A History Of American Protest Music: Which Side Are You On?Historians in the News
tags: Protest, Folk Music
On February 16, 1931, the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association reduced their employees’ wages — already at subsistence level — by 10 percent. The miners responded by organizing a union. Union members were either fired and evicted from their company-owned homes, or beaten and killed. Soon there was a general strike. Thus began a period of harassment and violence known as the Harlan County War, or more simply, Bloody Harlan. The sheriff’s department acted as enforcers for the mine operators.
Sam Reece worked as an organizer for the National Miners Union. “Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam — that’s my husband — he was one of the union leaders,” remembered musician and activist Florence Reece. “I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn’t come home that night.”
The next morning, Florence, in her words, “tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall,” and wrote a new lyric to an old melody.
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 JH Blair
Which side are you on?
Reece couldn’t have known that what she created would become the most durable anthem of the labor movement, and a template for protest songs for decades to come. “Which Side Are You On?,” written from acute personal trauma, has been universalized, both in lyric and musical modality. After making its way out of Harlan County and into a New York recording studio, it got modified to fit the message of countless underdog protagonists.
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