In 1931, Florence Reece's husband Sam was locked in a bitter war with the coal bosses in Harlan County, Kentucky. Sam was an organizer with the United Mine Workers and had been working with local miners to demand the things the labor movement was created to demand and protect - the right to a living wage and safer work conditions. Frustrated by the ongoing bitter battle, in the middle of one dark night, Sheriff JH Blair burst into Reece's house - without a warrant - to intimidate him and terrorize his family. When they left, Florence - an activist in her own right, and a songwriter - wrote these lines:
They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man or a thug for JH Blair
Oh workers, can you stand it? Tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?
Don't scab for the bosses. Don't listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven't got a chance unless we organize.
Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?
When Florence came up with the song (set to an old folk melody - that of the ballad of "Jack Munro"), it was aimed at stirring up local miners. It wasn't intended to polarize them, but to strip the complexities of their life's work down to a simple choice: "Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?" The question was central to the labor movement of the 1930s, to much of its music, and the civil rights movement to which it eventually lent many of its activists.
A decade later, the year Pearl Harbor was attacked, a band of New York-based radicals (Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie, Frank Hamilton, Sis Cunningham, Butch Hawes, Bess Lomax, and others) recorded the song. Their group would part ways soon after (several of the guys were drafted), but the song would slowly and surely become an anthem not only for the plight of American workers, but for civil rights activists and others through the years. In 2009, Ani DiFranco was handed it as an assignment for her tribute to Seeger on his 90th birthday. As you can read below, she felt inclined to update the lyrics.
The result is a tune which tackles everything from the environment to health care, feminism, and the ongoing plight for equal civil rights. Like Reece, DiFranco presents a simple non-polarized choice. She asks: "Are we just consumers, or are we citizens / are we gonna make more garbage or are we gonna make amends?"
Sandwiched between two new original songs about making connections in a splintering world, the tune's updated version has some implicit contextual meaning. It's the most sonically severe tune on the disc - and the most sonically provocative, in the way it follows its wave of energy. But, despite lines like "I don't need no money lenders sucking on my tit / a little socialism don't scare me one bit," it is by no means the most lyrically severe. (I of course mean "severe" as a compliment...along the lines of "surprisingly articulate.") That honor would go to "Amendment." To call a topical song from DiFranco's cannon "surprisingly articulate" might seem redundant. After all, this is the gal who penned "Lost Woman Song" when she was...what? 19?
Don't be fooled by the love songs and quiet tunes about understated moments on Which Side, though. This is a fiercely politically-charged album. For example, she sings about her own shock over the desire to marry someone, then follows it with an ode to promiscuity, a tune about everything being connected, and then a hard call for ratification of the ERA. The line between the personal and political is blurred again, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with DiFranco's work.
Which Side Are You On? is due to stir up some shit come January 17 when it finds its way to stores. I'll reserve a full critical opinion of it until later, when it's had a chance to sink in. For now, though, an interview:
Kim Ruehl: I wanted to talk a little about the song "Which Side Are You On," because it’s the first song you’ve really put through the folk treatment...taking an old tune, updating it, changing the lyrics. What was it about this song that sucked you in?
Ani DiFranco: Well, I did record "Amazing Grace" once, speaking of old songs with cool histories. But, I learned this one to play at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration. That was a great, huge gathering of musical people and activists. We all got our assignments before the show. We were all playing songs Pete had either written or recorded. I got the job to play "Which Side Are You On?" with Bruce Cockburn and "There’s a Hole in the Bucket" with Kris Kristofferson. [laughs] Which was a gas. [sings: There’s a whole in the bucket dear Henry, dear Henry.] Very cute, and sexy at 70 or whatever…but I diverge.
I couldn’t help but tinker with "Which Side Are You On?". Like you say, that being the folk process. It felt like it needed some updating for the moment. I ended up recording it. Over the years of working on this record, it found its way to the top and became almost the theme of the record, so I made it the title.
KR: When it was originally written, it was pre-WWII, the US was in isolation, it was a very localized message. But your version has a much more global call. Is that what you were going for, or am I reading into it?
AD: Yeah, well it’s the 21st Century so I was going for the political now. Which is, like you say, global.
I think the title can be a little deceiving. I don’t think it’s a song about taking sides. I think it’s a call to action. In that sense, I wanted to keep the message of the song the same. Back then, like you say, it was a local – and yet global – struggle for workers’ rights, union rights – was it in the coal mines? It was Harlan County…
KR: Yes, the woman who wrote it…I believe her husband was arrested for being a labor organizer with the coal miners. It was her reaction to the business of union busting.
AD: Right. Well, if you know the original song, her verses kind of echo in my verses. I start with “They say in Orleans parish,” just to relate to her original song and keep the spirit of her alive.
KR: And you got Pete in there on banjo…
AD: Right. It was a year or more after his birthday party. I called him up and said, “Okay Pete I recorded it. Will you play on it?” He was immediately on the case in his incredibly energetic self. He said “Hang on!” and he went and got his banjo, came back to the phone, and said, “Okay, what key again? Shall we do it in the modal version like this, or should we do this version?” He’s great.
KR: You’re a very different sort of folksinger from him. What have you learned from him?
AD: I guess we have different-sounding music and songs, but I think the spirit of what we do is the same. I’m a different generation, I wear a different uniform. I have a different sound but it’s the same work. That was the vibe I got when I first started showing up at folk festivals, like Clearwater – Pete and Toshi’s festival – and found myself on stage with people like him or Utah Phillips or Tom Paxton...you know, this old guard of folk songs. They were totally welcoming to me. Like – Oh nice! New blood to carry on the traditions!
From Pete I’ve gotten so many things, I don’t know if I could even articulate them. He’s the kind of person who emanates warmth and inclusion. That connecting and healing power of music – that thing it does for people – he just embodies it. So, just being around him is being in school.
KR: Did you have any idea when you recorded this record that there was going to be a massive, nationwide people’s movement going on when you released it?
AD: No! I mean… no! When I heard about people down on Wall Street, when I first got wind of it, I was as thrilled and amazed as anyone else. I feel like the atmosphere is more hopeful now than it’s been in a long time. I’m very excited that maybe this song...you hear at so many Occupy sites, people singing different versions of this song now. I feel grateful to be in step, you know.
KR: One of the first things that music critics were writing about was – where’s the music, where are the singers? There wasn’t a lot of attention on the music of the movement til Pete Seeger showed up, and Tom Morello, and now all these people are music-ifying the movement.
AD: Yeah, I’ve shown up at a bunch of Occupy sites, but not with cameras. I thought of that afterwards - I guess the most effective thing is to try to spread the word. I’ve been in contact with the Occupy DC people who are just amazing.
I don’t know if you’ve caught wind of this 99% Deficit Proposal. This is an aside from the music, I guess, again.
But, it’s this really powerful proposal to balance the budget, create tax justice, create jobs. The work the "supercommitte" was supposed to do – end the deficit. Anyway, they’ve done it out on the streets of Washington DC. I’ve talked to them about trying to organize a lobbying day on Capitol Hill, doing a concert in DC. Hopefully we can get all kinds of political song people. The Occupiers are organizing a nationwide march on March 30. I’m sure there will be more and more musicians who will turn out to strengthen the movement.
KR: It’s funny this has brought up an old, old argument that musicians should stick to music and let politicians deal with politics. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AD: Yeah…well, luckily I don’t hear that very often. To me, it seems the item of insanity to say “It’s better to be one-dimensional in this world.” That’s what that sounds like to me. I think artists, musicians – all sorts of artists – are very empathetic people who feel things beyond themselves. I’d imagine that art and activism are very related in that way.
KR: Let’s talk about your record a little bit. It’s the 21st album in 21 years. What are you doing differently now?
AD: Taking my time. A lot of those albums came fast and furiously. These days, because I’m a mom, I’m slowing down a little bit. I spend a lot of my time being a mom.
This record took about three years to pull together, which is awesome for me. It’s a game-changer to be able to make a recording, live with it for a while, have some perspective to listen to it and say “Oh, that’s too slow!” And to try to get it right before you release it. I have a great partner in the studio now. My husband is co-producing my records with me now, and they have vastly improved by his presence, I think.
KR: You’ve got a lot of New Orleanians on the record. Why don’t you talk about your band for a minute and the people you played with here.
AD: The core band of the record is the folks I tour with. Todd Sickafoose on bass has really been my left-hand man for many years. [Drummers] Andy [Borger] and Alli [Miller] and Mike D. There are lots of guests. New Orleanians, as you say… Ivan and Cyril Neville. They graced one of the tracks on the record, which is about New Orleans or sort of set here. There’s an after-school music program called the Roots of Music. It’s a free music school for the poor kids in New Orleans. They play on "Which Side Are You On?" I love the fact that by the end of that tune, there’s just armies of children, on up to a 92-year-old Pete Seeger.
Then there are other guests like Anais Mitchell – a wonderful singer-songwriter who’s released a few records on Righteous Babe. She’s singing backup on that “J” song. It’s wonderful when you take time making a record, because you have the opportunity to call up a lot of people and get them involved.
KR: You included on this album the most explicit feminist song you’ve ever recorded. I don’t know what you could possibly say after that…
AD: Yeah I’ve had a bunch of conversations the last few years with artists who’ve told me my envelope-pushing was inspiring to them along the way. It made me start thinking of my role, and how far can you push the envelope? How far can you delve into just-say-it-ude in a song? It’s hard to write political songs for me, because the language is awkward. You have to get into a territory of language that you don’t find in song very often, so it’s tricky.
In that song “Ammendment,” I wanted to explore a direct petition for a Constitutional Amendment with nothing left out. I wanted to explore – how far can you go in politics and still have it be musical?
KR: Was there a fear of having it be too preachy, crossing the line from art to sermon?
AD: Yeah, sure. I mean, I worked and worked and worked on the words to that song to try to make it not preach. I tried to picture myself singing to my sister-in-law who’s Republican. I think she’s anti-choice, but I think she might be...wrong about herself. I so much want to make a compelling argument in favor of the ERA and the codification of abortion rights so we can take it off the political table and stop letting it be used as a device to divide people. So, I was trying to see if I could put that into the song – how far can you take this political folk song genre?
I don’t know. I mean, for me what’s interesting in art is exploration. Whether it succeeds or fails…I guess I’m not too concerned with that.
KR: As long as it’s out there…
AD: Yeah, and for me it’s a journey. It’s a writing journey. After having written hundreds of songs now, it’s a challenge to push myself and explore new territory. "How far can you go with political song?” is the new question I’m asking myself as a writer, and I'm exploring the boundaries.
KR: Does that mean there will be even more political music coming from you?
AD: Yes. Well, I think Which Side is a very political record. I guess maybe having a secure, peaceful and happy personal life now enables me to look outward more and address my society more. I’m not all wrapped up in the slings and arrows of love.
KR: Right on. Well, let’s close on a light note. What are you excited about these days?
AD: The Occupy movement, like we were talking about. I think that’s very hopeful. I hope that we can organize ourselves further and begin to evolve into articulating a vision – an alternate vision.
I’m very excited about my new record finally coming out after years and years of work. Ivan Neville, who plays on the record, we’ve been scheming up ways to play together more. And this wonderful New Orleans drummer named Herlin Riley, who’s a legendary jazz drummer here in New Orleans. We played a gig together recently and I was so excited by his musical company, so I’m looking forward to collaborating more with some new people.
Which Side Are You On? drops Jan 17, 2012. Ani will be on tour in the UK in January, with a US tour planned to start in Feb. Check her website for dates and other info.