First Impressions of the Primary Source
The item we chose for our primary source was the book Songs of Work and Freedom, by Edith Fowke and Jo Glazer. The book is a compilation of “100 favorite songs of American Workers”. The book includes notes on each song from a musical and historical perspective. The book itself was printed by Dolphin Books in 1961. The book is in fairly good shape, with slight wearing around the edges, but nothing too severe. It was made for people sympathetic to the union protests as a way to play the songs of the movement
It’s difficult to say exactly when the Almanac Singers were founded or disbanded. As one former member of the group said, “there are as many versions and interpretations as tere were members” and there were over a dozen former members. But the original members of the group, consisting of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Campbell, John Peter Hawes, and later Woody Guthrie, were together by February of 1941. Originally, Pete Seeger used the name Pete Bowers because his father was then working for the US Government and his father could have potentially lost his job due to Seeger’s politically charged music. Their first gig was performing at a lunch at the Jade Mountain Restaurant in New York in December 1940. They were paid two dollars and fifty cents for their performance. They performed for the national meeting of the American Youth Congress from February 7th to 9th, 1941. This date is often considered to be the “official” start of the Almanac Singers. They wrote politically charged songs to make statements and further the left-wing movement. In fact, the Almanac Singers were part of the Popular Front, a movement of pro-communist artists and musicians. They sang about war, the draft, and even president Franklin Roosevelt himself. They attacked Roosevelt relentlessly, to such an extent that it later caused them some embarrassment when the country took on a pro-administration stance during the war. They later began writing pro-union songs, including “Talking Union”. Then in June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. With World War II in full swing, the Almanac Singers had little choice but to cease singing their staunchly anti-war and anti-Roosevelt songs, switching to morepatriotic and pro-union music. In the spring of 1942, they stopped making new music amid sinking popularity, due to their previous anti-war songs. They couldn’t land very many gigs and by March of 1943, they were officially disbanded.
Analysis of the Lyrics
The lyrics of the song, “Talking Union,” are straightforward. “In verse after verse, “Talking Union” described how to start a union: pass out leaflets, call meetings, resist the attempts of the boss to derail those efforts, for ‘he’s a bastard-unfair-slave driver-Bet he beats his own wife.’” (Fowke and Glazer) The song is upbeat and in a major key, so that it does not sound hopeless or sad, rather the union workers can rally behind the song. It is obvious that the Almanac Singers were on the side of the workers, and were in favor of workers’ rights. And due to Talking Union catchy nature and easy to understand moral, it quickly gained popularity and was heard across the country. It is simple and straightforward such that two thirds of the song were written within an hour, and the rest of the song was finished by Pete Seeger that night. This song was the reason that the Congress of Industrial Organizations agreed to sponsor the Almanac Singer’s national tour.
The song, “Talking Union,” is a very typical Talking Blues style song. Talking Blues is a combination of folk music and country music. It is characterized by rhythmic speech or near-speech where the melody is free but the actual rhythm of the song is very strict. This means that there are a wide array of notes and pitches used, but the tempo and beat pattern are locked and do not change throughout the song. This song uses a banjo, with repetitive guitar lines utilizing a three-chord progression, this means that while it is called a “blues,” it is not officially a blues style. It is also like the typical Talking Blues style due to its rhyming couplets. And it fits the theme of dry humor, adding a wry commentary of the subject. The Almanac Singers are attributed to turning the Talking Blues into a common political protest song style.
Purpose of the Song “Talking Union”
The Almanac Singers wrote about many issues close to the hearts of the left wing, including unions. The song is intended to advocate for labor rights. It was released as part of an album of the same name in the spring of 1941. They often performed the song for labor union gatherings and they were very well-received by the unions. In May of that year they performed in front of twenty thousand striking transport workers at Madison Square Garden. “Talking Union” was written while the Almanac Singers were organizing the Congress of Industrial Organizations unions and the song was partially meant to help inspire workers to organize and form labor unions. The talking blues style encouraged the audience (often laborers) to sing along, feel a sense of togetherness, and feel like they belong with the union. It provided a sense of solidarity.
Impact of “Talking Union”
When the song “Talking Union” and the album of the same name were released in the spring of 1941, it was an instant hit. In fact, the album was their most successful one. They were playing for labor groups across the country. Some days, they played up to five or six performances in a single day. For a while, the song was very popular and impacted many laborers across the country. In June of that year, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and it was apparent that war was imminent. At that point, they stopped singing their anti-war songs and focused on unions and other topics not related to war. They sang for laborer-filled audiences in major cities such as Chicago, Denver, and Pittsburgh. But after Pearl Harbor, the Almanac Singers switched to almost exclusively anti-fascist music to help with the war effort. In total, they were performing Talking Union for less than a year. As such, it didn’t have much of an impact, in part because they didn’t perform it for long but also in part because during the war, the goals of unions took a backseat to manufacturing for the war effort.
Although the intentions of the Almanac Singers were good, there was a great amount of controversy surrounding the song and the protests that it was accompanied by. They supported some very controversial political viewpoints and were a major part of the pro-labor movement. Many in America identified them as communists, and their controversial opinions certainly weren’t helping their case. A September 1941 Time article accused them of being communists. This association caused the Almanac Singers to be rejected by many Americans, their songs written off as communist propaganda in the years following World War II. The controversy took a toll on their influence and may have slowed them from making any progress in the pro-labor movement.
Songs of Work and Freedom is a piece of history, depicting songs from the pro-labor movement. It brings us tunes from various groups, including the Almanac Singers. The Almanac Singers were at the forefront of the movement for workers’ rights. While their efforts were made in good faith, some of the viewpoints they supported were highly controversial. The controversy surrounding them may have affected their efforts, but they made an impact nonetheless. Songs of Work and Freedom provides us with the music of the past, showing us how a song can change society, for better or for worse.
Fowke, Edith and Glazer, Joe. Songs of Work and Freedom. Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1961
Reuss, Richard with Reuss, JoAnne. American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957. The Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Winkler, Allan. “To Everything There is a Season” Pete Seeger and the Power of Song. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Cohen, Ronald and Capaldi, James. The Pete Seeger Reader. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Sean Kelly, Anderson Wheatley, Adam Williams