‘I Never Died’, Said He: Some Bits from Labor’s Contribution to American Culture

The labor movement has a rich cultural history, much of which has been lost over the past 50  years. Part of that history was the “Wobblies,” the name given to the first attempt to organize a national union. Formally, it was called the International Workers of the World and it tried to organize all workers into “one big union.” The attempt failed as the growing strength of the great industrial monopolies suppressed the movement, very often through violence. IWW leaders were hounded and often killed. Many became legendary in the history of the labor movement.

Out of that experience came songs and stories that enriched American culture and helped spark future labor organizing. We reprint below two examples of these songs. The first one, Solidarity Forever, became an unofficial anthem of the labor rebirth in the1930’s. We thank Jay Schaffner for bringing the first stanza of the song to our attention.

The second one, The Ballad of Joe Hill, was inspired by its namesake, an IWW member, who was framed on a murder charge in Utah and executed by a firing squad after leading a strike of copper miners in the state. It was written by composer and balladeer Earl Robinson, also in the 1930’s at the height of the organization of the CIO and the meteoric growth of the labor movement during that decade.

It is fitting that we dedicate the thoughts they express to the generation of young workers in offices and restaurants and coffee shops and warehouses and factories around our country  who are fighting to build their unions, and in the process, to rebuild the union movement today.

      SOLIDARITY FOREVER
 ( Written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin. Sung to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic)

They divide us by our color
They divide us by our tongue
They divide us men and women
They divide us old and young.
But they’ll tremble at our voices
When they hear these verses sung
For the union makes us strong
       Chorus) Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, for the union makes us strong.

When the union’s inspiration
Through the worker’s blood shall run.
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun.
But no force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one
For the union makes us strong.
       (Chorus) Solidarity Forever…(etc.) 


THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL
       Words and music by composer and  balladeer Earl Robinson)

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Said I but Joe you’re ten years dead.
I never died, said he.
I never died, said he.

In Salt Lake City, Joe, said I
Him standing by my bed.
They framed you on a murder charge.
Said Joe, but I ain’t dead.
Said Joe, but I ain’t dead.

The copper bosses killed you Joe
They shot you Joe, said I.
Takes more than guns to kill a man.
Said Joe, I didn’t die.
Said Joe, I didn’t die.

And standing there beside my bed
And smiling with his eyes.
Said Joe what they can never kill
Went on to organize.
Went on to organize.

Joe Hill ain’t dead, he said to me
Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where working folks defend their rights
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill.
Where workers strike and organize
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Said I,  but Joe you’re ten years dead
I never died, said he.
I never died, said he.