, within the KoL’s assembly halls, and was not a significant part of its outward-facing activities. The same can be said for both the SPA and the AFL. This was, however, not the case in the IWW. Indeed, it was the public, outward-facing nature of the IWW’s singing that characterized the organization as particularly musical in the eyes of its contemporaries. See Robert E. Weir, Beyond Labor’s Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 114.

26. Songbooks were a regular feature of U.S. left-wing politics and trade unionism after the Civil War. See Foner, American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century, xii–xv, 117, 136, 142, 294.