The Almanac Singers was a New York City-based folk music group, active between 1940 and 1943. They were founded by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Others who were part of the ‘Alamanacs’ from time to time included Bess Lomax, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Josh White. It was a veritable all-star lineup.
The Almanac Singers specialized in topical songs, mostly songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy; it was “a musical group to promote social activism at home and rally support for the fight against fascism abroad.” (Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity, p. 79.)
According to Lampell, the Almanacs’ creed was a simple one: “Our work is to be performed in the manner which best aids the working class in its struggle to claim its just heritage. We just stick to the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time—sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred. We’re working men on the side of the working man and against the big boys.” (http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/the-almanac-singers.html.)
The Almanacs issued an album of labor songs in June 1941 entitled “Talking Union,” which happened to be the album’s most well-known song. (Seeger and Reiser, Carry It On: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America, p. 23-24.) The “talking blues” was a style of song where “…words not meant to be sung but to be spoken….” (Id., p. 24.) “Talking blues was not so much a song as a poetic performance, a rhythmic telling of a story.” (Eyerman and Jamison, p. 68.) Here is the song. “Talking Union,” words by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger (1941) sung by The Almanac Singers (http://youtu.be/C13JFv4JfH8).
If you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do;
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you;
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,
But if you all stick together, now, ‘twont he long.
You’ll get shorter hours,
Better working conditions.
Vacations with pay,
Take your kids to the seashore.
It ain’t quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train;
‘Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
We’ll all be waiting till Judgment Day;
We’ll all he buried – gone to Heaven –
Saint Peter’ll be the straw boss then.
Now, you know you’re underpaid, hut the boss says you ain’t;
He speeds up the work till you’re ‘bout to faint,
You may he down and out, but you ain’t beaten,
Pass out a leaflet and call a meetin’
Talk it over—speak your mind—
Decide to do something about it.
‘Course, the boss may persuade some poor damn fool
To go to your meeting and act like a stool;
But you can always tell a stool, though—that’s a fact;
He’s got a yellow streak running down his back;
He doesn’t have to stool—he’ll always make a good living
On what he takes out of blind men’s cups.
You got a union now; you’re sitting pretty;
Put some of the boys on the steering committee.
The boss won’t listen when one man squawks.
But he’s got to listen when the union talks.
He’ll be mighty lonely one of these days.
Suppose they’re working you so hard it’s just outrageous,
They’re paying you all starvation wages;
You go to the boss, and the boss would yell,
“Before I’d raise your pay I’d see you all in Hell.”
Well, he’s puffing a big see-gar and feeling mighty slick,
He thinks he’s got your union licked.
He looks out the window, and what does he see
But a thousand pickets, and they all agree
He’s a bastard—unfair—slave driver—
Bet he beats his own wife.
Now, boy, you’ve come to the hardest time;
The boss will try to bust your picket line.
He’ll call out the police, the National Guard;
They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.
They’ll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.
Call every one of you a goddamn Red –
Bomb throwers, even the kids.
But out in Detroit here’s what they found,
And out in Frisco here’s what they found,
And out in Pittsburgh here’s what they found,
And down in Bethlehem here’s what they found,
That if you don’t let Red-baiting break you up,
If you don’t let stool pigeons break you up,
If you don’t let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up—
You’ll win. What I mean,
Take it easy—but take it!
Another well-known song from The Almanac Singer’s “Talking Union” album was “Union Maid,” written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. “Union Maid…is Woody Guthrie’s tribute to the heroic women who resisted the intimidation of company thugs during an oil worker’s strike in Oklahoma City. He dedicated his song to a Southern tenant farmer’s union organizer [who was beat up by the thugs]…’Union Maid’…is the best-known union women’s song today.” (Wenner & Freilicher, Here’s to the Women, 100 Songs for and about American Women, p. 242.) The chorus is particularly well-known. (From notes on Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday (Clearwater) Concert, Madison Square Garden, 5/3/09.) (http://youtu.be/Rs5_gB582IM)
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come ’round
She always stood her ground.
Chorus: Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.
This union maid was wise to the tricks of company spies,
She couldn’t be fooled by a company stool, she’d always organize the guys.
She always got her way when she struck for better pay.
She’d show her card to the National Guard
And this is what she’d say
You gals who want to be free, just take a tip from me;
Get you a man who’s a union man and join the ladies’ auxiliary.
Married life ain’t hard when you got a union card,
A union man has a happy life when he’s got a union wife.
In 1941 Seeger and Guthrie composed and compiled 150 of the “cream of the crop of contemporary labor and protest songs,” in a book entitled Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-hit People. John Steinbeck wrote the forward to the book. (Cohen, Work and Song, p. 101.)
The New Deal National Labor Relations Act, aka The Wagner Act, known as “The worker’s bill of rights,” established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1935. The Act legalized workers’ right to organize into unions, prohibited much of management’s union busting activities, and marked a new day in labor-management relations. Thereafter, the violence that had characterized union organizing activities in the earlier parts of the century gradually lessened, as union rights were recognized. But, organized labor still met stiff resistance from management.