America’s Leftwing Show:
The Singing Union and the Industrial Workers of the World

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2015, Volume 14, Issue 2


Laura Hapke
New York City College of Technology


You will eat,
By and bye,
In the glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray,
Live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Joe Hill, The Preacher and the Slave (1913)


Between the beginning of the twentieth century and the national entry into World War I, there was no bigger threat to American capitalist ideology than the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It was an avowedly revolutionary organization launched in 1905 with the aim of uniting labor activists from many movements – radical labor unions, socialists of many stripes, Marxists, even anarchists. One of the founders of the new party, whose members were frequently referred to as “Wobblies” or “Wobs,” boldly termed the 1905 founding convention the “Continental Congress of the Working Class.” Taking aim at the original Founding Fathers, the fiery orator “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928) famously asserted in the founding manifesto, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” (18). Fellow Wobs scorned the white mystique of exclusivity symbolized by the hated American Federation of Labor (AFL), which they claimed split the working class by organizing into crafts. IWW humorists quickly renamed it the American Separation of Labor.

The political daring of the fighting union was no laughing matter. Inspired by the doctrine of OBU (One Big Union), another Wob acronym, the daring manifesto called for abolition of the wage system in a nationwide general strike. Whether Wobblies were defying corrupt mining practices or protesting the reduction of wage earners to the status of transients, they set out to end the precariousness of toil in the capitalist system.

With such ambitious goals, they needed outlets to spread the insurrectionary message and aimed to reach an astonishing variety of laborers. All those who mounted the soap box were indebted to the orator Big Bill Haywood. Brandishing an unrivaled vocal range, he thundered, “We are going down to the gutter to get at the mass of workers and bring them up to a decent plane of living” (qtd. in Adler 8). Yet in attempting to attract workers to their movement, many realized the limits of speaking tours, publications in the solemn IWW journals, and the often impromptu Free Speech meetings. Even the chatty but didactic short fiction of a robust print culture did not appeal to workers.        

In fact, in the dissemination of “red” popular culture, no prior working-class political organizations or party was more popular for its songs than the IWW. Visual images proliferated, too: cartoons, advertisements, roadside stickers, posters. Such graphics abounded in the wealth of IWW journals, books, and broadsides. The cartoons of the IWW are of particular interest. Ernest Riebe’s anti-hero, “Mr. Block,” was an instant propaganda success in the party newspapers. Visually arresting posters such as those for the 1913 Paterson Strike were heralded worldwide.

The most widely effective oppositional work, often nicknamed “lumberjack artistry” (Green, Calf’’s Head 82) came from a group of veteran agitators in the Northwest who formed a cultural front, to use Michael Denning’s phrase. They were crucial in expanding membership. Their strategy was simple enough: they reinvented themselves to put on IWW shows, displaying a crowd-pleasing, comic musical with verbal dexterity. And they did so in the language of the people, weaving in a colloquial, informal conversational style.

In fact, no working-class party in these years created a comparable repertoire of song, song poems, political folklore, and tales. Under their influence, any rebel lyric became hobo poetry; any storytelling was a migrant’s refrain. Singing was a form of reciting; speech was musical. The goal of all genres was inclusion: people of diverse identities could join in and thus create new content.

The IWW organizer who was in at the creation was James H. Walsh, a talented creator of gatherings near key routes of migrant workers and around urban city halls. A veteran of Washington State labor protests, he relied on his strike heritage to help create the “singing union.” He was humorously called the general of the “Overalls Brigade.” Drawing on the power of vernacular, parody, satire, and folklore, he contended that song was the only necessary tool of propaganda (Georgakas 35).

Walsh’s career began the same year the first edition of Songs of the Workers, on the Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent was published in his home city of Spokane, Washington, in 1909. In later editions, of which there were many, the small pamphlet was variously named, including IWW Songs with the same subtitle. Whatever the formal title, the collection was always termed the Little Red Songbook (LRS). It was consumed by thousands. Nothing short of the Wob Bible, it was a medley of “unpatriotic” compositions. Walsh, a true believer in the LRS, collected material that parodied the cherished anthems and ballads of the time to use in his organizing efforts. Most important, he drew on the deadpan delivery and exaggeration of the backwoods, the mining camp bunkhouse, and the fading frontier in his performances. Cowboys, in fact, who were often ranch hands pushed out of the Old West, became part of the new wandering population in search of decent wages (Green, Big Red 3).

In any event, James Walsh, though forgotten now, laid the path for the era’s world-famous activist songwriter Joe Hill (1879-1915) and activist/artist/poet Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961). Walsh was certainly among the first to make a burlesque of bourgeois belief.  Ready with their wits and, if trouble arose, their fists, Wobbly organizers adopted the role of comedians in one town, then hopped a freight or took shelter in the woods. Far Left chameleons, they were provocateurs, in plain sight one moment and invisible the next.

Not all IWW supporters were enthusiastic about fostering class consciousness through music and recitation. Political theorists and agitators alike – sometimes one and the same – charged the IWW with a dumbing down thought. They accused performers of being roadside creators of primitiveness and crudity. In her classic analysis, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931), Constance Rourke charged that “popular expressions have taken forms that have belonged to the childhood of nations” (138). In the view of political historians such as Melvyn Dubofsky, concessions, victories, and defeats were the core of the IWW movement. To such commentators, carefully planned rallies were serious events, not the province of a workers’ chorus. The sidewalk or square outside a city hall was properly the venue of the likes of Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Arturo Giovanniti, and their speeches provide “real” documentary material. Studies touching on IWW showmanship thus tend to ignore work songs, rising “from the bottom up,” which are considered unimportant compared to orators’ exhortations “from the top down.” The way people themselves shaped beliefs has not been thought a fitting subject for research. A classic example is Dubofsky’s only reference to Wobs’ “musical parades” in his benchmark study of the organization (141). 

Students whose interests focus on an “alternative history” of the social and political struggles of the time are more open to alternative sources. In Ann Schofield’s work on the women of the IWW, for example, she does cite Joe Hill’s instantly famous song Rebel Girl (1911), written for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Monographs on the tramping proletariat during the Progressive era such as Mark Pittenger’s Class Unknown cover new intersections between life writing and traditional material. Frank Tobias Higbie’s The Indispensable Outcast also finds connections between literary memoir and extra literary evidence. He links them as both narratives of identity. The important new scholarship of John Lennon posits an oppositional body of dissenting voices that was created by “boxcar mobility.”

Another source of “alternative history” is more ephemeral – the lyrics of protesters’ songs, the exhortations of their leaders, the fictive vignettes of their contemporary narratives. For these ephemera, the scholar must turn to edited texts. The unrivalled one remains Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, now in its third edition. It layers a variety of genres with fine editorial essays. The collection is the work of the veteran labor organizer, local union founder, and unrivaled archivist Joyce Kornbluh. To evaluate a belief system, she recovers songs long hidden in the pages of journals like Solidarity and Industrial Union Bulletin. The class-struggle sayings of Big Red and T-Bone Slim are presented side by side with a typical Wobbly song title, "His Honor Gets His." Trenchant pieces from International Socialist Review and Industrial Worker abound. Included as well are myriad cartoons about scabs and drawings of the black cat, often a symbol of violence. Thus Sabotage: Direct Actioninterrogates “Address of the Defendant Arturo Giovanniti  [arrested for leading Lawrence, Massachusetts, silk mill strikers] to the Jury” (Kornbluh 51, 193.)

To this day, no better set of selections reveals the flavor of Wobs’ thought and the breadth and significance of their writings. It is excellent, too, in presenting divided attitudes toward sabotage; direct action; and race, gender, and ethnicity. Given the number of aesthetic choices, furthermore, this is a literary text within a nonliterary one. If the aim is a meta-narrative or holistic view of Wobs, the volume is an unsurpassed guide. But to the student of working-class creativity, the topical table of contents, mixing prose and fictive examples without a stated method, could prove to be a problem. It is noteworthy that important reviews of her book, even in the IWW journal Industrial Worker, are attentive to the political archive on which Kornbluh has drawn, leaving the literature in the background (Lynd).

Because workers are undervalued in American literature and the wider culture, they are rarely represented in literary works. When they are, they are often spoken for, not speaking. This kind of redaction particularly reflects the writers’ habitual disdain for working-class leaders. As the historian Patrick Renshaw observes, the typical statement attributed to them is one of articulate defiance but radical labor’s talk is not monolithic. Among the varieties of linguistic discourse, the Wobs, from the working class themselves, sought to be seen and heard in their many voices.

Herein lies the problem of the living text. As Janet Zandy points out, it is always at risk; it threatens to become a “literary still life” (9). Which tunes were actually sung? Which, dull and overwritten, were unsingable? Where can one place purple prose? How much editing have the tales undergone before being printed? And how does this essay avoid the same charge?

I emphasize here the experiential value of authentic oral culture. In a similar context, Paul Garon and Gene Tomko stress the value of the “legitimate document,” which records “a mood and an attitude” (4). Yet inscribed in this argument is the urgency of verbal creation as presentism. It is the play, not the playbook; the teller, not the tale, that enable IWW vocality.  Explains Thomas Marvin, “in the rhetoric of radicalism we have to keep in mind the complex performance contexts in which texts were originally embedded rather than describe them as pages of words set to lyrics" (248). These contexts were complicated in the way literature/songs can become embodied in action. There is performance in singing the songs, which is directly related to the performance of the strike both are ritualistic and improvisational at the same time.

The IWW often proclaimed its new form of American individualism, a frontier ethic applied to the new industrialism. All Wobs were leaders; all were equal (Miller 108). Even as they developed a socialistic philosophy that scorned all forms of hierarchical government, they paid ironic homage to sentimentality and folklore they were so familiar with. They reimagined the myth of upward mobility by subordinating it to the importance of community. Even as they relentlessly renovated cherished cultural forms, they claimed to speak for the forgotten poor. Yet in their version of Americanism, it was the working class, not the bourgeoisie that would create a truly democratic United States.

IWW cultural production was performativity itself. Events ranged from parades to picnics to funerals to dances. Being piled into a paddy wagon was an opportunity for self-display. Using their very mobility as a guise, these organizers adopted the pose of what George Rawick calls “self-activity” (23). It was one of many guises, some mythic: gruesome murders, ambushes from Gatling Guns, and deaths of children in a hail of bullets. Defeat strengthened commitment to resilience. But threnodies appeared on song programs. Tragedy strengthened the role of comedy.

Whether to empower a frightened mass of laborers, raise their own spirits for the fight ahead, or flummox the authorities, the Wob creators aimed to foster working-class agency. Central to Wobbly artistry is not their representation of work or even working-class experience but how they made use of it. Taken as a group, they feel short of racial and gender inclusion. Yet to metaphorically buy a ticket for their show, it is imperative to understand how the Wobblies re-envisioned American popular song.


The Singing Union

The Little Red Songbook is a compendium of revolt with an intractable subtext. It is still known as the bestselling book among the American left. But as a libretto, it was only to serve as a spur to action. Significantly, an early contributor, Joe Hill, did not support the songbook apparatus per se. The goal was proactivity:  “I maintain that if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them 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” (16). Obviously Hill had no illusions about the obstacles to recruitment. But he was sure that songs learned by heart could move all kinds of hard-pressed people to respond. He was one of the earliest activists in Spokane, Washington; during their 1910s incursions into mills of the Northwest, the rank and file of these protestors broke into rebel song at every juncture.

Sent to cover the 1912 shutdown of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mills, the noted Progressive reformer Ray Stannard Baker used a similar phrase. He said it was “the first strike I ever saw which sang” (30). Like the Wobs themselves, he portrayed the downtrodden as immune to intimidation.  Indeed, so powerful was their vocal presence that Baker equated the revolt of the mill workers with their identities as protestors. There was no divide between the rebel and the rebellion “The strike sang.” Nothing was inanimate. 

Key interpreters for the mainstream press found an unlikely carnival atmosphere in labor unrest. The Wobs adapted political force to musical versions of the union flying squad. They moved into town unannounced to join meetings, and just as quickly moved out, always with the goal to “educate, agitate, and emancipate!” As this strategy became customary with the IWW, writers were baffled. Wobs sang as they faced bloody beatings, in reaction to news of a massacre in a nearby state, in response to a leader’s castration by sheriff’s deputies. They embraced refrains on many skid rows, and on windowless boxcars called “blind freights.” They encouraged children to sing and picketed tunefully at crucial venues from New York City to Wheatfields, California.

The best ploy to attract attention was surprise. A ruse pulled in the unwary: "[One of their group] carried bowler hat and briefcase and umbrella, yelled to the crowd, 'Help! I’ve been robbed!’ The crowd rushed over only to hear, ‘I've been robbed by the capitalist system! Fellow workers...” He then launched into a short speech, and the makeshift band stepped out of the doorway and played their songs (Keller).

Another popular way to gain an audience was to drown out nearby salvationists’ bands, pulling in amused bystanders. Commented the Spokane mentor James Walsh, the idea was that as long as they played the footloose rebel travelling from one place to another, they “could make a big noise” (qtd. in Lampert 25). This noise was typically a dry folk humor that relied on the deadpan humorist always ready with a monologue.

The meetings were not as spontaneous or effortless as they seemed. Many in the crowd that gathered had never heard of a strike. And many concurred with one woman’s response, that these were “songs for the working people”  themselves (Cohen 69). Even more complicated was to reach people in many rural or heavy industrial areas where peripatetic singer-activists were a novelty. It required not only the persuasive discourse of an electrifying speaker but also class-war comedy to warm up the skeptics and defeat the heckler. Despite the official emphasis on speechmakers, these (often unprepossessing) orators routinely followed musicians and were then backgrounded. The ideal was to assuage the anxieties of many in the throng.

To be sure, Wobs knew their own reputation as bomb throwers, menaces but also lazy drinkers. No doubt many had heard the rumors: These men at best were job destroyers. To redress the balance, they sang to the problems of listeners: food, clothing, shelter. Among the most startling was a ballad on the toils of loggers, "Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks." Both clever and hard hitting, the tune described bunks infested with camp lice, maggoty meals, and stolen pay.

In the end, the tunes were tools. They cleverly repurposed nationally popular music. With satire and parody, they rewrote American Protestantism bourgeois sentiment as well as wartime anthems. Even Tin Pan Alley’s catchy programs were the object of comedy. For instance, Wobs entertained by overturning the Titanic’s wealthy victims’ hope of heaven in the satire "Nearer My Job to Thee." All too realistically, the singers were picked off by riflemen as they sang on the dock in Everett, Washington. As bullets also pierced the sinking boat, the protesters chorused as if they had won the day.

The selection also played on the impossible redemption of the owning classes. "It’s Long Way Down the Soup Line" was a sendup of  "It’s a Long Way Down to Tipperary." Similar ridicule characterized the middle-class favorite, "In the Good Old Picket Line" as well as "Meet Me in the Jungle, Louie." Musicians took particular aim at warmongers. In the frequently performed "Marching to Georgia," Wobs reworded a Confederate enlistment song and titled it "Christians at War" whose biting refrain was the following:

Onward Christian soldiers!  Duty’s way is plain; 
Slay your Christian brothers, or by them be slain; 
Pulpiteers are spouting effervescent swill
God above is calling you to rob and rape and kill; 
All your acts are sanctified by the Lamb on high; 
If you love the Holy Ghost, go murder, pray, and die.

It is virtually impossible to measure how often the rallies inspired commitment. Examples are difficult to collect even from histories of Wobbly song-filled rallies, although it was not unusual for authorities to pre-empt supposed violence in the middle of song-filled gatherings.   

Nor can we chart the influence of the subtext of IWW violence against its enemies (Conlin 316). These persuasive discourses required more than the lines from the Ralph Chaplin classic, "Solidarity Forever": “without our brains and muscle not a single wheel will turn.” What was documented in film footage – with a music score and voiceover – was usually a scene of committed listeners singing the finale: singing the red anthem, the "Internationale."

Nevertheless, the energy created by these anthems may have fueled a dramatics of affirmation. To foster radicalization, organizers handed out song cards before the parodies were sung. Event planners and locals encouraged the crowd to feel that everyone was a speaker. Whether secretly or with fanfare, they circulated among the crowd to encourage the singalong. Those who could not or would not purchase the LRS on which the program was based received the red pamphlets gratis. The fellow workers on a makeshift stage may have used the same songs wherever they traveled, but the choice at each event was tailored to what Archie Green calls the “mind’s ear” (Calf’s Head 3). In an early 1900s example of  hypertextuality, audience members joined those onstage and expanded the discourse. They even provided their own lyrics. A would-be performer on some occasions leapt onto the stage, to the approval of those assembled. In any case, the artists engaged a number of people. Ideally, many felt a new allegiance, a courage. And whether they left convinced, unimpressed, or alienated, people remembered the refrains.


The Songbook as a Contested Text
Unusual for the era, the IWW officially declared equality among the white masculine majority in the movement and both blacks and women. Wobs advocated ethnic, race, and gender inclusion; but in reality both blacks and women encountered an ambiguous response. This marginal status extended to their minimal presence in the singing union.

Though a gateway to validation rather than evidence of the performance itself, the LRS, deliberately or not, had race and gender restrictions. There were no African-American contributors. One woman composer appeared in the IWW songbook, but only in the nineteenth edition of 1923 – well after the organization had been routed by the government.

Men of color, according to the modern account, jumped up on freight cars in cross-racial harmony. Estimates of the numbers of black holders of the red card are usually exaggerated, however. They were more likely to join the organization for safety from white harassment, and, indeed, experts speculate they were always on guard for racism. Although there were strong black locals with electric speakers, African-American musical critiques of race hatred could only be hinted at in these songs. There were equally important reasons, however, in that much of the IWW did not understand their own competition. Well in advance of the 1920s, black hobos inaugurated their own jazz age. Their “blues” shaped new definitions of bondage, not bound by Marxist thought.  Their oeuvre rejected the derivativeness and predictability of the Wob compositions (Garon and Tomko 27).

What is certain is that to the disenfranchised whites used to the familiar sounds of Wobbly protest songs, this new genre was on a much higher level. A vernacular born of Southern slavery enhanced the sounds of pure feeling. Jazz compositions, often improvised, had no equal in the period. Their style, loose and flowing, was alien to the predictability of the Wobbly one. Had jazzmen been included in the LRS, Wob musicality would have been far less imitative. As it was, though, it had an important role in the civil unrest of the period.


Jail: Vaudeville in Two Acts

In 1912, the first Keystone Kops film was released. Always rushing around, completely ineffectual, the cops provided uproarious fun through their pratfalls and stupidity.  And when, later that year, an astonished observer compared the chaos in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, to a silent film, he saw the lawful-gathering ordinances (aimed at the Wobblies) similarly flouted (Baker 30). He heard the singing while, of course, the silent film audience would not. But his presence at the paddy wagon event provided him with the full force of the movie: the Wobs, as if directing the cops, adopted the ploy of farcical body language as if they controlled disorder – which in a sense they did.

No organization in the era was jailed more than the IWW. It was no wonder, for as usual the Wobs staged their defiance. Not only did they employ the time-honored attacks and retreats of the outnumbered or outgunned. They found hiding places. They used stealth. But the dissent also took the form of surprise. In effect, they rang changes on the street scenes in which they corralled bystanders, using comic deceit to reverse the plot. Rewriting the scenario of danger, they taunted police and the vigilantes ready to water hose them or kick them senseless. Not only did they avoid being shot for evading capture, but they also courted jail.  One police authority marveled: “they are having the time of their lives” (qtd. in Baker 30).

Marvelled Baker, as the finale of the first act, “they would rush to the police wagons” and go to jail singing “arise ye prisoners of starvation” (30). The scene then shifted to the cells. The chorus only became louder as the prison hallway provided an echo chamber.  In addition to the familiar musical noise, the din echoed in the cell block and upset the wardens and even prosecutors. In their customary way, they upstaged their opponents. Incarceration empowered them to use the prison bars as theatrical sets. Packed against each other, they yelled in union. When horrible food was shoved into their spaces, they varied the cacophony by banging tin cups on the bars.

As a final flourish, the imprisoned urged the turnkeys to open the cells, quit work, and join them. So raucous were these incarcerated players that they were set free with dispatch – an occurrence repeated around the nation. The burlesque was complete: the sheriff’s deputies had been turned into stupid “Kops.” In tacit acknowledgment, local authorities simply cut their losses and released the prisoners.


Joe Hill, Director

One of the best known Wob leaders began his American journey as a poor Swedish immigrant, Joseph Hillstrom (1879-1915), who came to America in the early 1900s and emerged as the legendary Joe Hill. He had immersed himself in the activities of the Wobblies well before he was jailed in Salt Lake City for a murder that he and the IWW steadfastly denied he had any part in. From the time he faced a Utah firing squad in November of 1915, there has been an enormous body of scholarship on Joe Hill. According in one eulogy by a fellow Wob, he “earned his mythology the hard way” (qtd. in Adler 27).

Joe Hill was the ultimate Wob, melding manliness with an unrivalled talent for lambasting the monopolists. Early in his life, Hill wrote more than twenty-five songs for the LRS, and probably hundreds more not collected. Despite his reputation for musical texts capturing the essence of IWW insurrection, he agreed that Wobs should remain anonymous at all times. Anonymity meant, among other things, escaping the hunt for a particular man. Thus in the romantic myths circulating to this day, he was a man of iconic ubiquity. Always on the move but never on the run, he was an itinerant laborer here; a strike leader there; elsewhere a guitarist accompanying Wobs who sang LRS songs, including his own; a righteous man caught in a Mormon net.  Unifying these presentations of self was his identity as a “beacon for conduct” (Green, Calf’s Head 2).

In 1914, Joe Hill was caught up in the hunt for the killer of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son; on the evening of the murder, he was arrested when he went to a doctor’s office with a gunshot wound he claimed to have received in a fight over a woman. Although the evidence of his guilt was debatable, prosecutors were convinced he was a brutal red and thus a suspect most likely to have robbed and killed the solid local merchant. Joe Hill became the man of the hour for the IWW. In his last stand, he exemplified the rebel artist as hero; he was stubbornly brave, refusing to defend himself at trial. A few months after his – possibly rigged – trial, he was executed by a firing squad in November 1915.

Looking at this legendary Joe Hill through the lens of his attitudes toward the women of the IWW cause, however, uncovers a more problematic portrait. Prison heightened Hill’s interest in defending gender equality, but it also revealed his need to stage the figure of the female rebel. In his hands, she became a certain kind of comrade: she was one who revealed how Hill’s perception of manhood shaped his belief about women. The dialectic takes on a deeper importance as it is worked out through a code of gender conduct. To articulate this set of rules, he wrote an ode to arguably the most famous woman Wob, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, constructing her as one who could “hold big meetings every night” and head a campaign to include women (qtd. in Adler 278). He urged her to take up his mantle as a role model for both sexes.

In his enduring tribute, "The Rebel Girl," sung frequently after his death, he also rewrote her.

That's the Rebel Girl, that's the Rebel Girl!
To the working class she's a precious pearl.
She brings courage, pride and joy
To the fighting Rebel Boy.
We've had girls before, but we need some more
In the Industrial Workers of the World.
For it's great to fight for freedom
With a Rebel Girl.

While it was not alone among Hill’s statements about women organizers, "The Rebel Girl" proved unusual on a number of counts. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is never named. She was, in fact, not a girl learning the ropes but a talented woman of twenty-five. Hill’s monologue thus repudiates the real Flynn, who was a proponent of women’s contributions to the cause, not a part of the masculine hierarchy supposedly in search of “more...Rebel Girl[s].” Above all, she was no passive figure who would act out the spiritual role he wrote for her.

Thus there is no Flynn in Hill’s rebel girl theater. Instead, there emerged an apparition. As such, this gendered song poem prefigured his contrasting role: at his execution, he immortalized manly defiance. And he returned to the trickster persona for his exit line.  Facing a firing squad, he stole the power from the state. He interrupted the mortality scene.  As the sheriff gave the order to fire, Hill interrupted: “Aim...Yes, aim...let it go! Fire!” (qtd. in Adler 333). This was part of the legend, one of the stories that animated the Wobblies in the years to come.

Whoppers: Acting the Tall Tale

As the radical organizers of the IWW crisscrossed the United States, many raised their spirits by stopping to read what George R. Woirol termed “hobo bulletin board” (xx). As with all things Wobbly, the board was unconventional. Sometimes it was a warning sticker on an employment “shark’s” window. At others, it informed those who voted with their feet which way to avoid a tough town ready to put them on a chain gang. Other caveats were hastily penned on a large rock. Graffit artists also placed witty sayings on road signs. These raised spirits and signaled the IWW confraternity. “Trust in the lord and sleep in the street,” penned one wordsmith on an urban pavement. Another took a swipe at Christianity: “Jesus saves the willing slaves” (Green, Calf’s Head 2).

This brevity communicated more than nose thumbing. In stories passed around the campfire, men (and the occasional woman, usually in disguise) for a few minutes escaped the miasmic smell and filthy water. Many, challenged to think up a funny story, embroidered on their own experience with the gutter life. In these interchanges, the words took on lives of their own. In the hands of a seasoned red-cardholder, myths, parables, legends, and vignettes were a tribute to their skills in improvisation.

Warnings to others who were ceaselessly moving about were an important part of these tales. A cordial reception in a town was the worst of all. Often circulated was the story of the “San Berdu Courthouse.”  Two men just arrived in town were arrested and summarily brought before the judge. To their surprise, he welcomed them, and they were even given a breakfast and some change. Of course, soon the main street was filled with hopefuls. At this point, they were arrested and put on a work gang: “That is the way San Berdu built its courthouse and its jails. Thugs who robbed the wanderers at gunpoint were to be eluded, but there were even worse dangers. Railroad 'bulls' with iron clubs did not scruple to break legs or render trampers unconscious” (Woirol 82). As if to reassure Wobblies that they were strong, too, bragging tales exaggerated their strength. Providing amusement took on the quality of an impromptu play. The seasoned tellers, inside or outside the IWW, spoke of life in the gutter and well as the wonders of the world (Woirol 82).  Just as everyone contributed a piece of food to make a “mulligan” stew, people provided phrases and one-liners that augmented the narration. In this verbal bricolage, no retelling was the same.

Like the lyrical production, this yarn spinning was in the American tradition. Whether consciously or not, the shabby masters of twangy mimicry, the shrewd, crafty characters, and the devil-may-care braggadocio was all part of American humor. Had not the nineteenth-century humorist Sam Slick said it was “good to be shifty in a new country” (qtd. in Avis xi)?

Although many other homespun orators were known from the eye-gouging of Kentucky to the thieving docks of Spokane, no single American tale spinner was more important than Mark Twain, the king of “whoppers.” As early as 1897, he published How to Tell a Story, and his signature tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” delighted mainstream audiences. The absurdity of national behavior was his stock in trade. Well before the 1905 Preamble decrying the owning class, Twain made a reputation throwing verbal darts at authority: he famously compared Congress to the greatest criminal class in America. Above all, he fashioned a colloquial style of American prose, marked by unified style and simple conversation (Bridgman 21). But he was not a working-class author. His stories were lengthy and complicated. Giant turnips and his child-heroes did not teach subversive language. And, though they were as amusing as down-home stories by Ralph Winstead and the semi-nonsense of T-Bone Slim, his books did not appear in local union reading rooms.

The most rough-hewn comrades enjoyed a linguistic Morse code incomprehensible to outsiders. Theirs was a detailed dictionary, though most who used the terms knew only a few of them.  As with much of IWW diction, this argot traveled with its creators.  As usual, the glossary was in the hobo memory. There were insults for class enemies: “scissorbill” (scab) and “plute” (millionaire, fat banker/owner). Among scores of words for those with unpleasant jobs were “shovel stiff” (railroad gang toiler) and “sticky muck” (gravel or coal shoveler). “Pipsqueak orators” annoyed the rebel troupe with sermons. In fact, all such fools were, as Archie Green details in his glossary, “braying donkeys” (see the glossary in Calf’s Head).

To the inveterate cadre on the “main stem” (flophouse district), secret language added security as much as vivacity. It did not denote a talent for the poetic, but certainly contributed to the verbal trove. Those who disdained it had a show in mind that was all but unrecognizable to these roving bards.


The Paterson Pageant and the Wobbly Imaginary  

The One Big Union had many ethnic members and devoted local unions, yet it did not make much headway in the textile cities of New England. In most of the places targeted by Wobs in the Northeast, the appeal of parodied hymns and colloquial jests popular with the migratory laborers of the West did not extend to the “home guard” or stationary mill force. There were some triumphs, as in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where in 1912 polyethnic assertiveness melded with a vaudeville of the picket line.  The next year, the IWW thought it had enlisted another urban immigrant workforce. Paterson, New Jersey, was roiled by a large work stoppage of dye houses and mills. It lasted for five months, from February to July of 1913. Of the over 1,800 strikers arrested in the course of the mass walkout, many, including Haywood and Flynn, were in the IWW. Thus the IWW initially played a leading role, but it neither dominated the strike nor approved of the conclusion.

In the middle of the silk walkout, however, Wobs felt optimistic enough to put on the “Paterson Pageant” to raise funds and public support. The yoking of a strike and a joyous event was a strange choice: offstage, innocent bystanders were killed and children were at risk. Nor did the event creators proclaim the phrase as ironic. Instead, by their choice of name, the leaders produced an oxymoron that was at odds with IWW witticisms. It was to be a one-night event of mass magnitude, a huge mid-strike rally whose use of worker actors marching in formation could only generate excitement about the ongoing labor revolt. It promised to be a landmark event.

Everyone involved in writing the workers’ script and choosing their LRS songs thought big. It was appropriate to rent Madison Square Garden as the chosen site. John Reed, soon to be immortalized for his account of the Russian Revolution, lent his talent for language and his support of radical causes. To help the workers create and perform this red folk operetta, he reached out to his socialist colleagues and Harvard friends for stage design and an ad hoc planning committee. The most authentic Wob in the country, Bill Haywood, commuted between the strike and planning meetings in Greenwich Village. No friend of political theater, Big Bill was uncharacteristically pleased at the planned scenes that would distill into drama the acute situation in nearby Paterson. He called it “the biggest thing the IWW had ever attempted” (qtd. in Golin 177). At the very least, the event would blur the lines between labor demonstration and actual strike. Thousands of workers would come to see real strikers on the stage as he and other tribunes spoke to a 15,000-seat audience. Modern histories concur. Stewart Bird and Dan Georgakas marvel, “nothing like it had ever been seen before” (21). To Michael Denning, it was the first leftist “benefit concert” (4). On June 7, 1913, in the midst of the real work stoppage, the show went on in the giant arena. Throughout the performance, the audience could look to blazing red letters that spelled IWW above the stage. After almost a decade of the union that sang and spun tales, this was a watershed event. The Wobbly imaginary finally gave birth to a new worker’s theater, choral, multi-faceted, symbolic. Above all, its huge scale proclaimed it the triumph of a world phenomenon.

The marchers went down the center aisle as a packed, ticket buying audience applauded. Once onstage, they acted out six scenes: “The Mills Alive – The Workers Dead,” “The Workers Begin to Think,” “The Funeral of Modestino: Mass Meeting at Haledon, May Day,” “Sending Away the Children,”and “Strike Meeting in Turn Hall” (Golin 166-169). On the level of both musicality and orality, it harnessed surprise on a grand scale. Yet in place of enacting skirmishes with the Keystone Kops, as occurred in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, the laborers had the gravest of demeanors.

Despite – or because of – the regulated nature of the proletarian scenarios, this was as revolutionary as ensemble acting could be in the years before the rise of the Communist Party in the United States (CPUSA). Truly enacting solidarity rather than relying on the programmatic Little Red Songbook, the participants were inscribed with a perfectly coordinated solidarity, all moving as one. The multicultural message was conveyed as well. All knew the IWW was open to all nationalities. In a version of Wobbly religious reversal, Italians and other Catholic mill workers adapted the processional to their syndicalist march down the aisle of a people’s cathedral. Nor did the cast resent the disciplined body language they were directed to use.

The Pageant occupied an ambiguous position. Whatever the transient acclaim, it did not engage with the strike itself. It ended in defeat. Politically the OBU, especially onetime supporters Haywood and Flynn denied their support. The Socialist Party, at odds with the Wob presence in Paterson, accused the parade of defeating the workers.

Artistically, it was the opposite of radical working-class Americanism. The motive force, John Reed, was a staunch ally of those arrested; he too was jailed. Yet he was no Wob. For the Madison Square Garden event, he claimed to be a facilitator. In fact, he was scripter, choir master, and head of staging. Calling on Greenwich Village and Harvard friends, he arranged a huge curtain by the Socialist illustrator, John Sloan, and an iconic pamphlet. Most important, he was already primed to support revolutionary upheaval in the Soviet Union. Reed would soon be lauded for his classic defense of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World (1917). In that sense, as a first draft of Reed’s call to arms, it paved the way for the intensified account of economic and political struggle.

Compared to the admittedly ephemeral power of the Wobs’ rally as text, the Paterson Pageant did not win the battle for a full blown worker’s theater. But it did win the war, even if the new creators had to wait until the Great Depression to seize the moment.



The American left went underground during the terrifying years of the Red Scare (1917-1929). Hatred of pacifists fueled trials for sedition, prison, and deportation. Raids on halls, publishing venues, and “safe houses” destroyed precious documents. In a particularly ironic twist, the Wobblies, chief among those prosecuted for crimes against the United States, found their own songs used against them. Lawyers found sabotage everywhere and clinched their cases with this supposed evidence. By the 1920s, these Founding Fathers of modern leftist culture were as battered as those of the political arm.

During its rise in the early years of the Great Depression, the CPUSA rarely mentioned the Little Red Songbook. William Z. Foster (1881-1961), who joined the IWW in its early days in Washington State, but became a leader in the Communist Party, called the creed of the LRS “reactionary” (144). Popular texts, he claimed, only led to a corruption of purpose. The writer, artist, and Wob activist Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) wrote the words of the widely sung anthem Solidarity Forever, which the party claimed as an enunciation of CP theory.  But Chaplin himself, although briefly a member of the party, became disillusioned by it and remained an active contributor to IWW causes. (He is credited with designing the iconic black cat, symbol of radical unionism and wildcat strikes.) Furthermore, the CPUSA repressed information about the still respected American abolitionist song "John Brown’s Body" on which Chaplin had drawn. Many other internationally known songs were annexed by the party without mentioning their IWW authors.

This is not the place to examine Proletcult, the Russian term energetically adopted by American Communists, whose goal was to galvanize workers through literary clubs and study groups. Rather the last words should be about the One Big Union. From James Walsh and Joe Hill to a host of anonymous creators, it introduced the poorest and weakest to songs that reflected their life worlds. In the process, it contributed to a radicalized American popular culture.

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