November-December 2008

Ten Songs That Shook the World, Part 2

By Ross Altman

Author's note: Ten Songs That Shook the World was originally published under the title, This Machine Kills Fascists: the Stories Behind Ten of America's Greatest Protest Songs. It was published in 1994, in volume 51, number 2 of the journal, The Guild Practitioner, by the National Lawyer's Guild, and edited by Jan Goodman. Ross Altman and FolkWorks are grateful for permission to republish the essay.

"The Preacher and the Slave;" the Countdown Continues:

 

5) It All Started With a Man Named Joe

Before Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, there was Pete Seeger, and before Pete Seeger there was Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly; before Woody and Leadbelly there was Joe Hill, and Before Joe Hill there was--well, there wasn't. Joe Hill, the great Wobbly bard, was truly the first modern writer of protest songs whose name we know. There were many great folk songs of protest--songs of the underground railroad like Follow the Drinking Gourd, slave spirituals such as Oh Freedom and Study War No More, antiwar songs such as Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, which came out of the American revolution, and industrial labor songs such as the Eight-Hour Day song which came out around the time of the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886. But for protest songs born of a singular creative vision and fully integrated into the labor struggle of his time, we can find no artistic forbears to Joe Hill. The Swedish immigrant who filled out his IWW red membership card in the San Pedro harbor in 1910 created a genre of folk literature.

  Who was he? Today, he is more myth than man, having attained martyrdom in 1915 by being executed by the great state of Utah, which to this day still employs a firing squad for the purpose. When Joe Hill's ashes were sent back to Wobbly headquarters in Chicago, 30,000 workers lined the streets in tribute. Before he died, he told his followers, "Don't mourn; organize," and "My will is easy to decide, for there is nothing to divide." Just before he died, for a murder which he stoutly denied having committed and which remains controversial to this day, depending on which side you are on--he wrote his last song, a love song as only Joe Hill could write a love song, to a fellow Wobbly, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He called her a "Rebel Girl," and the name stuck. She later used it for her autobiography.

She's a rebel girl, she's a rebel girl;

To the working class she's a precious pearl.

She brings courage, pride and joy

To the fighting rebel boy.

We've had girls before, but we need some more

In the Industrial Workers of theWorld,

For it's great to fight for freedom with the Rebel Girl.

Along with the song, he sent instructions on the disposal of his remains to Big Bill Haywood, legendary leader of the Western Federation of Miners and one of the founders of the Wobblies in 1906. He told Big Bill to see that his ashes were scattered in every state of the union except for one--he didn't want to be found dead in Utah.

It was Joe Hill who put the phrase "pie in the sky" in the language--in his first published, and many think his greatest, song, The Preacher and the Slave:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,

Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right.

But when asked for something to eat,

They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat by and by

In that glorious land above the sky (way up high).

Work and pray--live on hay;

You'll get pie in the sky when you die' (that's a lie.)

Soon after achieving martyrdom he achieved immortality, in the song Joe Hill, written in 1925 with words by English poet Alfred Hayes, set to music by American composer Earl Robinson:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me.

Says I, ‘But, Joe, you're ten years dead,'

‘I never died,' said he

‘I never died,' said he...

From San Diego up to Maine,

In every mine and mill

Where workers strike to win their rights,

It's there you'll find Joe Hill;

It's there you'll find Joe Hill.

 

4) The Strange Story of "Strange Fruit"

If What Have They Done to the Rain? is the gentlest of protest songs, Strange Fruit is the most horrific and terrifying. The master imagist of modern folk music--Bob Dylan--never used images to more powerful effect than this classic song about the lynching of black people in the South. The only political song in her vast repertoire, the great jazz singer Billie Holiday made this song an enduring witness to the shameful legacy of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils and less organized lynch mobs that were responsible for thousands of never-reported and unsolved murders of black citizens in the South from the 1890s to the 1930s. The great black folk and blues singer Josh White sang Strange Fruit too, and both he and Billie Holiday, each in his and her own unique style, let the song speak for itself, performing it in an understated "documentary" style that made the listener a part of the tragic scene unfolding before their mind's eye:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood at the leaves, and blood at the root.

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...

A song about black experience sung by two major black performers: one assumes that the song was written by a black artist--it was not. Published under the pseudonym of Lewis Allen, it was written by a Jewish songwriter from New York, Abraham Meeropol. Does the name ring a bell? It should. Abe and his wife, Ann Meeropol, stepped forward in June of 1953 to adopt the two orphaned sons of Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed at Sing Sing after having been convicted of giving information pertaining to the building of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. The most unsettling case to arise during the repression of the Left during the Cold War, like Joe Hill's, the Rosenberg case remains controversial even after forty years. But Abe Meeropol didn't shy away from controversy in 1932, when he wrote Strange Fruit, and he didn't shy away in 1953, when he and his wife became a part of a drama that transfixed the world. Many songwriters talk the talk; Abe Meeropol walked the walk. His other notable song expressed his faith and abiding love for the best in America-The House I Live In (with music by Earl Robinson), even as Strange Fruit had borne witness to the worst.

Those who today would try to destroy the historic ties of oppression and social activism that link Black American and Jewish experience in our history would do well to consult the way in which this unassuming Jewish songwriter gave voice to the deepest pain and most profound hopes of Black Americans. The power of his words is attested to by the fact that not only Billie Holiday and Josh White, but Paul Robeson sang his songs. And there were no other songs that told that story.

 

3) Did Pete Seeger Help Lyndon Johnson Write His Most Famous Speech?

The most compelling picture to come out of the student uprisings in Tian An Men Square is of a single man confronting a street full of tanks--but the picture that inspired me to write a song about the Tian An Men Square massacre was of a student holding up a sign that said, "We Shall Overcome":

My brothers and my sisters,

Don't give in to despair;

Seeds you plant today may bloom

In a field you know not where.

Who'd have thought, all those years ago,

When we marched for freedom here,

They'd be singing 'We Shall Overcome'

In Tian An Men Square.

[Tiananmen Square, by Ross Altman; (c) 1991 Grey Goose Music (BMI)]

Now a worldwide freedom song, We Shall Overcome had its beginning as a slave spiritual, I'll Be All Right Some Day. In the 1930s, it became a labor song, We Will Overcome, and was used by the tobacco growers in North Carolina. Guy Carawan, who in the 1960s was collecting freedom songs from the Georgia Sea Islands as well as on the mainland, slowed it down to give it its anthem-like quality. Pete Seeger, who had spent a year at Harvard before taking to the road with Woody Guthrie, used his brief encounter with an Ivy League education to make one remarkable change in the title--he upgraded the simple prediction "will" to the future imperative "shall," as in We Shall Not Be Moved. Pete also sang it for someone more influential than an A and R man at Columbia records--Martin Luther King. Once Dr. King picked it up, it became the anthem of the civil rights movement. When Lyndon Johnson quoted the line as he ended his famous speech urging the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he placed special emphasis on the "shall" that Pete Seeger inserted. He would have been amazed to discover that this "unacknowledged legislator of the world" and most American of artists had once been blacklisted as a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

 

2) Bob Dylan Wrote Both the Greatest Anti-War and the Greatest Civil Rights Song of the Sixties

Peace and freedom--the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement. These were the two fountainheads of protest in America in the 1960s. The antiwar movement came later and adapted many of the tactics of the civil rights movement, as well as its songs. (And both of these movements in turn derived both tactical and musical inspiration from the labor movement of the 1930s. To take but the most obvious example: The student sit-ins were modeled on the sit-down strike in the auto industry in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. Members of the Lawyers Guild can be especially proud, since the man who founded the Lawyers Guild in 1937 was also the songwriter who wrote the Sit Down! song that accompanied the strike. Maurice Sugar's other well-known Depression-era classic was The Soup Song.)

Bob Dylan's great civil rights song is, of course, Blowing in the Wind. It's not his angriest, or even his most poignant; for these one would choose, respectively, Only a Pawn in Their Game, the stark account of Medgar Evers' murder, and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, again a song about the murder of a black person, this time the housekeeper to the heir of one of Baltimore's wealthiest families, William Zan Zinger, "who owned a tobacco farm of 600 acres."

But Blowing in the Wind is his most enduring--look at the simplicity of the first lines, How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

It has the ring of truth. It should; it has two powerful poetic antecedents directly traceable to Black American experience and folk music. The first is the classic Black American folk ballad, John Henry, and its signature line,

Lord, a man ain't nothing but a man

(which also echoes Robert Burns' great poem, A Man's a Man for A'that"). The second comes straight out of black blues singer Big Bill Broonzy's song, When Will I Get to be Called a Man? (Do I Have to Wait to be 93?), written in 1946:

I worked in the army

And levee gangs, too.

A black man's a boy,

Don't care what he can do

I wonder when, I wonder when,

I wonder when will I get to be called a man?

Do I have to wait to be 93?

Now look at the opening of the second verse of Blowing in the Wind:

How many years can a mountain exist

Before it's washed to the sea?

How many years can some people exist

Before they're allowed to be free?

And finally the third verse:

How many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

The cumulative power of these telling images all reinforce the basic question of the civil rights movement, the question that opens the song, and in refusing to answer the questions for us, forces us to answer it for ourselves.

Now, let's look at Bob Dylan's greatest antiwar song--is it Masters of War (even Jesus would never forgive what you do or With God On Our Side (If God's on our side, He'll stop the next war) or A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, which he said was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the sense that he thought he might not have the time to write all the songs he wanted to write, so he put it all into one song. He did put it all into one song, but not that song.

Look again at Blowing in the Wind. The second line of the first verse:

How many seas must the white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

And the third:

How many times must the cannonballs fly

Before they're forever banned?

magically fusing an image from the Civil War (cannonballs) with an image from the ban-the-bomb era he grew up in. And now look ahead to the last line of the song:

How many deaths will it take til he knows

That too many people have died?"

again an image from the antiwar movement--in 1962, before there was an antiwar movement. Bob Dylan wrote the great civil rights song of the 1960s and the great peace song of the 1960s, and they are both Blowing in the Wind. Pete Seeger said, in speaking of Woody Guthrie, that any fool can get complicated; it takes genius to attain simplicity. In Blowing in the Wind, the most complex song-poet of the modern era attained simplicity.

 

1) The National Anthem of Protest Songs: "This Land is Your Land"

Don't blame Woody Guthrie for the fact that This Land is Your Land has evolved by common consent into the middle-of-the-road, offends-nobody folk anthem of the modern era. Its origins as a protest song are clear. In 1940, when Woody first wrote it, he was protesting not injustice, slavery, war, or economic oppression--he was protesting the sanctimonious and self-congratulatory patriotism of God Bless America, which Kate Smith was singing every time he turned on the radio. Irving Berlin's wartime anthem did not sit well with Woody: "Hell's bells," he said, "I'm going to write my own patriotic song, if only so I don't have to listen to God Bless America." With that in mind, he wrote the first version of This Land is Your Land, except Irving Berlin's fingerprints were all over it--he called it, God Blessed America For Me. So, he put it away for six months, when the true last line of the song came to him: This land was made for you and me. Then, it was Woody's song. In fact, when Pete Seeger first heard it, he didn't think much of it-"one of his lesser efforts," Pete recalls thinking. But the song grew on him, and on a lot of other people, too.

By the time Woody's son Arlo was in grade school in the early 1950s, Woody was already in and out of hospitals for the illness that they had not even diagnosed, that killed his mother and would eventually kill him--Huntington's Chorea. And This Land is Your Land was already in the school books. One time, Arlo came home, crushed that his "show and tell" at school that day had been ruined. He had come prepared to sing his father's song, This Land is Your Land, and didn't get through the first chorus before all the students were singing it with him. They already knew it! Arlo told his father that his "show and tell" hadn't gone very well and asked Woody for help. "Sing it again tomorrow," Woody offered. "I'll teach you the verses they left out of the school books."

You see, the man that Alan Lomax called "a rusty-voiced Homer," and "the Dust Bowl Balladeer," the man who wrote:

some rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen (Pretty Boy Floyd)

and:

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,

Wherever people ain't free--

Wherever folks are fighting for their rights,

That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma,

That's where I'm a-gonna be.

(The Ballad of Tom Joad)

did more than praise the gulf-stream waters and the redwood forests and "the sparkling sands of her diamond desert" in his great song.

The verses he taught his son harken back to the Wobblies and Joe Hill and forward to Bob Dylan and civil rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama:

In the middle of the cities, by the shadow of the steeple,

By the relief office, I saw my people.

They stood there hungry, I stood there thinking,

'This land was made for you and me'

As I go walking my freedom highway,

Nobody living can ever stop me.

Nobody living can make me turn back;

This land was made for you and me.

[And most telling of all:]

As I went walking out on the highway

I saw a sign say, ‘No Trespassing.'

But on the other side, it didn't say nothing-

That side was made for you and me."

A Personal Note

Fifteen years ago, before I started down my own road as a folk singer and songwriter in the tradition of Woody and all the others who are honored in this look back at American protest music and the movements for social change which they have inspired and been inspired by, I found a bumper sticker that said, "This Land is Your Land," in the little town of Lincoln, Illinois, where I was teaching English and Speech and directing Reader's Theater at the local college. The bumper sticker was in the window of the real estate office in town, and on my way out of town they gave it to me. It was the theme slogan of the National Board of Realtors that year and was posted on every "For Sale" sign for miles around.

I stuck it on my guitar case, where it belonged. Then, I took off down the other side of the road, the side that belongs to you and me. That's the side I'm still on.

ISSUE EDITOR'S NOTE from the original publication of this essay:

Songs and song-writers have played an important role in the same movements for social change as the NLG. The third article in this issue recalls some of those movement songs and song-writers, from Joe Hill to Bob Dylan--with a nod to Maurice Sugar, Guild Founder, Labor Lawyer--and Songwriter. The article was written by Ross Altman, a folksinger whose father, George T. Altman was a long-time member of the National Lawyers Guild, and an "Unfriendly Witness" before HUAC who refused to "name names"-losing all of his clients as a result.

Ross describes himself in his song Red Diaper Baby Boomer: He says that he had

your typical Un-American childhood, filled with love, peace and freedom and brotherhood

I blame my parents for everything, if it hadn't a been for them

I'd be living in a condo, driving a Mercedes, and working for IBM.

But I heard Paul Robeson sing Joe Hill when I was three . . .

[By Ross Altman © 1992 Grey Goose Music (BMI)].

Besides being a music historian, and a Ph.D. in Literature, Ross Altman is one of the finest lyricists writing today, writing songs which champion most of the issues which Members of the National Lawyers Guild are currently fighting for, including the Rights of Gays, the Disabled, Civil Rights, etc.

--Jan Goodman, Issue Editor of The Guild Practitioner volume 51, number 2 spring 1994

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in Modern Literature. He is President of the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club and a member of Local 47 of The AFM. He has recorded ten albums of original songs, one of classic labor songs, and one with Katy Rydell) of traditional American folk songs. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  

All Columns by Ross Altman