The Power of Song
Originally posted on Medium
July 16th, 2017
Some decades ago, I went to see a Sunday morning Socialist Film Co-op showing of a film about the Wobblies at the Renoir in London. In the discussion afterwards, Tony Benn voiced this criticism: the problem with the Wobblies, he said, was that they failed to form a political party, unlike in Britain where the Unions gave birth to the Labour Party. To which I was tempted to reply that the problem with the Labour Party is that it doesn’t have any songs, apart, of course, from The Red Flag which it insists on singing to the wrong tune.
The Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, were anarcho-syndicalists, believers in the one big union and the one big strike that would break the power of the bosses for ever. For twenty years at the beginning of the 20th century, they were a singing crusade on behalf of the poorest, most exploited workers in America: loggers, railroad mechanics, copper miners, hop-pickers, textile workers , the unskilled ‘working stiffs’ despised by the craft unions of the American Federation of Labour, immigrants many of them, ill-educated and ill-organised. Songs transformed them, elevated them, organised them, united them, enthused them with hope and courage. They took popular songs and ‘Starvation Army’ hymns and turned the words inside out, sharpening them with a subversive irony. They rolled the language, humour and experience of life at the bottom into something exuberant and immensely singable — not poetry perhaps but to the point.
Praise boss when morning workbells chime
Praise him for bits of overtime
Praise him whose wars we love to fight
Praise him fat leech and parasite.
With no mass media, no technology, no money, nothing but their own voices, their own energy and imagination and the Little Red Songbook to ‘fan the flames of discontent’, they spread the songs from Spokane, where they triumphed in the fight for free speech, down to the copper mines of Bisbee, Arizona, and across to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they won the famous Bread and Roses strike of textile workers in 1912. They sang in meeting halls and soup kitchens; they sang on freight trains and at the funeral of Joe Hill in Chicago; they sang on street demonstrations and in prison cells. “Sing!” Mother Jones told the women in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, when they’d been put in prison for demonstrating during a miners’ strike. “Sing the whole night long and don’t stop for anyone … Just you all sing and sing.” And so they did, driving the sheriff to distraction until he released them.
The power of song. For those at the bottom, for those with nothing much else but their own voices (and, it would appear, nothing much to sing about) song has always been important. Because song, as any football fan knows, has the power to make us feel less alone, to unite us, to create a sense of solidarity. Think of songs like We Shall Overcome, Which Side Are You On? Solidarity Forever, El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido, H Bomb’s Thunder, You’ll Never Walk Alone, Land of Hope and Glory or the Ulster battle hymn, Oh God Our Help in Ages Past. (I include the last two to point out that the left doesn’t have a monopoly on this sort of song.) Surely the Diggers on St George’s Hill sang to keep up their spirits as they faced attack from the soldiers.
Your houses they pull down, stand up now, stand up now,
Your houses they pull down, stand up now.
Your houses they pull down to fright poor men in town
But the gentry must come down and the poor shall wear the crown
Stand up now, Diggers all.
And listening to the fiercely joyous song of the French Revolution, La Carmagnole, it’s not difficult to understand how it would have strengthened the resolve of the ‘sans culottes’ to bring down the monarchy and the aristocracy.
Dansons La Carmagnole
Vive le son, vive le son
Dansons La Carmagnole
Vive le son
All revolutions and social movements have their songs — the Chartists, the Suffragettes, anti-nuclear protesters, Greenham Common women, anti-apartheid demonstrators, Civil Rights activists. The best and most liberating bubble up from below. Those movements where singing and songmaking are a spontaneous activity (as opposed to movements where singing is part of a disciplined ritual imposed from above) tend to be non-authoritarian and non-hierarchical, as the Wobblies were. They have, like the Wobblies, a clear-cut simplified view of the world and of who the enemy is. And they have a shared vision. For the IWW, the strike was never an end in itself but a means to the transformation of society into a workers’ commonwealth. This vision of a new world, which merges with the hobo’s dream of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, lies at the heart of their songwriting.
Which raises the question of why in the labour movement in England (I mean England, not Scotland or Ireland) there is no body of song equivalent to that produced by the Wobblies. There is no tradition of politically conscious singable songs like those generated by the Appalachia coal-mining communities in the 1930s as they battled to become unionised: songs like Aunt Molly Jackson’s I Am a Union Woman, Sarah Ogun Gunning’s I Hate the Capitalist System, Jim Garland’s I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister and Florence Reece’s Which Side Are You On? There are industrial folk songs, songs about hard times and poverty, pit disasters and evictions, strikes and lock-outs. They linger on in areas where the tradition is strongest, as in north-east England, or in pockets of the folk revival, but they never entered the mainstream of the labour movement. Perhaps because they lacked a consciously political perspective or because they were thought to be lacking in high seriousness, they never found favour with the decision-makers in labour organisations.
At about the same time as Jim Connell was composing The Red Flag, Tommy Armstrong, the famous pit poet of Durham County, was writing a very different sort of song about the Durham lock-out of 1892. Raising the scarlet standard high was not uppermost in Armstrong’s mind; more to the point, as far as he was concerned, was the threat to the masters of a severe lashing and boils on the backside if they didn’t mend their ways.
The politically conscious songs tended to be written by literary gents. Songs for Socialists published by the Fabian Society in 1912 contains a number of these labour anthems. (Jim Connell was certainly not a literary gent but his song belongs in that mould.) Ye sturdy sons of labour, they exhort. Awake! Arise! Bear the flag unfurled and the banner aloft! March forward side by side to battle like a mighty river for Liberty, Brotherhood, Justice, the Cause. Even the best of them, by William Morris, Edward Carpenter and Ernest Jones, though technically competent, are stodgy, humourless and virtually unsingable. The working classes may have dutifully sung them when the formal occasion demanded but they never really took to them, preferring something more earthy and less worthy. So the anthems were left to gather dust and moulder, apart from The Red Flag that lives on, embarrassing generations of Labour Party activists and MPs who can’t quite get their tongues round it. And reverting to Jim Connell’s original sprightly Irish tune, The White Cockade, (banned, I imagine, by some bureaucrat from the Social Democratic Federation for being too lightweight) does not, despite Billy Bragg’s efforts, get round the problem of its archaisms and literary pretensions.
So now there is a silence at the heart of the labour movement. Historically, songs to give heart and hope to women and men on strike have always been written.The women’s songbook, My Song Is My Own, has collected some of them, like the Idris Strike Song of 1911 and the Song for the Trico Women Workers, sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body on the picket line during the successful equal pay strike of 1976.
The management are not prepared to give us what we ask
They’re saying that they can’t believe we’re equal to the task
But if men can do what we do then their argument’s a farce
So we want equal pay.
Equal pay for women workers
Equal pay for women workers
Equal pay for women workers
We want equal pay.
But there isn’t a pool of singable shared songs to draw on when spirits need refreshing on demonstrations, picket lines, in political meetings and on the barricades. Nowadays on demonstrations there are chants and slogans but little if any singing despite the efforts of the political choirs.
Wouldn’t it enliven a Labour Party branch meeting if the first item on the agenda was a twenty minute sing-song? Somehow I doubt it ever happens. When I joined the mass pickets outside Grunwick during the strike of 1977, I didn’t hear one song, not even The Red Flag — except, on one occasion, the Trade Union leader, Norman Willis, entertained us with a rendering of The Man That Waters the Workers’ Beer. Nobody joined in. On one mass picket, I dusted off my banjo and went with Hackney Music Workshop to encourage the assembled thousands to sing (mostly the standard American solidarity songs). There was polite attention and applause. But no singing. Perhaps, now that Jeremy Corbyn has activated the grassroots, new songs will spring up and become common currency. Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn!
The power of song. In Soweto, women and children sang as they were shot down by the police. The Vietcong carried songsheets into battle with them. Civil Rights demonstrators in the States sang as they were being attacked by Alsatian dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs because it made them feel less alone, less afraid. The importance of the new song movement in Chile can be gauged by the lengths the junta went to to destroy it. Colonising powers have always attempted to root out indigenous music and culture. A defeated people does not sing. Perhaps the converse is also true — a movement that has no songs is already defeated.