Morning Music: Florence Reece

Florence ReeceI continue to be appalled by the fact that over the past 60 years, the capitalist class has managed to get the working class to turn against itself and see the world from the perspective of the rich. The first thing that most people think of when they hear the word “union” is “violence.” But the violence was first and predominantly caused by the capitalists. And to this day, no one questions but that companies should be able to organize themselves. But the idea that workers should be allowed the same right is disputed. The truth is that the rich will one day regret what they are doing to our society. They ought to be able to give a little to get a lot. But right now, they can take a lot and get a lot more. So they are.

In the early 1930s, the Harlan County War took place — an actual armed conflict between coal miners on one side and the coal mine owners (with the complete assistance of local law enforcement) on the other. It was only ended when state and federal troops were sent in to disarm the miners. This is the way it always is: the executive and the judiciary take the side of capital. So many workers lost their lives in the struggle. But today, workers who benefit from that struggle see them as the aggressors. It’s incredibly sad.

Florence Reece was the wife of Sam Reece, an organizer with the United Mine Workers, during the Harlan County War. After being terrorized by the local sheriff, JH Blair, she wrote “Which Side Are You On?” to the tune of the hymn “Lay the Lily Low.” It is saying that you have to pick a side in the struggle: “They say in Harlan County; There are no neutrals there; You’ll either be a union man; or a thug for JH Blair.” It went on to become one of the great songs of the labor movement. Here it is sung by Natalie Merchant with a nice photo montage:

6 thoughts on “Morning Music: Florence Reece

  1. Great. I looked lazily for Joe Hill’s song “There Is Power In A Union” (Hill was a reporter who covered the mine wars, then became inspired to write the song.) All I could find was Billy Bragg doing a nice, albeit changed-words and changed-melody version. There’s an old guy doing the old version but it’s static images, not live. Too bad, that’s also an important song from the period.

  2. Another great song in this vein is Pete Seeger’s “Talking Union”. I also recommend watching the outstanding movie” Matewan” by John Sayles.
    It stars James Earl Jones, Chris Cooper and many other fine actors. It really gives you a feel for what it was like working in the mines a century ago. The clip provided here was very good. I really liked the montage of photos.

    • That is a terrific movie, Norm! I’ll pass back “Harlan County, USA,” the documentary about a coal strike circa 1970. Really emotional stuff.

      • That is a great film. And it does have a brief clip with Florence Reece singing the song with a large group of workers.

    • Maybe I’ll do a series of union songs. That would be good.

      I know Matewan well. I studied it a lot when I first got into film as an example of how one makes an expansive film for almost no money. But the (true) story is great too. It should be shown in grammar school. But of course, that would be seen as too political, even while the same children are shown documentaries about all the great marine life that grows on abandoned oil rigs.

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