Why do certain songs get under our skin? How is it that they seem to express the way we are feeling or speak to the times we are living in? The old labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” has been such a song for me. I’ve been playing it, singing it, and listening for new versions, ever since I first heard Florence Reese perform it in Barbara Kopples’ documentary film Harlan County USA (1976).
According to John Steinbeck, in his introduction to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, “The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement and the one statement which cannot be destroyed. . . . You can learn more about people by listening to their songs than in any other way, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations.”
Florence Reese, a thirty-year-old miner’s wife in Eastern Kentucky, wrote “Which Side Are You On?” in the midst of the coal wars of the early 1930s. Sung to the traditional tune of “Lay the Lily Low,” it spoke of the “good news” of the union, the violence of the gun thugs, the hardships for workers and families, and the necessity of deciding “which side are you on.” Since then the song has traveled, as good struggle songs will, from one place and time to another, picking up new verses as well as different vocal accents and musical styles, while the moral challenge posed in the chorus has remained unchanged.
According to George Ella Lyon’s beautiful picture book Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song (2011) Reese’s original verses included:
Come all of you poor workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
Which side are you on?
If you go to Harlan County
There is no neutral there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
They say they have to guard us
To educate their child
Their children live in luxury
Our children almost wild
Gentlemen, can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?
My daddy was a miner
He’s now in the air and sun
He’ll be with you fellow workers
Till every battle’s won
The verse which evokes extreme class division in the image of the children suggests that Reese wrote as a mother as well as a union supporter, while the verse about her father indicates she wrote also as a daughter, within a proud family tradition. (To be “in the air and sun” implied to be blacklisted and therefore unable to work underground in the mines.)
The story goes that Reese wrote her song on the back of a wall calendar while her husband Sam, an organizer for the National Miners Union (NMU) was on the run from Sheriff Blair’s deputies. Of her motivation for it, she has said: “Some people say, ‘I don’t take sides—I’m neutral.’ There’s no such thing as neutral. You have to be on one side or the other. In Harlan Country there wasn’t no neutral. If you wasn’t a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be.”
With its message of resistance and hope, the song quickly became a picket-line standard. As Jim Garland, another songwriter-organizer from that 1931-32 strike and lockout in “Bloody Harlan,” explains: “In the course of such fights, songs expressed people’s feelings in a manner that allowed them to stand together. . . . Rather than walking up to a gun thug and saying, ‘You’re a bastard,’ which might have resulted in a shooting, we could express our anger much more easily in unison with song lyrics.”
“Which Side Are You On?” began its travels out of Kentucky when Garland and his cousin Aunt Molly Jackson took the song to New York City where they held concerts to raise funds for the striking miners and their starving families. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie learned it and included it in performances of the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, singing Reese’s original lyrics.
The first rewriting of the song I have discovered occurred when Pete Seeger adapted it as a recruiting tool for another “NMU,” the National Maritime Union, which was supported in 1947 by the Peoples’ Music collective. Seeger’s version adds some critical humor to the call for solidarity:
The men who hate our union’
They say we dodged the draft
Not one of those damn liars
Knows his forward from his aft.
So all nonunion seamen
Who listen to my song
Unite with us, fight side by side
And make our union strong.
Like Reese, Seeger includes verses that point to a family legacy of work and struggle:
My daddy was a seaman
And I’m a seaman too
But poor old daddy sailed the seas
Without the NMU
In days before the union
I heard my daddy say
‘Twas hardtack for your breakfast
And peanuts for your pay.
In the 1960s, the song was picked up again and repurposed for the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Singers, formed in 1962 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, rewrote everything but the chorus to address the local struggle in Fulton County, Georgia. In gospel style, with preacher-like lead vocals and choral responses, they sang:
Oh tell me Mayor Allen
Where is your heart?
We are children of
The same almighty God.
Come all you negro people
Lift up your voices and sing
Will you join the Ku Klux Klan
Or Martin Luther King?
Reese herself, now in her 70s, took the song to the Brookside (KY) strike of 1972 – 73, where she was filmed for the first time singing it in Kopples’ award-winning film. After listening to the multi-voiced versions of the Almanac Singers and Freedom Singers, Reese’s quavering a capella rendering at a hushed union rally is powerful [You Tube link]. Whereas in 1932 — before New Deal legislation secured the right to organize — the miners lost their fight and the union was driven from the coalfields, the Brookside strike ended in a UMWA victory in which local women played a leading role.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Londoner Billy Bragg rewrote the song to address the bitter British Miners’ Strike of the mid-1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s relentless attack on labor rights. Bragg performed his song at rallies and on picket lines, in punk-folk style with jagged electric guitar accompanying his broad cockney vocals [YouTube link]:
It’s hard to explain to a crying child
Why her Daddy can’t go back
So the family suffer, but it hurts me more
To hear a scab say “Sod you, Jack”
I’m bound to follow my conscience
And do whatever I can
But it’ll take much more than the union law
To knock the fight out of a working man
Many other musicians have performed Reese’s original lyrics, reinterpreting them by shifting tonalities and tempos: Jamestown (NY)-raised Natalie Merchant has produced an elegiac soft-folk rendering and Boston’s the Dropkick Murphys an angry post-punk performance, while Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine sings a version with elements of Merchant’s pacing and the Murphys’ intensity. There’s even a karaoke version by the PPK Band!
The most recent and, to my ears, compelling rewriting of “Which Side Are You On?” comes from Ani DiFranco on her 2012 CD of the same name. She records a version first performed in 2009 at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden. The six-minute track opens with a Seeger banjo solo, but after that homage to the song’s origins, it quickly gathers momentum and instruments, including Occupy-style drumming, as it addresses the current fight-back against corporate greed, political corruption, environmental destruction, and endless war. If the song lacks the sharp class-consciousness of Reese’s original verses, it certainly gains in breadth of political critique and rousing energy. And in some verses it re-genders the song, citing a different family legacy:
my mother was a feminist
she taught me to see
that the road to ruin is paved
so, let the way of the women
from plunder and pollution
let mother earth be free
There is no space here to trace more of the song’s musical and political border-crossings — a friend heard it recently during an NPR report on rallies against the Greek government’s austerity measures. Most of the versions mentioned above can be heard on iTunes and/or YouTube. So what is it about the words and tune of “Which Side Are You On?”— written in a Kentucky coal camp at a time of mass poverty and class violence—that allows it to speak in so many different accents and contexts about the key contradictions of our time?
Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.