Performed by Pete Seeger
Written by Ralph Chaplin (and updated by Pete Seeger)
When the union’s inspiration
Through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.
This song, set to the tune of abolitionist standard "John Brown’s Body", was written in 1915 by Ralph Hosea Chaplin, a Chicago anarco-syndicalist and Wobbly who supported Emiliano Zapato in Mexico and is also credited with coming up with the black cat icon of radical unionism. Here he is in a self portrait:
This cover starts out pretty serious and traditional until Pete Seeger “breaks it down” and begins to “bust a rhyme” about the news of the day. His “talking blues” reveal the optimism of the progressive movement in the late forties (hard to imagine in our times), when the UAW had triumphed over the big car makers, union membership was nearing its peak, and factory workers could support a big happy family with one parent working eight hours a day.
It’s a mighty long time since the early days
when it took a bunch of pickets to get a raise
we built a union 10 million strong
we tought the bosses how to get along
with the working class… more respectful like!
But at the same time, Seeger warns his postwar labor comrades to turn their attention to national politics, to the racists like US Representative John E Rankin fighting for Jim Crow and shilling for war profiteers (or what would soon be called the Military Industrial Complex).
10 million workers could make a hell of a fuss!
Change Congress. Make em respect us…
like management does.
Ah, the good old days.
Pete Seeger (above, the white guy singing his song “We Shall Overcome”) was the son of Charles Louis Seeger Jr. a Harvard scholar who helped invent the field of ethnomusicology. A New Yorker steeped in a tradition of yankee Puritanism and Ivy League intellectualism, he developed a love of “hillbilly music” and the banjo partly through his friend Alan Lomax. Seeger would go on to become the country’s quintessential protest singer, ruling over the Greenwich Village folk scene well into the ’60s, when young guns like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs found it necessary to buck his influence.
Seeger was a bit of a crossover artist, who made the rough sounds of poor country folk accessible to the cosmopolitan East Coast set. In later decades his singalong style can get a bit too “cumbaya” for my tastes, but, like a true music snob, I’m here to tell you that his early stuff is quite good. Here’s another of his talking blues about unions that could still serve as a how-to for organizers like the ones in our film (it’s also frequently hilarious).