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Reviewed by:
  • The Big Red Songbook
  • Joseph Grim Feinberg
The Big Red Songbook. Ed. Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, and Salvatore Salerno. Aft. by Utah Phillips. (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2007. Pp. viii + 538, preface, introductory essays, commentary, afterword, index, bibliography, contributors, illustrations.)

This collection, the last major work both of the late "laborlorist" Archie Green and of the late surrealist poet and labor publisher Franklin Rosemont, should be of great value to folklorists, activists, and singers alike. The core of the book is a compilation of every song published from 1909 to 1973 in the Little Red Songbook of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This classic of labor literature has made its way around thousands of picket lines and through thirty-seven editions. Printed to fit in a laborer's breast pocket, the book has always been meant for those on the frontlines of struggle and already familiar with the songs. Now, for the first time, the songs have been brought together and made easily accessible to those outside the union who, for scholarly, political, or musical reasons, might want to understand the songs and, perhaps, sing them in new contexts. In addition to making the songs easy to find, the book places the songs in historical context and introduces the reader to the Wobblies' (that is, the IWW's) unique vocabulary and aesthetic style. And a provocative article by Archie Green (reprinted from the Journal of American Folklore 73(289):189–217, 1960) underlines the songs' significance for folklorists who, in Green's view, "have still not come to grips with either the labor or radical movement in the United States" (p. 397).

Several of the collected songs, like "Solidarity Forever" and "Casey Jones, the Union Scab," are classics, well known both to labor activists and enthusiasts of contemporary folk music. Others are more obscure, and some have probably not been sung by anyone in almost a century. All are valuable in large part thanks to the work done by the editors to detail the situation in which the songs emerged: the daily activity of the radical labor movement. We see portraits of several songwriters, three of whose personal recollections are reprinted in the book: Jim Connell's "How I Wrote the 'Red Flag,'" Harry McClintock's "On 'Hallelulah I'm a Bum,'" and a piece by Richard Brazier on the origins of the first Little Red Songbook. We see how the worker-musicians parodied popular tunes, tried to drown out the Salvation (or "Starvation") Army on street corners, wrote inspiring hymns for May Day marches, and composed ironic ditties about life in the hobo "jungles," where many migrant Wobblies spent their nights. We see how some songs were written and then forgotten, while others were taken up with collective gusto, new singers adding new verses and new layers of meaning. We see, in short, the folk process at work.

The distinctly folklike character of this creative process is made all the more interesting by the fact that few of the songwriters in this collection thought they were writing "folk-songs." As revolutionary workers, they looked resolutely to the future, with little thought to the rural past that was most often associated with folklore at the time. Most of the melodies come from commercial hits or revivalist gospel hymns, not from a long-standing folk tradition. The songs have been transmitted in printed form—in the Little Red Songbooks—and only in a secondary sense by word of mouth. Yet few readers would deny that Wobbly songs have become an authentic folklore of the labor movement, and the book offers us a chance to reflect on what makes them folklore. We might think of the folk process in this case as an inverted analog to commodification, a process by which objects of exchange (like parodied commercial songs or cheaply sold songbooks) come to embody the kind of cooperative social relations that Wobblies have often referred to as "the seed of the new society within the shell of the old."

At the same time, the editors of the Big Red Songbook make it clear that the songs of the IWW are not just like any other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-1882
Print ISSN
0021-8715
Pages
pp. 233-235
Launched on MUSE
2010-04-11
Open Access
No
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