By: Felicia M. Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX) //
When labor agitators met for marches and rallies in the early twentieth century, they sang from songbooks. Their songbooks were inexpensively printed, pocket-sized, and usually included only the lyrics because the tunes were well-known. (A song set to a familiar tune is known as a contrafact.) They sang about labor demands, encouragement and solidarity for their fellow workers, and government and industry corruption. Some songs, such as “Joe Hill” (which boasted original words and music), canonized labor saints who had been martyred for the cause. Every scandal, victory, or loss seemed to inspire a song. In 1911, for example, Joe Hill himself wrote the lyrics to “Casey Jones—the Union Scab,” to be sung to the tune of “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” just before a huge railroad worker strike. It was published for the first time the next year in The Little Red Songbook, compiled by the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Pete Seeger sings “Casey Jones—the Union Scab.”
Labor organizations themselves tended to sponsor the creation of songbooks: anonymous workers in organizations such as the IWW put together favorite songs, printed the books at union printing presses, and sold the songbooks at a low price to their members. It sounds like a simple process, but sometimes politics and pragmatic issues got in the way of preparing a songbook for publication. Such is the case of a songbook that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO) commissioned from Zilphia Horton in 1938.
Horton was an obvious choice for the commission. She was director of music at Highlander Folk School and regularly taught songs, singing, and agitprop theater there. She frequently traveled to labor hotspots, supporting strikers with her accordion and rich alto voice, and training workers on site in the use of music in protest. She also had experience putting together songbooks: by the end of 1938, at least five had been published at Highlander under her direction for her students to use.1 But what should have been a simple collection for the CIO became a project that imploded under the weight of copyright issues, personal disputes, and political panic.
The CIO and Highlander: A New Songbook
In November 1935, the CIO formed as a subcommittee of the already-established umbrella union organization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Throughout 1936 and 1937, the CIO lured more and more member unions away from the AFL, eventually becoming strong enough to split off on its own. According to Myles Horton—Zilphia’s husband, and one of the founders of Highlander—as the CIO gained strength and numbers, its attention shifted to the South, and Highlander, a regional folk school that had been educating union laborers about their rights and labor history since 1932, became the official CIO training center for the entire Southern region by 1937. Just before their first national convention in November 1938, CIO leaders—drawing on their connections with the Hortons at Highlander—asked Zilphia Horton for a songbook to share with the growing membership.
Putting together a songbook typically meant choosing favorites from pre-existing sources and adding a few new songs appropriate to contemporary politics. But Horton wanted her collection to represent national labor concerns, to be the voice of workers from around the country. So she sent out a nationwide plea for new songs: her request, specifically for new lyrics set to familiar tunes, was printed in labor magazines and newsletters throughout the country, and union bosses shared her request with their local chapters.
By October 1938, local union leaders and individual labor workers began to send her encouragement, comradely greetings and compliments, and most importantly, songs. Horton’s correspondents often greeted her as a friend. The letters, which have been preserved in the Zilphia Horton collection at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, are touching, filled with personal detail, and chronicle the lengths to which workers had gone for the labor movement. In a letter dated November 4, 1938, for example, Andrea Carson of Parowan, Utah, sent contrafact lyrics entitled “Onward Union Workers” (to be sung to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers”) and made sure to establish her own authenticity in the movement: “I have worked on the labor front for twelve years,” she boasted. Dr. Charles Calvin of Newburg, Missouri, sent two songs as well as additional poems to set as needed. “Anything I can do for the good cause gives me pleasure,” he wrote; “I write not for profit but for the good of the cause.” James Edward Chambers from Crystal City, Texas, was equally enthusiastic, sending four poems, and offering more if she would find them useful: “Nothing I can do for you is too much trouble[.] Just write when you feel like it.”
Workers sent songs of myriad topics, some text only and set to familiar tunes, others submitted as printed sheet music; submissions continued to arrive in the mail well into the next year. Horton wrote back to many of these fellow workers, in some cases thanking them for their songs, but in most cases indicating that their submissions weren’t quite what she was looking for. In the end, very few of the songs that workers submitted in 1938-1939 met her criteria. They either lacked a well-known tune to accompany their labor-oriented text, or their texts had little or nothing to do with labor and unions.
During World War Two, work on the project stalled for personal and political reasons. The birth of her two children during the war no doubt affected her productivity. The entire country rallied behind the war effort, and afterward, anything that even hinted of communism was considered suspect. The CIO—the organization that had commissioned her songbook—came under especially harsh scrutiny during and after the war because of its internal politics.
The CIO had initially gained strength enough to separate from the AFL by adopting two strategies. First, it actively recruited African-American union members, a population the AFL had routinely ignored. Second, the CIO welcomed union members with known communist or socialist leanings. In post-war America, both of these strategies came under fire. African American soldiers returned home with no more rights than they had when they left for the front. The Civil Rights movement was beginning to bubble, and labor organizations were not ready to support integration. But the more immediate problem for the CIO was the growing anti-communist movement.
In 1946, the CIO encouraged Horton to take up the songbook project once again. If the CIO’s original request in 1938 had been part of an attempt to legitimize its status as a leading union organization, in 1946 the request seems like a last gasp, a final effort to remain viable in the waning days of the labor movement. Horton returned to the project with a new enthusiasm, this time abandoning her preference for new songs and prioritizing well-known labor songs. She spent the next year corresponding with a union printer and tracking down copyright holders for the songs she wanted to include.
The songbook, finally due to come out in summer of 1948, fell apart at the last minute. Horton had received eleventh-hour permission denials that compromised the integrity of the collection; she couldn’t, in the end, include some of the songs that she deemed most important. But the project also fell victim to squabbles between the printing press (which was affiliated with the AFL) and CIO headquarters. The director of the printing press, Lyn Rorhbough, abandoned the project, citing the “poor quality of some of the lyrics” as his justification. It’s tempting to think that “poor quality” might be a euphemism for “communist”; after all, many of Horton’s songs were affiliated with communist-led labor unions. One of the songs she intended to print, for example, was “Solidarity,” a contrafact sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The new lyrics were written by Ralph Chaplin, a devout communist at that time.
Pete Seeger and the Almanacs sing “Solidarity Forever” in 1941. The video combines historical and modern footage of labor strikes and marches.
In 1947, a year before the collection fell apart, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, legislation that required union officers to sign anti-communist affidavits. Under federal pressure, the CIO began systematically ousting all of its communist members, and at the CIO convention in 1949, all communist-dominated unions were expelled from the CIO. Myles and Zilphia Horton strongly disagreed with the CIO’s capitulation to outside pressures, and this official anti-communist initiative action prompted a final split between Highlander and the CIO. By the late 1940s, Myles and Zilphia Horton had turned their attention to the next fight of the century: the Civil Rights movement.
I have argued elsewhere that Zilphia’s CIO collection wasn’t completely abandoned and became Sing Out, Brother!, a songbook she compiled for use by students at Highlander, but never officially published. Even more striking to me than this songbook’s survival under another name is the initial collection process: asking laborers far and wide to share their songs, and their overwhelming response. The names of these workers may not be known today, but their contributions illustrate the power people can have when working toward a common cause. Solidarity forever.
- There was a time in U.S. history when communism was popular, especially among artists and musicians who wanted to create art for the people. Watch this video about an art exhibit called The Red Decade. How does this video challenge what you know about communism?
- In 2006 the Smithsonian re-issued a collection of labor songs recordings. The compilation is called Classic Labor Songs. Listen to the previews of each song. How many of these tunes do you already know from other settings? Which of these songs did you already know, but did not know of their connection to the labor movement?
1 Alicia Ruth Massie-Legg, “Zilphia Horton: a Voice for Change” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 2014), 364-68.