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It was Christmas in June when this arrived in my mail box:

The Big Red Songbook 250-plus IWW Songs!
Editors: Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, & Salvatore Salerno
Charles H Kerr Publishing Company, Chicago, 2007

From the back cover:

Here is the all-around best collection of rebel workers' songs and poems ever compiled in English: all the songs that appeared in the IWW's celebrated "little red songbook" from 1909 through 1973-plus scores of others that never made it into the songbook.

538 pages filled with
That Intrepid Wobbly Spirit!

Facing the gallows or life in prison, Arturo Giovannitti raised a glass of prison brine and gave a toast to his friend and fellow worker, Joe Ettor:

Nay, 'tis all silly fuss, there's no wisdom in us
To renounce to the brunt of the strife;
We were wrought on the fire and to love and desire
And to fight and to sing is our life.
So, should we many a year be immured alive here,
Now that you're twenty-seven, old mate,
The best wish I can make for your own and my sake
Is that never you be twenty-eight.

   -verse 6 of 7 from "To Joseph J Ettor On His 27th Birthday"
To face the gallows with pathos and humor, was a trademark of the early Wobblies. Also singing! Always singing! Whether on the picket line, fighting for the right to soapbox, riding the rails, camped in the hobo jungles, or locked behind the prison bars, the Industrial Workers of the World has long been known as the Singing Union. And now, here, The Big Red Songbook restores to us the songs that these Fellow Workers sang as they organized and fought.

Wobbly Tradition

The Big Red Songbook is a great addition to any Rebel Worker's bookshelf. Packed with Wobbly art, comics, posters, and history, it is a broad look at IWW culture and tradition. The first 34 pages give us essays by the editors: Green on Wobbly song tradition, Rosemont on how "lost" songs were found, Roediger on the adaptation and evolution of the song lyrics, and Salerno on Wobbly language and art forms.

I especially love the story of the the very first IWW songbook which was brought to life in Spokane, WA in 1909. This was the time of the Spokane Free Speech Fight. And these were the rugged Western Wobblies, often mocked by the Eastern Wobs as "the bummery." Part of their legacy: that pocket-sized Rebel Songbook, now in its 38th edition, and hereafter refered to by its fond nickname, The Little Red Songbook.

The last 173 pages of the Big Red Songbook are filled with Wobbly lore. There are essays by the Rebel songwriters themselves, most notably, James Connell's "How I Came to Write the Red Flag." Archie Green writes about John Neuhaus, Wobbly  Folklorist, who "made his life's work the study of Wobbly tradition." Green includes a glossary, not only with definitions, but with history on the colorful Wobbly expressions as well.

Other essayist explore the history of the older songs, the "stolen" songs, & the first recordings of Wobbly songs. Fred Thompson writes about Charles H Kerr and America's First Socialist Songbook. The afterward by Utah Phillips is priceless.

And finally we have 34 pages of bibliography and discography. A true treasure trove. But, beware, You'll be tempted to go online and empty out your wallet.


The songs are numbered 1-295 according to the order in which they first appeared in the 36 editions of the Little Red Songbooks published between 1909-1995. Lyrics are given for all the songs except for those from the 35th(1984) and 36th(1995) editions. Archie Green introduces each song with some history about the song and the author, if  known (many were written anonymously.) The Wobblies wrote their lyrics "to the tunes of the day," or to older, traditional tunes. Lucky for us, John Neuhaus (1904-1958) left behind some diligent research on those tunes, and this research, Green often sites.

Also featured are more than 50 songs which did not make it into the Little Red Songbooks. These are gathered from IWW sources such as newspapers, magazines, and books by Wobbly poets. Some were recalled from memory by Old-Timers interviewed in the '40s and '50s. Precious memories preserved.


#1. The Red Flag by James Connell (1st Ed, 1909)
Written in 1889 to the tune of "The White Cockade," Connell was not happy when that tune was replaced by "O Tanenbaum." Foutunately, Billy Bragg now gives us a rousing rendition , sung just as Connelll first intended. Note: all lyrics below are shown in original form; of course, in these modern times, we now modify "man" and "men" where necessary. When performed, this verse is often left out:

Look 'round, the Frenchman loves its blaze
The sturdy German chants its praise;
In Moscow's vaults its hymns are sung,
Chicago swells its surging song.

#63. There Is Power In The Union by Joe Hill (5th Ed, 1913)
Utah Phillips calls this Joe Hill's best song, and I agree wholeheartedly. This song combines two favorite Wobbly themes: mocking the blockheads and scissorbills on the one hand, and calling for unionization on the other. Fun to sing the verses solo and then have the group jump in on the chorus. Shake and rattle those rafters!

There is pow'r, there is pow'r
In a band of workingmen,
When they stand hand in hand,
That's a pow'r, that's a pow'r
That must rule in every land-
One Industrial Union Grand.

#128. The Commonwealth Of Toil by Ralph Chaplin (14th Ed, 1918),
Another favorite theme of Wobbly songwriters: the contrast of present day oppression and drudgery with that "glowing dream" of an Earth owned by Labor.

They have laid our lives out for us
   To the utter end of time.
Shall we stagger on beneath their heavy load?
   Shall we let them live forever
In their gilded halls of crime
   With our children doomed to toil beneath their goad?

But we have a glowing dream
   Of how fair the world will seem
When each man can live his life secure and free.
   When the earth is owned by labor
And there's joy and peace for all
   In the Commonwealth of Toil that is to be.

(hint:jump to 0:30)

#143. The Popular Wobbly by T-Bone Slim (17th Ed, undated-about 1922)
T-Bone Slim (Matt Valentine Huhta) first appeared in the 17th edition of the Little Red Songbook. By the early 1920s, scores of IWW "Class War Prisoners" were locked behind the prison bars, yet, with typical Wobbly fortitude, the original first verse makes light of their sacrifice:

I'm as mild manner'd man as can be
And I've never done them harm that I can see,
Still on me they put a ban and they threw me in the can,
They go wild, simply wild over me.

#195. Still Ain't Satisfied by Bonnie Lockhart (35th Ed, 1984)
Joe Hill wrote:

We've had girls before, but we need somemore
In the Industrial Workers of the World
For it's great to fight for freedom with a Rebel Girl.
Yes, the Rebel Girls of the Little Red Songbooks were too few, yet well known for their fighting spirit and courage. Laura Payne Emerson, we have met already. Among others, there is Agnes Thecla Fair, the "girl tramp," whom Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described as the first woman hobo she had ever met. Intriguing. The IWW was often criticized for "hiding behind the women." Flynn explained that since the IWW did not hold the women back, the women just naturally went to the front.

Bonnie Lockhart is a modern day Rebel Girl. This is a great song for making up verses on the spot. Fun challenge: go around the circle and give it a try.  This is my own contribution:

ObamaCARE upheld! That's great!
But I still ain't satisfied.
Cause Big Insurance nauseates.
And I still ain't satisfied.
They skim the cream right off our HealthCARE;
They pick our pockets and leave our bones bare.
And I still ain't.....satisfied!

#275. There Is Power In A Union by Billy Bragg (36th Ed, 1995)
Other than the title, Bragg's song is a very different one from Joe Hill's. Not only does Bragg use a different (tho familiar) tune, but the spirit of the song is also much different. No mocking of the blockheads, and no loud boisterous chorus, but rather a strong determined call for Fellow Workers everywhere to unite against the brutality and unjust laws of the Bosses.

Go here; read the words.

Fellow Worker Bragg is calling on all of us to stand up for the most oppressed workers within our ranks.

When he asks of us, "Who'll defend the workers who cannot organize?"
We should all answer, "We will!"

And when he asks, "Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?"
We should shout out, "We do!"


Originally posted to Rebel Songwriters on Fri Jul 27, 2012 at 09:20 AM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, Anti-Capitalist Chat, Invisible People, and Protest Music.

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