Solidarity forever. Our union makes us strong.
Back in January, thanks to almost 100 kind Kickstarter backers, I took what could be considered my first “research trip” to collect information about the life and work of Zilphia Horton for a book-length biography I’m writing.
Over the course of five days, I pored through Zilphia’s file at the Tennessee State Archive in Nashville, then spent a very long day devouring the archive at Highlander Research and Education Center (HREC) in New Market. Much of what was contained in the Nashville archive were letters between Zilphia and various union leaders and songwriters around the country. She was gathering songs and information for a book of labor tunes which could be copied, excerpted, turned into more portable song sheets, and distributed across all CIO-affiliated unions (and, really, to anyone anywhere – Zilphia’s allegiance was to getting people singing more than it was to any specific union). The book was published in 1939 and the introduction included a letter from the sitting president of the CIO who, inspired by Zilphia’s collection, declared that a “singing army is a winning army.”
The reason this book worked back then was that there was already a working cannon of songs in everyone’s subconscious. People had grown up singing with their families, in their communities, at their churches – hymns and American folk songs. Zilphia drew on this to make a song book which people could immediately relate to. According to her letters, she was looking for songs where people had written new lyrics to old melodies. Due to budget restrictions, she didn’t have the time, money, or room to include sheet music. And, anyway, what good is sheet music on a picket line? She insisted the songs be printed only as lists of lyrics, with each attributed to a traditional hymn or folk melody. There was a CIO version of “My Country Tis of Thee.” She’d solicited “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ye” from Woody Guthrie (of course I about shit my pants reading the letters back and forth between her and Woody). Et cetera.
One song in particular seemed to engender quite a bit of investigatory work on her part. She was trying to get to the bottom of a song she called simply “Solidarity!” She wrote letters to a number of union locals trying to track down the source of the song, or any stories anyone had about the first time they’d heard the song or when and where it had been used on a picket. One day, she received a letter from the song’s author – Ralph Chaplin. He’d had the song titled otherwise (I’d have to look through my notes to find his original letter, which I don’t have the time to do right now). But Zilphia preferred the simple and direct exclamation of “Solidarity!” for the title. It’s since become known as “Solidarity Forever,” of course, and it’s set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” – a folk song people knew back then. Because people were raised singing folk songs.
When I talked to Zilphia’s daughter recently about the Occupy movement (before Pete Seeger showed up in Columbus Circle), we were talking about why people weren’t singing these songs. She mentioned she’d been to a demonstration ten years or so ago where the unions had actually passed out song sheets but nobody knew the songs except for the members of the unions. Friends she’d talked to who were arrested that day the NYPD swept up 700 Occupy activists from the Brooklyn Bridge said nobody sang in the cop cars after being arrested; nobody sang in the jails.
Soon after Zilphia died, students she’d worked with and those they’d worked with in turn famously sang so much in their jail cells that the guards either got fed up with the singing or came to like it. It was one of the things which cemented solidarity, which kept people empowered and motivated. That was the Civil Rights movement, though. Occupy is something else.
Still, today, in Oakland, California, the folks on the front lines of their Occupy movement have called for a General Strike, which means a call for everyone in every industry to strike together. As their neighbor city of San Francisco has passed a resolution in support of the Occupy movement, Oakland is asking all cops – both on duty and off – to report to work today regardless of whether they personally support the movement. And so the long history of labor movements continue – bosses requiring workers to be scabs, “or else.”
Anyway, if the Oakland activists manage to pull this off, it’ll be the first time anyone in this country has done so since 1946. The last General Strike was also in Oakland, and happened because workers in a couple of department stores were being screwed by their employers. Every union in town joined them for a strike for a day. There was music and dancing and a general celebratory atmosphere.
I haven’t found any specific note to this end, but I’m going to imagine they sang – at some point – “Solidarity Forever.”
This is just a small anecdote about the place music has always had in dissent in this country. Normally, something of this magnitude, I would have taken the day off in solidarity with the general strike and joined my local Occupy movement just to increase the numbers and visibility by one. After all, increasing the numbers by one for the sake of visibility is often the best any of us can do. Every movement is made by thousands upon thousands of singular people. If any one of them didn’t show up – if several ones of them didn’t bother showing up – the movement would be less impactful. Yet today I’m not striking. My employer doesn’t exactly clean up in the operation of this site. It’s an understatement to say we’re both underpaid. Yes, perhaps that’s more of a reason for us both to be carrying signs today but, as a writer, I have a peculiar opportunity to occupy my place of employment today; to use this platform to tell a story which might endear you a little further to the plight of this particular movement.
After all, like the Oakland strikers in 1946 (who may have very likely been toting the songbook Zilphia compiled), like those who sang “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” throughout the 30s and 40s, like those who sang across their jail cells for civil rights a half-century ago, the Occupiers are struggling toward freedom and justice. In this case, it’s the entirely reasonable assertion that the average American citizen deserves at least as much of a say – if not more – in her or his government as that of corporations. It’s working. Bank of America backed off a new unfair fee structure. That $5 fee may seem like a small victory, but for the growing class of America’s working poor, it adds up quickly.
That it should take more than a month of demonstrations in cities across the world and over 3,000 arrests in the US (not to mention an Iraq veteran seriously injured by a tear gas canister in Oakland) to do away with a measly $5 fee should be a lesson to all of us. It takes a whole hell of a lot of solidarity to turn a wheel. I’ll stop preaching now and let you get back to the music. How about we start with these verses:
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.