There have been at least 38 editions of the working people’s hymnal popularly known as the Little Red Songbook since it appeared in 1909. Here is the story of those remarkable little books.
The Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were always a singing union and from the earliest strikes and job actions after the union’s founding in 1905 music was a part of meeting, rallies, marches, and picket lines. Nowhere was this truer than in the Pacific Northwest where early organizing drives among lumber workers who were often called timber beasts because of their ragged appearance and often near starving conditions.
Unable to effectively get to remote logging camps, IWW organizers relied on street meetings in cities like Spokane, Washington to protest the job shark hiring agencies that dispatched men to the camps collecting fees from the ax men and employers alike. They found that songs helped attract crowds for the union’s soapbox orators. When Salvation Army Bands were often sent to drown out the meetings workers would sing the old hymns with new words.
The Spokane local issued a song card featuring four selections in 1906. The sold for a penny, but most were probably handed out for free at the street meeting. The card featured already familiar labor songs and one original— Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. McClintock was a former Texas cowboy, harvest worker, and hobo who had become a lumber worker while also working as a musician in saloons. The song was originally written in the 1890’s but was popular with all sorts of migratory workers. McClintock also penned another popular Hobo song, The Big Rock Candy Mountain.A rare and battered copy of the Songbook's first edition published by the Spokane, Washington IWW local.
The song cards were so successful that the local decided to assemble and sell a small songbook designed to easily fit into a shirt pocket. It sold for 10¢, not an insignificant sum in those days when a dime could generally buy a meal at Skid Road diners, but not a prohibitive one. The first edition did not have the now familiar red cover but did have red lettering. The songbook hit the streets in January of 1909 and was an immediate success. The book’s official title was a mouthful—Songs of the Workers, on the Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. Subsequent editions shortened that to Songs of the Workers and/or Songs of the IWW to Fan the Flames of Discontent. Three editions were printed in Spokane over the next three years and were bound in heavy red stock, giving it the enduring nickname, The Little Red Song Book. But that title appeared on only two of the subsequent 38 official editions.
Each new songbook added new songs like the labor standards The Red Flag sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum, the global Socialist anthem The Internationale, and the easily adapted Civil War song Hold the Fort.
When the Spokane local was under siege during aftermath the 1909 Free Speech Fight, issuing and printing new editions shifted to Seattle. It was in an early Seattle edition that Joe Hill’s song The Preacher and the Slave was published in 1911. Mac McClintock claimed to be the first to sing it at a street meeting because Hill was too shy to perform publicly.Carlos Cortez's linocut poster tribute Wobbly bard and martyr Joe Hill.
Joel Hägglund a/k/a Joseph Hillstrom and Joe Hill was a young Swedish born itinerate worker who had been involved with the IWW for a few years. Several of his songs were added to editions of the Songbook including The Tramp, Stung Right, Where the River Frazier Flows, There is Power in a Union, Mr. Block, and Casey Jones Union Scab all of which have become labor standards. Hill was famously framed on a murder charge in Salt Lake City, Utah. While being held he was inspired by young IWW orator Elizabeth Gurly Flynn who worked tirelessly on his defense committee and who had visited him in jail to write The Rebel Girl.
After Hill’s execution by firing squad on November 19, 1915 his poem Final Will was included in all subsequent editions of the Songbook. At least two later versions of the book were officially named Joe Hill Memorial Edition, including one issued by the Cleveland Metal and Machinery Workers Industrial Union 440 in the early 1950’s. By popular demand later editions have also included I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson which was popularized by Paul Robeson and Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs’ long ballad Joe Hill.
Other notable early additions to the Songbook included Dump the Bosses off Your Back by John Brill. Industrial Worker editor and commercial artist Ralph Chaplin’s rousing Solidarity Forever was included in a 1916 edition and has become the leading labor anthem of all time. Chaplin’s illustrations were also used on the covers of several editions. The powerful We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years with words by an “Unknown Proletarian” and music by Rudolph Von Liebich appeared in 1919.
Somewhat surprisingly a song closely associated with the IWW’s 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike did not make it into the Songbook until 1984 although it appeared in the union magazine Industrial Pioneer in 1946. James Oppenheimer’s Bread and Roses was first published as a poem in the American Magazine in December of 1911 shortly before the strike. The mostly women mill workers adopted Bread and Roses as their strike slogan. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Carolyn Kohlsatt adapted the song to the melody most Wobblies still sing, although an alternative tune by Mimi Fariña in 1976 is gaining popularity. In the 1970’s the song became a Women’s Liberation anthem as much as a labor one and it has even been included in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.
Production of the Songbooks moved to IWW General Headquarters in Chicago and resumed after the great post-World War I Red Scare sent most Wobbly leaders, including Ralph Chaplin, to prison. The ‘20’s saw the appearance of another notable contributor, Matt Valentine Huhta, who signed is contributions T-Bone Slim including The Popular Wobbly, Mysteries Of A Hobo’s Life, and The Lumberjack’s Prayer.
Editions of the Songbook have also included labor songs from other sources notably Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid with an updated final verse by Nancy Katz, The Banks are Made of Marble by Lee Rice and popularized by the Almanac Singers with more contemporary lyrics added, Which Side are You On by Florence Resse, and the old British rouser The Black Leg Miner as sung by Billy Brag.
The "double tall" 1995 36th edition featured music from around the world as well as old favorites an music for each song.
In 1995 the union issued an unusual “double tall” International Edition, one of only two editions to use the words Little Red Songbook on the cover. In addition to most of the standard songs included more modern music and songs from around the world including songs in Spanish. It also included for the first and only time the full musical notation of each song.
Wobblies have continued to add new songs and adapted old ones, especially with more gender inclusive language. Bruce “Utah” Phillips was the union’s popular balladeer, philosopher, storyteller, and inveterate agitator who died much loved and mourned in 2008. His contributions to the book included Larimer Street, Starlight on the Rails, and All Used Up. He also introduced the music from the Songbook to whole new generations.
Bruce "Utah" Phillips introduced the IWW and its songs to new generations.
Other newer contributors include Anne Feeney, Scabs and Whatever Happened to the Eight Hour Day; Kathleen Taylor, The LIP Song and Soul Stealers; Goddard Graves, Go I Will Send Thee; Leslie Fish, Babylon Updated and Freedom Road; Carlos Cortez, Outa Work Blues; Darryl Cheney, Where Are We Gonna Work When the Trees Are Gone and Who Bombed Judi Bari; and Tom Morello, Union Song.
Hell, even I made an appearance under the moniker The Irish Cowboy with a rock & roll picket line song Roll the Hours Back and The Dark and Dreary Slum Where I Was Born, a take-off on Woody Guthrie’s Oklahoma Hills.Rebel Voices was the realization of a long cherished dream to produce a "Little Red Record."
Utah Phillips gathered both touring and Chicago-based member of the IWW’s Entertainment Workers Industrial Union #630 for a concert performance at Holstein’s on Lincoln Avenue to record a long dreamed of “Little Red Record.” Released under the title Rebel Voices in 1988 the record included performances by Phillips, Faith Petric, Fred Holstein, Bruce Brackney, Marion Wade, Bob Bovee, Jeff Cahill, Kathleen Taylor, J. B. Freeman, Robin Oye, Eric Glatz, and Mark Ross. It is still available on CD or by Download.
Almost all of the songs included in the first 36 editions of the Songbook are included in The Big Red Songbook published by Charles H. Kerr & Company.
In 2007 noted folklorist Archie Green published The Big Red Songbook which included 250 songs culled from the various editions of the IWW songbook. In 2016 a new edition was co-edited by Green, labor historian David Roediger, Franklin Rosemount, and Salvatore Solerno with an introduction by Tom Morello, the Wobbly rocker of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, and a posthumous afterward by Utah Phillips.