Famous Mine and Mill Strikes

The convict-lease system was a common practice in the South in the latter 1800s through the 1920s. The penal systems in the South would lease jailed convicts to the owners of mills, mines and factories—think of “chain gangs.” The system was described as the “surreptitious re-enslavement of the Negro.” (Green, Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal Mining Song, p. 157.) Obviously, the system provided cheap labor and strikebreakers for management. “One of the chief reasons which induced the company to take up the [convict labor] system was the great chance it afforded for overcoming strikes.” (Green, p. 164, quoting a New York Times interview with a union official.) Because of the obvious negative impact of the system on the workers, the unions were determined to eliminate it.

The song “Coal Creek Troubles” (aka “Coal Creek War”) was written by Jilson Setters (aka James W. Day) in 1937. It is sung by Mike Seeger, brother of Pete Seeger, Folkways FH5273, at https://youtu.be/MgYhj2zOoZ8 . The song is about union miners’ (Knights of Labor) efforts to eliminate “slave” convict labor and the owner’s (Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company – TCI) violent reaction to the strike which lasted from July 1891 to 1894. According to a summary of the Coal Creek War, “In 1891, things turned ugly as the owners tried to deny the miners the right to choose their own check-weighmen. The miners struck; they were evicted from their homes and more convicts brought in. The miners peacefully freed the convicts and tried to convince governor “Buck” Buchanan to negotiate. Buchanan made the worst possible choice: Force, but not sufficient force. He gathered a small escort of militia, came to Coal Creek, tried to argue with the miners, was refuted, then departed. He left the militia—but they were only three companies, not enough to do any good. The miners forced them to surrender. Buchanan sent more and more troops until the miners finally surrendered in October 1892. Buchanan failed of re-election, and eventually the convict labor system was abolished.” (http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/ThBa192.html )

My song is founded on the truth,
In poverty we stand.
How hard the millionaire will crush
Upon the laboring man.
The miner’s toiling under ground
To earn his daily bread;
To clothe his wife and children
And see that they are fed.

Some are from Kentucky,
The place known as my birth, brother
As true and honest-hearted man
As ever trod this earth.
The Governor sent the convicts here
And works them in the bank;
The captain and his soldiers
Are leading by in rank.
Although the mines are guarded,
The miners true and fair,
They mean to deal out justice,
A living they declare.
The corruption of Buchanan
Brought the convicts here,
Just to please the rich man
And take the miner’s share.

The miners acted manly
When they turned the convicts loose;
You see, they did not kill them
And gave them no abuse.
But when they brought the convicts
They boldly marched them forward;
The miners soon were gathered
And placed them under guard.

Soon the miners did agree
To let them take their place;
And wait the legislature
To act upon the case.
The law has made no effort
To lend a helping hand;
To help the struggling miner
Or move the convict band.

Buchanan acted cruelly
To put them out to toil.
He says he has not room enough
For the convicts in the wall.
He has no law to work them
Only in the pen.
Why should they be on public work,
To rob the laboring man?

I am in sympathy with the miners,
As everyone should be.
In other states they work free labor,
And why not Tennessee?
The miners true and generous
In many works and ways,
We all should treat them kindly,
Their platform we should praise.

The Lord in all His wisdom
Will lend a helping haud,
And if we hold out faithful,
God will strive with man.
He gives us happy sunshine,
A great and glorious light;
He’ll give us food and raiment
If we’ll only serve him right.

NOTE: Here is an alternative seventh verse from Betty Litton Davis, TN, who reported learning the song in 1891 when the “Troubles” were at their height:

God Bless the Knights of Labor
With all their wit and skill;
Their efforts to accomplish,
Intentions to fulfill.
I am in sympathy with the miner
As everyone should be,
Other states they work free labor,
And why not Tennessee?

Another song about the Coal Creek strike by Doc Hopkins, who was an original member of the Kentucky country band The Cumberland Ridge Runners, can be found on YouTube at (http://youtu.be/bT9lBbddtLk) In his song, Hopkins uses his banjo talents to provide dramatic sound effects to accompany his recitation of the Coal Creek story.

Harlan County, Kentucky (in the middle of Appalachia) was the scene of many battles between miner labor and management. The area was known to labor organizers as “Bloody Harlan.” (Denisoff, Great Day, p. 23; Epstein, Political Folk Music in America from Its Origins to Bob Dylan, p. 51.) Aunt Molly Jackson, whose actual name was Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos, a coal miner’s wife and an organizer for the National Miner’s Union (NMU) from Harlan, wrote and recorded more than 200 labor songs for the Library of Congress. (Cohen, Work and Song, P. 67.) Her songs related to the “isolation of working underground” and living in “near feudal conditions.” (Dunaway/Beer, “Singing Out”, p. 40.) Her most well-known songs were “Ragged Hungry Blues,” “Poor Miner’s Farewell,and “I am a Union Woman.

“Ragged Hungry Blues,written and sung by Aunt Molly Jackson, 1930-31. (Part one http://youtu.be/-VL6ECLZwsk; Part two http://youtu.be/rBaWGiw0CNc)

I’m sad and weary, I’ve got the hungry, ragged blues.
Not one penny in the pocket to buy one thing I need to use.

I woke up this morning, with the worst blues I ever had in my life;
Not a bite to eat for breakfast, a poor coal miner’s wife!

When my husband works in the coalmines, he loads a carload every trip;
Then he goes to the office at the evening to get denied of scrip.

Just because they took all he made that day to pay his mine expense,
A man that will work for just coal oil and carbide, he ain’t got a stack of sense.

All the women in the coal camps are sitting with bowed down heads,
Ragged and bare-footed, and the children cryin’ for bread.

No food, no clothes for our children, I’m sure this head don’t lie;
If we can’t get more for our labor we’ll starve to death and die!

Don’t go under the mountain, with a slate hangin’ o’er your head;
And work for just coal oil and carbide, and your children cryin’ for bread.

This mining town I live in is a sad and lonely place
Where pity and starvation is pictured on every face!

Some coal operators might tell you the hungry blues are not there.
They’re the worst kind of blues this poor woman ever had.

“I Am a Union Woman, was written by Aunt Molly Jackson and is sung by Rosalie Sorrels at http://youtu.be/RLzw8QVrseM. Aunt Molly sang this song as an introduction before she gave testimony before the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, Straight Creek, Kentucky, November 7, 1931. This Committee, made up of left-leaning intellectuals, such as famous American writers John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser, investigated the working conditions of the miners and their union activities. (Epstein, pp. 52-53.) Her testimony can be found at Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields, 1932. New York: Da Capo, 1970, pp. 279-282.

I am a union woman
Just as brave as I can be
I do not like the bosses
And the bosses don’t like me.

Join the NMU, Join the NMU [The “NMU” is the National Miners Union.]

I was raised in Old Kentucky
Kentucky born and bred,
But when I joined the union,
They called me a Russian Red.

Join the NMU…

This is the worst time on earth
That I have ever saw,
To get killed out by gun thugs
And framed up by the law.

Join the NMU…

If you want to join a union,
As strong as one can be
Join the dear old NMU
And come along with me.

Join the NMU…

We are many thousand strong,
And I am glad to say
We are getting stronger
And stronger every day.

Join the NMU…

The bosses ride fine horses
While we walk in the mud,
Their banner is the dollar sign,
Ours is striped with blood.

Join the NMU…

“Poor Miner’s Farewell, written by Aunt Molly Jackson (1932).   https://youtu.be/K6p-cBG2zaI?list=PLaUZePecB39F02HWw3vQ9WEorl8ZE16oh

Poor hard working miners, their troubles are great,
So often while mining they meet their sad fate.
Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell,
Their mining’s all over, poor miners farewell!

Only a miner, killed under the ground,
Only a miner, but one more is gone.
Only a miner but one more is gone,
Leaving his wife and dear children alone.

They leave their dear wives and little ones, too,
To earn them a living as miners all do.
Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell,
Their mining’s all over, poor miners farewell!

Leaving his children thrown out on the street,
Barefoot and ragged and nothing to eat,
Mother is jobless, my father is dead,
I am a poor orphan, begging for bread.

When I am in Kentucky so often I meet,
Poor coal miners’ children out on the street.
“What are you doing?” to them I have said.
“We are hungry, Aunt Molly, and we’re begging for bread.”

Will you please help us to get something to eat?
We are ragged and hungry, thrown out on the street.”
“Yes, I will help you,” to them I have said,
“To beg food and clothing, I will help you to get bread.”

(A modified version of this song to memorialize the Upper Big Branch Disaster at Montcoal, West Virginia in April 2010 is written and sung by Matthew Thomas at http://youtu.be/B4PHlzFLUp4. )

Aunt Molly Jackson’s two half siblings were also active in union organizing and singing. Like Aunt Molly their songs sought to advance the cause of poor workers. Her half-brother, Jim Garland, wrote “The Ballad of Harry Simms” in memory of an organizer for the National Miners Union who was shot and killed by a mine guard hired by the mine owners during the Harlan County strikes in Kentucky in 1932. (Green, p. 420-22; Cohen, Work and Song, p.68.) Sarah Ogan Gunning,Garland’s sister and Aunt Molly’s half-sister, wrote “Picket Line,” “I am Going to Organize Baby Mine,” “I Hate the Capitalist System,aka “I Hate the Company Bosses,” and “I Am a Girl of Constant Sorrow. (Id. at p. 68.)

“The Ballad of Harry Simms,was written by Jim Garland (1932); listen to it as sung by Pete Seeger at http://youtu.be/FU5f4xj-Xeg. Seeger does not sing the last verse.

Comrades, listen to my story
Comrades, listen to my song
I’ll tell you of a hero
That now is dead and gone

I’ll tell you of a young boy
Whose age was just nineteen
He was the bravest union man
That I have ever seen.

Harry Simms was a pal of mine
We labored side by side
Expecting to be shot on sight
Or taken for a ride
By the dirty coal operator gun thugs
That roam from town to town
To shoot and kill our comrades
Wherever they might be found.

Harry Simms and I were parted
At five o’clock that day
“Be careful my dear comrade”,
To Harry I did say.
“I must do my duty”
Was his reply to me.
If I get killed by guns thugs
Please don’t grieve over me.

Harry Simms was walking down the track
One bright sunshiny day.
He was a youth of courage
His step was light and gay.
He did not know the gun thugs
Were hiding on the way,
To kill our dear young comrade
This bright sunshiny day.

Harry Simms was killed on Bush Creek
In nineteen thirty-two
He organized the miners
Into the NMU
He gave his life in struggle
That was all that he could do.
He gave his life for the Union
Also for me and you.

Comrades, we must vow today
This one thing we must do
We must organize all the miners
In the good old NMU.
We’ll get a million volunteers
From those who wish us well
And sink this rotten system
In the deepest pits of hell.

“I Am a Girl of Constant Sorrow” was written by Sarah Ogan Gunning in 1936. (http://youtu.be/nn5F_UQMPLM) Gunning’s song is the re-writing of an old traditional, Tennessee mountain tune known by several names, including “Farewell Song.” There have been dozens of versions of the song over the years by some very well-known artists including Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

I am a girl of constant sorrow,
I’ve seen trouble all my days.
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The state where I was born and raised.

My mother, how I hated to leave her,
Mother dear who now is dead.
But I had to go and leave her
So my children could have bread.

Perhaps, dear friends, you are wondering
What the miners eat and wear.
This question I will try to answer,
For I’m sure that it is fair.

For breakfast we had bulldog gravy,
For supper we had beans and bread.
The miners don’t have any dinner,
And a tick of straw they call a bed.
Well, we call this Hell on Earth, friends,
I must tell you all good-bye.
Oh, I know you all are hungry,
Oh, my darling friends, don’t cry.

In about 1938, Moe Asch, owner of Folkway Records, first heard Sarah Gunning sing “I Hate the Capitalist System/I Hate the Company Bosses. He complimented her by commenting that it was the most radical composition he had ever heard in his life. Sarah thought of it as autobiographical—a response to the death of her loved ones. (Archie Green, liner notes for “Sarah Ogan Gunning—A Girl of Constant Sorrow,” Folk Legacy, 1965.) The song is sung by Paolo Bonfanti at https://youtu.be/N7VJYld4B0E

I hate the company bosses,
I’ll tell you the reason why:
They cause me so much suffering
And my dearest friends to die.

Oh yes, I guess you wonder
What they have done to me.
I’m goin’ to tell you, Mister,
My husband had TB.

Brought on by hard work and low wages,
An’ not enough to eat,
Goin’ naked an’ hungry
No shoes on his feet.

I guess you’ll say he’s lazy,
An’ did not want to work.
But I must say you’re crazy,
For work he did not shirk.

My husband was a coal miner,
He worked an’ risked his life,
To try to support three children,
Himself, his mother and wife.

I had a blue-eyed baby,
The darlin’ of my heart.
But from my little darlin’
Her mother had to part.

These mighty company bosses,
They dress in jewels an’ silk.
But my darlin’ blue-eyed baby,
She starved to death for milk.

I had a darlin’ mother,
For her I often cry.
But with them rotten conditions
My mother had to die.

Well, what killed your mother?
I hear these bosses say.
Dead of hard work an’ starvation,
My mother had to pay.

Well, what killed your mother?
Oh tell us if you please.
Excuse me, it was pellagry,
That starvation disease.

They call this the land of plenty,
To them I guess it’s true.
But that’s to the company bosses,
Not workers like me an’ you.

Well, what can I do about it
To these men of power an’ might?
I tell you company bosses
I’m goin’ to fight, fight, fight.

What can we do about it
To right this dreadful wrong?
We’re all goin’ to join the union,
For the union makes us strong.

Kentucky and Tennessee were not the only places that experienced labor troubles in the 1920s and 1930s. Barney Graham was president of the United Mine Workers‘ local in Wilder, Illinois, and the organizer of the miners in the famous Davidson-Wilder strike of 1933. At the height of the strike, the company imported gun thugs from Chicago. One Sunday morning Graham was walking along the dirt road that was Wilder’s main street, and, as he passed the company store, two gun thugs shot and killed him. The community was so tightly controlled by the mine owners that no local preacher dared stand up to speak at Graham’s funeral; instead the eulogy was delivered by divinity students from Nashville. (Hedy West, liner notes for “Old Times & Hard Times” (Topic records 12T117, 1965.)

“The Ballad of Barney Graham” was written by Graham’s daughter, Della Mae Graham and is sung here by Pete Seeger. (http://youtu.be/YyXyQgorOSM)

On April the thirtieth,
In 1933,
Upon the streets of Wilder
They shot him, brave and free.

They shot my darling father,
He fell upon the ground;
‘Twas in the back they shot him;
His blood come streaming down.

They took the pistol handles
And beat him on the head;
The hired gunmen beat him
Till he was cold and dead.

When he left home that morning,
I thought he’d never return;
But for my darling father
My heart shall ever yearn.

We carried him to the graveyard
There we laid him down;
To sleep in death for many a year
In the cold and sodden ground.

Although he left the union
He tried so hard to build,
His blood was spilled for justice,
And justice guides us still.

Another heroine of the union movement was Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, born in 1830. Mother Jones was the wife of a miner, who “devoted herself to countless ‘adopted children’ in mine and mill, factory and sweatshop.” (Green, p. 243.) She was affiliated with Knights of Labor and was called “The patron saint of the picket lines.” She stated, “I reside wherever there is a good fight against wrong.” (Green, p. 271.) She participated in the Baltimore & Ohio railroad strike (Pittsburgh 1877), the Haymarket Square protests (Chicago 1886), the Pullman Strike (Birmingham 1894), the great Pennsylvania anthracite strike (1902), the Paint and Cabin Creek strikes (1912-13), the Ludlow Colorado Strike where she was jailed (1913-14), the nationwide steel strike (1919), and the Logan County Strike (1923). (Green, p.251-52.)

Gene Autry of cowboy movie fame recorded “The Death of Mother Jones” in 1931. (http://youtu.be/6pHwtJQ1FyI)

The world today’s in mourning
O’er the death of Mother Jones;
Gloom and sorrow hover
Around the miners’ homes.
This grand old champion of labor
Was known in every land;
She fought for right and justice,
She took a noble stand.

O’er the hills and through the valley
In ev’ry mining town;
Mother Jones was ready to help them,
She never turned them down.
On front with the striking miners
She always could be found;
And received a hearty welcome
In ev’ry mining town.

She was fearless of every danger,
She hated that which was wrong;
She never gave up fighting
Until her breath was gone.
This noble leader of labor
Has gone to a better land;
While the hard-working miners,
They miss her guiding hand.

May the miners all work together
To carry out her plan;
And bring back better conditions
For every laboring man.

Woody Guthrie composed and sung a song about the Ludlow, Colorado Strike. Guthrie characterized the circumstances as a “massacre.” The mine owners asked the Governor of Colorado to call out the National Guard to help them break the strike. The National Guard became deputies of the mine owners. The owners had evicted the workers from the management-owned homes in the company towns. In early April 1914, the wives and children of the strikers marched out of the “tent city” where they lived to confront the owner’s forces. The mounted guardsmen charged the protestors and inflicted sabre wounds on four women and a child. Later that month, on April 20, 1914, the management troops encircled the tent city with machine guns and, without provocation, fired on the tents for hours. They also set fire to the tents. As a result 24 people related to the union workers died. More people would have been casualties but for the fact that the miners had anticipated the attack and had dug protective trenches under the tents. (Green, p.151-52; Scott p. 279.)

“The Ludlow Massacre, written and sung by Woody Guthrie (1944) (http://youtu.be/XDd64suDz1A) tells the story set out above. Woody Guthrie wrote: “I made up these like I was there on the spot, the day and the night it happened. This is the best way to make up a song like this. When you read the life work of Mother Ella Reeves Bloor ‘We Are Many’ you will see this story of the Ludlow Massacre, you will be there, you will live it. Ludlow Massacre was one of the hundred of battles fought to build trade unions. I want to sing a song to show our soldiers that Ludlow Massacres must not ever come back to us to kill 13 children and a pregnant woman, just to force you to work for cheap wages.” (Struggle by Woody Guthrie, Folkways Records & Service Corp., New York City, 1976)

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn’t try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the red-neck miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union,”
And then I hung my head and cried.

Guthrie also wrote a song about an incident that occurred in 1913 during a labor conflict in Calumet, Michigan where the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) attempted to unionize copper miners. The organizing efforts were ignored by the mine owners. When the owners continued to refuse to meet with the union organizers, the workers went on strike. Following typical patterns, the owners imported hired mercenaries and arranged for the state militia to intervene on their behalf. The strike, which began in July 1913, continued into December. On Christmas Eve, the miners held a holiday party for their children. The party was held on the second floor of a wooden community building. During the party, one of the owner’s thugs started a panic among the children when he yelled “fire!” In their attempt to escape the suspected blaze (there was no actual fire), the children crushed themselves on the only stairway that led outside because the door had been barricaded by the thugs. Seventy two people died, mostly children. (Green, p.155-57; Goldsmith, pp. 158-59.)

Listen to “1913 Massacre,written by Woody Guthrie (1941), sung by Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son. (http://youtu.be/EgYTT6Avkok)

Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I will take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

I will take you in a door and up a high stairs,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I will let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.

You ask about work and you ask about pay,
They’ll tell you they make less than a dollar a day,
Working the copper claims, risking their lives,
So it’s fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.

There’s talking and laughing and songs in the air,
And the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know it you’re friends with us all,
And you’re dancing around and around in the hall.

Well a little girl sits down by the Christmas tree lights,
To play the piano so you gotta keep quiet,
To hear all this fun you would not realize,
That the copper boss’ thug men are milling outside.

The copper boss’ thugs stuck their heads in the door,
One of them yelled and he screamed, “there’s a fire,”
A lady she hollered, “there’s no such a thing.
Keep on with your party, there’s no such thing.”

A few people rushed and it was only a few,
“It’s just the thugs and the scabs fooling you.”
A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor,
The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,
While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.

Such a terrible sight I never did see,
We carried our children back up to their tree,
The scabs outside still laughed at their spree,
And the children that died there were seventy-three.

The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
“See what your greed for money has done.”

Common features of labor-management relations (mine, mill and factory) in the first part of the 20th century were the “company town” and the “company store.” Walter Reuther, President of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) described it as: “…a coal-mining town in which the employer, the coal mining company, not only owns the mines and the roads and the schools and the courthouse and the company store, but also the lives of the coal miners themselves.” (Green, p. 305.) Having control over every aspect of the miners’ lives, the arrangement was subject to abuse. One such abuse was to pay the miners in “scrip,” a form of voucher, rather than in United States currency. Scrip was only accepted at the company store. Not being able to shop for goods at other places, the miners were subject to price gouging by the operator of the store (the mine owner). The purchasing power of company scrip was usually worth no more than 50-60 cents on the dollar. (Rob. Cohen, When the Old Left was Young, Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941, p. 44.) The miners could never get out of debt.

In 1947, Merle Travis, who was raised in a Kentucky coal mining community, wrote the song “16 Tons” that described the problem faced by the miners. Travis is quoted in Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Protest: 100 Favorite Songs of American Workers, p. 53: “My Dad (a coal miner) never saw real money. He was constantly in debt to the coal company. When shopping was needed, Dad would go to the window and draw little brass tokens against his account. They could only be spent at the company store. He used to say ‘I can’t afford to die; I owe my soul to the company store.’” Travis’ song was recorded in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford, a popular country and western singer, who had his own TV show, and Ford’s recording climbed to the top of the Billboard music charts (country and pop). (http://youtu.be/1PITYbSZZfk)

Some people say a man is made outta’ mud
A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number 9 coal
And the store boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you, then the left one will

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

Songwriter Florence Reece was responsible for “the most famous song to come out of the coal fields” and it’s titled “Which Side are You On?” (Green, p.169.) Mrs. Reece was the wife of a union organizer. They lived in Harlan County, Kentucky. During a strike in 1931, the local sheriff, J.H. Blair, with a band of deputies, came to the Reece house looking for the husband. He was not at home. Perhaps frustrated by the husband’s absence, the deputies ransacked the house. (Id.) Mrs. Reece was able to get a warning to her husband, who was able to escape from likely physical harm. Mrs. Reece wrote “Which Side are You On?” after this experience. This version is sung by Natalie Merchant. (http://youtu.be/TfWzLa1faLA)

Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Chorus: Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union
‘Til every battle’s won.


They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there;
You’ll either be a union man,
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.


Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?


Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.