Nationalism, Populism, and Internationalism in the Lyrics of the Little Red Songbook (1909-1917) [1]

By Jackson Albert Mann

Joe Hill and the Defense of Song

On February 20th, 1913, a short article entitled “The People” appeared in the pages of the Industrial Worker, the main publication of the Spokane, WA, local of the U.S.-based international industrial labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In a few brief paragraphs, the author attacked the continued inclusion of James Connell’s British labor anthem “The Red Flag'' within the pages of the Little Red Songbook (LRS), the IWW’s flagship cultural initiative. The author cited the song’s opening line, “the people’s flag is deepest red,” as grounds for its exclusion or possible rewriting.[2] “Who are the people?” the author asks before going on to demonstrate through a number of comical examples how populist gestures, such as those invoked by Connell, had been used by U.S. politicians to deceive working class citizens.[3] After moving on to a humorous anecdote meant to highlight how populist discourse in mainstream politics almost always refers to those of the middle class, the author ends the article by stating “it is about time that every rebel wakes up to the fact that ‘the people’ and the workingclass [sic] have nothing in common,” a play on the opening lines of the IWW’s famous preamble.[4] [5]

The author of this article was none other than Joe Hill, the most famous of whom labor organizer and historian Daniel Gross has called the IWW’s “worker-scholar-poets”—members of the union who constantly switched between roles as rank-and-file workers, organizers, theorists, administrators, and artists.[6] Hill, a Swedish immigrant, was born on October 7th, 1879 as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in the coastal town of Gälve, Sweden. By all accounts, he was a talented musician from a young age. Both of his parents had some musical training, teaching him and his siblings to play organ “as soon as they could reach the keys.”[7] According to Ester Dahl, his only surviving sibling by the time scholarly inquiry into his life began, Hill started composing what she called “teasing songs” as a child, as well as contrafacta of popular Swedish Salvation Army hymns.[8] In an interview in 1956, Dahl recalled Hill beginning to compose his own original music in his late teens, around the mid-1890s.[9] In 1902, he and his older brother Paul immigrated to the United States. They arrived in New York City, where Hill worked part-time as a professional pianist and janitor, before leaving to find better work elsewhere.[10]

Like much of the U.S. working class in the early 20th century, Hill became a full-time migrant laborer, taking whatever small jobs he could get before moving on. By late 1905, he had arrived on the West Coast.[11] A short article that he published in the Industrial Worker reveals that he joined the IWW sometime in 1910.[12] After moving to San Pedro, California, he quickly became a dedicated member of the local organization as a rank-and-file longshore worker. He also began to publish numerous articles, songs, poems, and cartoons in the union’s national multilingual press, mostly in the pages of the Industrial Worker and the LRS. By 1913, Hill had become the best known songwriter in the IWW, as well as moderately famous within the larger U.S. labor movement, as a result of his witty contrafacta. Many of these lyrics were written for specific organizing drives, labor actions, and strikes undertaken by the union. After a decade on the West Coast, in January of 1914, Hill began to make his way back East with the intention of settling in Chicago.[13]

Hill’s 1913 article was not the last time he would become involved in debates regarding the role of music and song in the IWW. On November 19th, 1914, a few months after he was arrested and imprisioned in Utah as a suspect in a Salt Lake City murder, an article of Hill’s was published in the IWW journal Solidarity, in which he defended the growing use of songs by the union as educational material. After mentioning a number of suggested corrections to the LRS, Hill argued that “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”[14] He continued, asserting that:

"...if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them (the facts) up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science."[15]

Why did Hill feel the need to voice his opinions on the IWW’s use of song around this time? Although he had been writing short articles for the IWW press for over three years, he had never felt the need to publicly defend his work before.

In many ways, Hill’s songs were not particularly different from other anglophone labor music. The majority of his lyrics contained the typical invocations of working class power, as well as the classic critiques of capitalism, bad working conditions, low wages, and hypocritical employers. However, many of Hill’s songs went a step further than his contemporaries, openly denouncing the particularities of religion, nationalism, and racism in the U.S.

Hill was not breaking with any official positions of the union in making such direct critiques. Although no union leaders ever described the IWW as a revolutionary syndicalist organization, an “examination of the language used in newspapers, pamphlets, books and speeches of the IWW, reveals ideas, concepts and theories (although not all tactics) that are almost indistinguishable from those espoused by European union militants who described themselves as syndicalists.”[16] The union was also international, officially dedicated to the construction of “one big labor alliance the world over.”[17] Although its institutional backbone always remained in the United States, by 1911, the IWW had small national chapters in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.[18] It maintained global affiliations with other syndicalist labor unions, such as the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), and even briefly joined the Soviet Union-initiated Red International of Labor Unions (RILU) in the early 1920s.[19] [20] While the IWW was never officially anti-nationalist, the global revolutionary project the union was founded to support was, by default, opposed to U.S. nationalism. The ideological orientation of Hill’s songs was well-aligned with this project, and this may be why his lyrics were particularly popular with the membership. Yet, he still felt it necessary to defend what he was doing.

Despite the ideological positions of the IWW, I believe that the particularly explicit anti-nationalist, anti-religious, and anti-racist elements of Hill’s lyrics were disturbing to a number of fellow members, especially those who had previous experience in earlier anglophone left-wing politico-cultural movements. Similarly to how Benedict Anderson contends that “official nationalism” over-determined the ways in which 20th century revolutionary anti-colonial leaderships could imagine the post-colonial future, I argue that earlier anglophone left-wing working class discourses may have over-determined the parameters of acceptable discourse within the cultural production of the IWW.[21] Though I have found no evidence of direct attacks on Hill’s lyrics, there is evidence that implicit critiques were made of his music by other IWW members in the union’s press, as well as further possible proof that continuing inclusion of Hill’s songs in the LRS initiated a struggle for editorial control of the Songbook.

The work of developing an international working class culture among a diverse population with a multiplicity of national, cultural, and ethnic loyalties is complex. In the early 20th century U.S., this complexity was made even more difficult by the presence of multiple insurgent anglophone discourses derived from the dominant national culture and which often carried over the implicit white supremacist and nationalist sentiments of that culture, impeding the work of building international, multi-racial solidarity. Revealing how these tensions played out within the cultural discourse of the IWW is important, not only because it is historically interesting, but because it holds lessons for communist organizers engaged in similar work today.

The Development of the Little Red Songbook

Although the IWW was founded in 1905, the union suffered a series of early setbacks which postponed the construction of a functioning administration. Between 1905 and 1906, political confrontations exploded between cliques jockeying for the power to affiliate the union with competing socialist political parties, specifically Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party of America (SPA). The “comic opera circumstances of the [1906] second convention,” which included physical confrontations, political intrigue, and even the arrest of IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Charles Moyer, led the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the union’s original institutional spine, to slowly back out of the IWW between 1907 and 1908.[22]

Following this debacle, another year-long political confrontation took place when DeLeon, who, having politically survived the previous convention, attempted to affiliate the IWW to his SLP in 1908. However, DeLeon was outmaneuvered. A delegation of West Coast members led by organizer J.H. Walsh formed a coalition with DeLeon’s former political ally, Vincent St. John. This coalition voted to oust DeLeon from the union’s leadership. With DeLeon gone, there was very little incentive to affiliate with any political party and one of the IWW’s most famous principles, non-affiliation with political parties, was born as an accident of this political maneuvering.

By the end of the 1908 convention, the IWW had fought through most of the major political differences within its leadership and was ready to begin organizing. This included the rapid construction of an unprecedentedly large print-media infrastructure. The unparalleled size and scope of this project was not without purpose. Anticipating a later statement by Russian Revolutionary V.I. Lenin, Haywood argued in 1905 that the IWW’s primary goal was to go “down into the gutter to get at the mass of workers,” referring to the tens of millions of immigrant and Black working class citizens that had been ignored by the U.S. Government and the American Federation of Labor craft unions.[23] [24] A print-media infrastructure of extraordinary size would be necessary to reach and educate the multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and, most importantly, multilingual mass of U.S. workers. By the early 1910s, the union was publishing newspapers in at least twelve languages.[25]

Saying that the IWW encouraged member participation in its publications is an understatement. Print-media was such an integral part of life in the union that when members were arrested for striking, as they often were, it was common for them to “set up their own circulating prison libraries [and] publish a handwritten I.W.W. prison newspaper.”[26]

The IWW began publishing lyrics in its print-media early on. Additionally, the practice of selling “song cards,” small pocket-sized cards on which were printed witty IWW-themed contrafacta, had begun as early as 1908, when it was suggested by J.H. Walsh as a promotional and educational strategy.[27] [28] Walsh, who, during the first years of the union had been charged with establishing an IWW presence in Alaska, was relocated to the rapidly growing Spokane local as National Organizer. He arrived just after the end of the 1908 convention.[29]

Spokane was “the job-buying center for thousands of migratory workers who labored in the agricultural, mining, and lumber industries” of the Pacific Northwest.[30] The critical mass of migrant workers attracted all sorts of shady operators, often called employment sharks, who would prey on workers' desperation by promising non-existent jobs for a fee. One of the primary goals of the IWW in Spokane was to warn “incoming workers of the treachery of the sharks.”[31] Soon after arriving, Walsh “organized a red-uniformed I.W.W. band to [...] compete [with the Sharks] for the attention of the crowds.”[32] Combining two good ideas, Walsh also began to sell song cards containing contrafacta that the band performed around the city.[33] It was these song cards that “blazed the trail for the larger songbook [the LRS] to come, a songbook of lasting fame, and one that would make the I.W.W. known in all corners of the earth.”[34]

Inspired by Walsh’s project, the General Executive Board of the Spokane IWW voted to draft plans for the publication of an official union songbook, organizing a Songbook Committee in December of 1908. The Committee, headed by songwriter Richard Brazier, quickly compiled a set of songs with a focus on “local talent,” developed a distinctive red graphic design, and agreed on a print run of 10,000 copies.[35] The first edition of the LRS was published in January 1909 and “sold out in under a month.”[36] The LRS went on to become one of the best-selling pieces of IWW literature. For instance, by “the mid-1910s, the usual [yearly] print-run was 50,000 copies; by 1917 it was up to 100,000.”[37]