Essential Labor Songs

A look at the music of the American labor movement

Folk music has a long relationship with labor struggles, and labor unions in particular. From the Baptist hymns adapted by song leaders and agitators like Joe Hill and Zilphia Horton, to the IWW song handbook, to the protest tunes of the Almanac Singers and, more recently, Billy Bragg, here's a peek at some of the most notable, most fun, and most poignant labor tunes in American folk music history.

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"Bread and Roses"

Utah Phillips - We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years
Utah Phillips - We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years. © Philo

This song, originally written by James Oppenheim, absolutely encompasses the sentiments involved with labor struggles. It's  based on the old phrase "bread and circuses" (as in, feed the people and entertain them, and they will do as you say). In this song, the workers are basically saying, "feed us, yes, but give us a quality life as well." From the turn-of-the-20th-century labor movement to the evolving demands of today's workers, the common theme is always honest work for honest pay, a sentiment summed up nicely in Oppenheim's song. 

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"Solidarity Forever"

Classic Labor Songs - Solidarity Forever
Classic Labor Songs - Solidarity Forever. © Smithsonian Folkways

Originally titled "Solidarity!" this traditional song has been recorded by Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Anne Feeney, Ella Jenkins, and countless others. The lyrics talk about the power of community and solidarity, and the song speaks to the notion that when people organize, no matter how powerless they feel alone, there is great power in solidarity. 

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"Union Burying Ground"

Woody Guthrie - Struggle
Woody Guthrie - Struggle. © Smithsonian Folkways

This tune was written by Woody Guthrie to commemorate those killed in the labor struggles of the early 20th century. During this period, when labor unions were just beginning to spread, workers literally risked their lives when they went on strike. Often the militia was owned by the boss, and was brought in to shut down union strikes. This song pays tribute to the workers killed for standing up for better pay and reasonable work conditions.

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"Dump the Bosses Off Your Back"

Songs of the Wobblies
Songs of the Wobblies. © Smithsonian Folkways

This tune was made by a Wobbly worker named John Brill in 1916, and was included in the 9th edition of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. Wobblies) songbook. In classic union protest song form, this song is sung to the tune of an old Baptist hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Its lyrics talk about the basic points behind a union strike: better pay and better work conditions. 

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"There Is Power In a Union"

Billy Bragg - There Is Power In A Union
Billy Bragg - There Is Power In A Union. © Rhino/Elektra

Joe Hill, before he died, said "Don't waste time mourning. Organize!" Billy Bragg, however, took the sentiment and updated it to apply to modern times with his original version speaking of the strength of solidarity. Championing the same message as its predecessor, "Solidarity Forever," "There Is Power In a Union" cements the notion that we are stronger together than we are alone. The provocation of songs like this is even stronger, still, when it's not just someone like Bragg singing it alone, but when it becomes a singalong among likeminded people.

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"Pie In The Sky"

Songs of the Wobblies
Songs of the Wobblies. © Smithsonian Folkways

Joe Hill was incomparable when it came to adapting Baptist hymns to talk about the labor struggle. This little gem was penned by Joe in the beginning of the 20th century, to spin off on what laborers were being told by the Salvation Army (or, as the Wobblies would have it, the Starvation Army), who promised full bellies and comfort of living in the afterlife. Most people who work hard for a living would agree that comfortable living in the afterlife isn't enough - we want to be able to live a worthwhile time on Earth. 

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"Casey Jones"

Grateful Dead - Casey Jones
Grateful Dead - Casey Jones. © CMH Records

This song was supposedly written by a friend of the real Casey Jones, and has been recorded by Johnny Cash and Dave Van Ronk, among others. It tells the story of a train conductor and his death while on the job. Much like the legend of the steel worker John Henry (who, famously, "died with a hammer in his hand"), the story of work-til-you-die martyr Casey Jones has lived throughout labor history, and has even inspired a version of the song by the Grateful Dead.

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"John Henry"

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee - John Henry
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee - John Henry. © JSP Records

As alluded to above, this old, old narrative song is about a boy who grows up to be a steel worker. This tune sings about something that happened unfortunately often in the early part of the 20th century - a man dying on the job. While John Henry was, legend has it, killed by his work ethic, the song stands as a message to workers and their employers alike. 

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"Maggie's Farm"

Bob Dylan - Maggie's Farm
Bob Dylan - Maggie's Farm. © Columbia Records

This tune was popularized by Bob Dylan in the 1960s, but it actually has a much longer history which includes Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs. Other artists who have sung this song include everyone from Hot Tuna to Rage Against the Machine. The song sings about a guy who's just had enough of his work conditions and refuses to do them any longer. The flat-out defiance rivals Woody Guthrie's song which closes out this list, and was no doubt taken as such when a plugged-in Bob Dylan shocked the Newport Folk Festival crowd in 1965.

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"Going Down the Road Feeling Bad"

Woody Guthrie - Worried Man Blues
Woody Guthrie - Worried Man Blues. © Master Classics

This Woody Guthrie song features the recurring line, "Going down the road feeling bad, lord lord / and I ain't gonna be treated this a'way." Woody Guthrie was rather fond of not getting stepped on in this world, and of singing songs which communicated that primary assertion. Despite all the redeeming qualities of the songs listed above, there's not a whole lot more to say about labor songs that doesn't get summed up in that one line which repeats throughout this song as a refrain.