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Various Artists

Smithsonian Folkways

Classic Labor Songs is released at a time when the movement it documents is in recess. The AFL-CIO recently broke apart because of a debate over whether and how to organize the nation’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart. Union membership has tanked since the post–Word War II years, when it peaked in 1954 at 35 percent of the workforce. In 2005, that number was down to 12.5 percent. Though a collection of folk tunes might not be enough to turn things around, the blueprint for contemporary artists to help revive the labor campaign is all here, though. Classic Labor Songs is evidence of a workers’ movement that thrived despite McCarthyism and its descendent, anti-Communism. The songs range from those intended to raise the spirits of striking and organizing workers to overt propaganda. Songs such as Paul Robeson’s stirring “Joe Hill,” compilation producer Joe Glazer’s version of “Solidarity Forever,” and John Handcox’s “Roll the Union On” are still inspirational; the New Harmony Sisterhood Band’s “Union Maid” and Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers’ “Casey Jones (Union Scab)” are good ol’ fashioned agitprop. The former’s rousing chorus of “No, you can’t scare me/I’m sticking to the union” has a strong whiff of recruitment to it; the latter makes the somewhat grand claim that Casey Jones will be shoveling sulfur in hell for daring to cross a picket line. The collection does attempt to go contemporary with Tom Juravich’s Office Space–reminiscent “VDT,” about the evils of the modern cubicle alienation, while John O’Connor’s “Carpal Tunnel” rails against repetitive stress syndrome. The record’s most well-known artist, Woody Guthrie, performs his “1913 Massacre,” which was later covered by Bob Dylan. Guthrie tells the story of a union Christmas party in Calumet, Mich., sabotaged by scabs who sowed panic by shouting “Fire!” and then barricaded the hall, leading to the trampling deaths of 73 children. “See what your greed for money has done,” sings Guthrie. The American left is much maligned the world over. But in one critical respect, our pinkos more than hold their own against the stolid suits that pass for Communist Party members in parliaments from Rome to Tokyo: American labor’s musical tradition is the world’s most sophisticated. If ever an alternative society is to be born, it will need more than simply a new way to relate to the means of production and distribution. A surrounding culture of art and music must also grow out of the same spirit of peace, cooperation, and fairness—rendering propaganda obsolete.—Ryan Grim