Fanning the Flames: Northwest Labor Song Traditions

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/05/2006
  • Essay 7575
Political and social movements have long used music to draw attention to their causes and to rally the spirits of their members. The effectiveness of this tactic is well understood by rulers and robber barons alike, who, wisely, recognize the power of songs to convey dissenting ideas or arouse the citizenry. An old rhyme -- "Sing and fight! Right was the tyrant king who said: 'Beware of a movement that sings' " -- expressed the notion that a revolutionary vanguard spirited enough to sing together is also one to be taken seriously. In the Pacific Northwest -- a region with an especially rich history of labor unrest -- there has also developed a corresponding tradition of creating and singing some of the most enduring protest songs in America.

Industrial Workers of the World

The Northwest saw its first great outburst of labor reform tunes emerge in the years immediately following the “Continental Congress of the Working Class” convention held in Chicago on June 27, 1905, by a gathering of disgruntled industrial unionists, miners, factory workers, and socialists. Inspired to organize further, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) formed and began agitation campaigns against, among other targets, the all-powerful mining and timber bosses of the West.

Facing harsh worksite conditions, members of the IWW (whom detractors derisively called “Wobblies”) forged a “culture of resistance” which included “using innovative forms of action, from slow-downs and sabotage to humorous songs and art” to help make their points (Rabb). Their list of grievances and goals (especially the dream of calling a General Strike after the working class had all been recruited into their “One Big Union”) made it easy to tar them -- literally in some cases -- as dangerous radicals. Yet today, some of their specific demands for reforms (i.e. the establishment of an eight-hour workday) seem quite reasonable.

The Wild Wobbly Dream

The IWW vision of better days ahead through struggle was a risky one to espouse and the IWW’s path would prove to be long and dangerous. Threatened by their ideas, Big Business and the government collaborated in demonizing the Wobblies. The scrappy reformers’ union halls were often destroyed and individual leaders became hunted prey: “The army, state troopers, local police, private security forces, and, most ruthless of all, armed bands of superpatriotic vigilantes, were simultaneously unleashed upon the IWW” (Hampton).

“Time after time, with incomparable patience,” wrote the Wobbly organizer and songster, Ralph H. Chaplin, the workers “would refurnish and reopen their beleaguered halls, heal up the wounds of rope, tar or ‘billy’ [clubs] and proceed with the work of organization as though nothing had happened. With union cards or credentials hidden in their heavy shoes they would meet secretly in the woods at night. Here they would consult about members who had been mobbed, jailed or killed, about caring for their families ... and laying plans for the future progress of their union. Perhaps they would take time to chant a rebel song or two in low voices. Then, back on the job again ...”

But wherever those on-the-run workers crossed paths -- escaping the rain together under bridges, hiding out in the deep woods, or evading railroad yard bulls in nearby hobo jungles -- they strengthened their bonds by singing songs around a campfire. “The lumber-jack is secretive and not given to expressed emotion -- excepting in his union songs. The bosses don't like his songs ... But the logger isn't worried a bit. Working away in the woods every day, or in his bunk at night, he dreams his dream of the world as he thinks it should be -- that ‘wild wobbly dream’ that every passing day brings closer to realization” (Chaplin).

Battle of the Bands

In the Pacific Northwest, major strikes were called in towns including Missoula, Portland, and Tacoma, but it was Spokane’s brutal labor struggle in 1908 that best highlights the challenges that IWW organizers typically faced. Among the Wobbly organizers assembled in that hostile “company town” to shake things up was James H. Walsh, an experienced rabble-rousing orator. Problem was, his first attempts to stand on a corner and draw listeners in to hear about the misdeeds of the capitalist overlords were disrupted by the sudden, and cacophonous, arrival of both the local Volunteers of America and the Salvation Army Bands.

Fighting fire with fire, Walsh ended up recruiting a few ragtag volunteers -- including a hulking lumberjack named Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock who was loaded down with a big booming bass drum -- and the IWW team formed their own Industrial Union Band. Fitted out in red uniforms, and instructed to learn the music to various well-known patriotic and religious tunes, the group would prepare to launch an auditory counter-strike the next time the oppositional bands showed up.

The Little Red Songbook

Walsh’s secret weapon was a printed four-page song card -- which was sold for ten cents to passersby -- allowing other potential recruits join in the fun of singing along with lyrics whose biting political critiques were leavened by their pointed humor. “It was Walsh who hit upon the idea of using I.W.W. parodies, some based on Salvation Army tunes, to compete for the attention of crowds” (Smith). These were songs with new lyrics that mocked “pie-in-the-sky” preachers (for their habit of counseling the faithful not to question their superiors) and then cleverly grafted these words to standard Salvation Army tunes whereby, for example, “Take It to the Lord in Prayer” (aka “What A Friend We have In Jesus”) neatly morphed into “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back.” McClintock proved to be quite the tunesmith himself, eventually publishing such Wobbly favorites as “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum,” (based on the old Salvation Army warhorse, “Revive Us Again”), “The Bum Song,” and the subversively radical children’s favorite, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

“To grab the crowd’s attention,” the IWW band often “hid in a doorway while one member dressed in a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase and umbrella, yelled to the crowd, ‘Help! I’ve been robbed!’ The crowd rushed over only to hear, ‘I’ve been robbed by the capitalist system! Fellow workers ...’ He then launched into a short speech, and the makeshift band stepped out of the doorway and played their songs” (Allen).

In reaction, the City of Spokane rammed an emergency ordinance through, outlawing public speaking in the downtown area. The IWW responded to that unconstitutional measure by staging a full-on “Free Speech” fight that took the form of marathon street-corner speechifying. And so, as a series of speakers (and singers) mounted soapboxes only to be pulled down one-by-one and carted off by police, 10 more stepped up to fill their places. Within hours, hundreds of Wobblies and their sympathizers had been arrested, jails were full, the town was in an uproar, and eventually -- after 500 arrests had been made -- the city council did an about-face and the IWW relished a rare, bittersweet, victory.

The Wobblies’ good-natured songs helped make headway with public opinion and so, “at Walsh’s urging the Spokane branch undertook publishing a book-length version. An elected committee of Wobs set about compiling ditties from local talent and in 1909 came out with the first longer-format edition, featuring a red cover emblazoned with the IWW insignia. Graced with later additions from such Wobbly bards as Ralph Chaplin and Joe Hill, it evolved into the Little Red Songbook” (Honig).

Over time that hand-sized booklet -- originally titled Songs of the Workers, on the Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops -- Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, the Little Red Songbook -- was buttressed with some of Chaplin’s classics like “Up From Your Knees,” “The Commonwealth of Toil,” and the movement’s most enduring inspirational tune, 1915’s “Solidarity Forever” -- which was based on the old tune of the American Civil War song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (aka “John Brown’s Body”).

The Sweet Bye and Bye

But the greatest IWW songster was the fabled Joe Hill who wrote such gems as “Workers of the World, Awaken!,” “There Is Power In A Union,” “The Tramp,” “Casey Jones,” and “The Rebel Girl” (which Hill penned in honor of the celebrated socialist orator, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who had been among those jailed in Spokane). Another song, “Pie in the Sky” (aka “The Preacher and the Slave”) -- which was a political take on the sacred favorite, “The Sweet Bye And Bye” -- was, according to McClintock, penned on the backside of a laundry ticket by Hill who was attending a meeting at Portland’s IWW headquarters (221 W. Burnside) where it was first sung.

Convicted in a questionable Utah grocery store robbery/murder case -- one that supporters always maintained was a frame-up fixed by that state’s all-powerful “copper bosses” -- Joe Hill was famously executed by a state firing squad in 1915. An international protest campaign (that included appeals from President Wilson) was mounted in his defense, but its failure saw the singer become the quintessential American labor martyr.

Seattle’s leading folkie songsmith, Earl Robinson, penned his immortal paean, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill,” in tribute. Other admirers went further -- after Hill’s ashes were distributed to IWW halls upon his cremation, John Reed stated in 1918: “Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten ... they love and revere their singers, too ... I have met men carrying next to their hearts, in the pocket of their working clothes, little bottles with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them” (Eyerman).

“Along the coast in cookshacks flophouses jungles,” wrote John Dos Passos in his 1919, “wobblies hobos bindlestiffs began singing Joe Hill’s songs. They sang ‘em in the county jails of the State of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, in the bullpens of Montana and Arizona, sang ‘em in Walla Walla, San Quentin, and Leavenworth, forming the structure of the new society within the jails of the old” (quoted in Hampton).


All the while, as the jails filled, violent attacks against the IWW increased. In Seattle, the annual Golden Potlatch Festival was permanently cancelled after a mob of sailors and soldiers looted and torched the IWW offices in 1913, and in Everett, the Massacre of 1916 saw five Wobblies (who’d been supporting a sawmill strike) shot by hired guns at the waterfront docks. In 1917, Frank Little, a member of the IWW General Executive Board, was kidnapped from his Butte, Montana, hotel room and lynched, and that same year the U.S. Department of Justice -- reacting to the union’s position against the USA entering World War I -- raided 48 IWW meeting halls in a sweep that led to the convictions of 101 members for conspiring to hinder the draft, intimidating others during labor disputes, resulting in prison terms of up to 20 years.

In 1919 Centralia was the site of a massacre where parading veterans attacked the IWW hall, losing four members when the Wobblies defended themselves. Eleven Wobblies were tried for murder (with seven convictions) but one IWW member, Wesley Everest (who was actually also a World War I veteran), was sprung from jail, kidnapped, tortured, and lynched -- a sad tale that resulted in the 1927 ballad, “The Centralia Horror: Up and in Action,” which was published by the Washington Branch General Defense Committee.

Ballad For Americans

Over the years, Chaplin (who was imprisoned with other Wobblies at Leavenworth Penitentiary until pardoned by President Harding in 1923), remained politically active from his new home in Portland until his death in Tacoma in 1961. McClintock resurfaced in 1925 as the host of his own long-running radio show on San Francisco’s KFRC and, in 1928, as a Victor label recording star, finally passing on in 1957.

Conversely, Robinson -- “still remembered in Washington State as a modern minstrel who appeared at recitals in overalls singing his compositions, accompanied by his own guitar” [RCA Victor] -- was really just getting started. He developed friendships with other folk luminaries like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger -- and in 1939 made waves in New York City when his controversial ode to tolerance, “Ballad For Americans,” became a signature song for the great African American vocalist, Paul Robeson, and also earned Robinson the Guggenheim Music Award in 1940.

With additional topical song successes, Robinson gained a high-enough public profile that he was rewarded by being dogged by the FBI, targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and blacklisted in Hollywood during 1950s communist witch-hunt days. Still, various stars embraced Robinson’s tunes. One song that urged the acceptance of people's differences, “The House I Live In,” was performed in a 1945 Oscar-winning RKO film of the same title by a young Frank Sinatra. Another about the fateful 1954 Supreme Court desegregation case and racial harmony, “Black and White” was cut by both Sammy Davis Jr. and later, Three Dog Night. A song about hope and renewal, “Hurry Sundown” was issued by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

As the paranoia of the McCarthy Era faded, other honors accrued to Robinson: the Seattle Symphony Orchestra performed his epic composition, “A Country Called Puget Sound” -- at the new Opera House in 1963, and America’s premier folkie, Joan Baez, famously revived Robinson’s 1936 classic, “Joe Hill,” before hundreds of thousands of attendees at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

Just as the labor reform struggle would continue on well after the IWW’s heyday, so too did the influence of those early Wobbly folk singers. At mid-century the nation saw the first stirrings of what has been called the “Great American Folk Music Revival” and traces of the Wobbly poets’ sentiments -- extolling the joys of tramping, respecting the basic dignity of workers, empathizing with the plight of the downtrodden underdog, and celebrating the right to express dissent -- lived on. Recordings by the likes of Seattle folkie, Walt Robertson (1952’s “Wanderin’”), Eugene, Oregon’s Tim Hardin (1966’s “If I Were A Carpenter”), Wenatchee’s Danny O’Keefe (1972’s “Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues”), the many politically themed songs by popular local street buskers, Jim Page and Artis the Spoonman -- and perhaps even Chris Cornell’s 1990 grunge era hit, “Hunger Strike” – each reflect that shared legacy.

Sources: I.W.W. Songs: To Fan The Flames of Discontent, Nineteenth Edition (Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1923); Ralph Chaplin, The Centralia Conspiracy: The True Story of One of the Greatest Judicial Outrages of Modern Times, Revised Third Edition (Chicago: General Defense Committee, 1924); Earl Robinson, Ballad for Americans, Paul Robeson, vocals (RCA Victor album #26516 / 26517, 1940); Ralph Chaplin, Wobbly: The Rough-and-Tumble Story of an American Radical (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948); Gibbs M. Smith, Joe Hill (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969); Joe Glazer, Songs of the Wobblies, LP [#1927] liner notes, (Kensington, MD, Collectors Records, 1977); Emmett Watson “A Songwriter with a Cause,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 29, 1983, p. A-7; Emmett Watson, “Back for a Visit -- Earl Robinson Worked with Greats of Music -- Also Ivar Haglund,” The Seattle Times, September 9, 1984, p. B-1; Doug Honig, “The Day of the Wobblies!,” Seattle Weekly, May 8-14, 1985, pp. 42, 49; Wayne Hampton, Guerilla Minstrels, (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), pp. 77, 86; Linda Allen, Washington Songs and Lore (Spokane: Melior Publications 1988), p. 18; Gene Stout, " 'Joe Hill' songwriter Earl Robinson Comes Home to a State Salute,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, March 27, 1989, p. C-3; John O’Connor, Songs For Workers of Washington: An Unofficial Songbook for the 1989 State of Washington Centennial (Seattle: Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, 1989); Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, Music and Docial Movements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 57-59; Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 95-105; Robert Keller, “Interview With Wallace Stegner,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History(Summer 2003); Teri Merlyn, “Wobbly Words: The Industrial Workers of the World and Their Use of Ballads and Verse as Radical Adult Education,” pp. 4-11, paper delivered at 2003 conference of The 43rd Annual National Conference of Adult Learning Australia, November 2003, University of Technology, Sydney accessed December 8, 2005 (; Alon K. Raab, “The Centralia Massacre,” website accessed November 3, 2005 ( crawdad/213/centralia.html); Norm Diamond, with Mike Munk and the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, “Portland Labor History Tour,” Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Oregon), Political Economy Program website accessed November 16, 2005 (; Peter Blecha archives.

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