Pete Seeger, collecting labor union songs, learned "Which Side Are You On" in 1940. The following year, it was recorded by the Almanac Singers in a version that gained a wide audience. More recently, Billy Bragg, Dropkick Murphys, and Natalie Merchant each recorded their own interpretations of the song.
Alan Lomax, writing in the American Folk Song Book (1968), says "Florence Reece, a shy, towheaded Kentucky miner's daughter, composed this song at the age of 12 when her father was out on strike. She sang it me standing in front of the primitive hearth of a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky in 1937 and it has since become a national union song. The tune is an American variant of the English Jack Munro, "which side are you on" having been substituted for "lay the lily-o"."
Reece appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary film, Harlan County, USA, singing her anthem to rally the striking miners.
Florence and Sam Reece were married for 64 years, until his death from pneumoconiosis (black lung) in 1978. After a lifetime of speaking out on behalf of unions and social welfare issues, Florence Reece died of a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 86 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Garland came to New York City in 1931 with his older half-sister Aunt Molly Jackson where he participated in the Greenwich Village folk music scene.
The basic causes of the conflict remained, though, and isolated casualties continued to mount, for instance the shooting death of Young Communist League activist Harry Simms in February 1932. As of May 1932, eleven people had been killed: five deputies, four miners, Simms, and a local storekeeper sympathetic to the strikers.
Harlan County coal miners continued their struggle to organize all through the 1930s, and the violence continued. Among other victims, Lloyd Clouse was shot and killed on April 24, 1937 specifically to prevent his testimony in front of the La Follette Committee. Union organizers finally succeeded after another strike in 1939.
IMPACTAuthor and activist Theodore Dreiser conducted an investigation under the auspices of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP) of the American Communist Party. With contributions by John dos Passos, Samuel Ornitz, and others, Dreiser produced a report called Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields. The report is factually flawed. The Dreiser Committee did, however, discover the labor folk singer Aunt Molly Jackson and her younger half-brother Jim Garland, putting them on a tour of 38 states to raise funds for the strikers. Also, during the strike Florence Reece, wife of organizer Sam Reece, wrote the labor standard Which Side Are You On?
California labor activist Caroline Decker first became involved in union activities during the Harlan County War, when she and her sister participated in relief activities for striking miners.
The 1976 documentary film Harlan County, USA, winner of the 1977 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, focuses on similar labor violence of the 1970s but refers to the 1930s violence as context. (Florence Reece appears in the film.) The 2000 television movie Harlan County War starred Holly Hunter.
Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States Communist groups, though he was seemingly not a member of any.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie died from complications of Huntington's disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.
He was born in Paterson, New Jersey and studied at the West Virginia University, where he gained his first exposure to folk music. In 1940 he formed the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, later adding Woody Guthrie. Lampell wrote songs with both Seeger and Guthrie, and adapted traditional songs into labor anthems and pro-union messages. During the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact from 1939 to 1941, the group also sang songs attacking Franklin D. Roosevelt as a warmonger and opposing Britain's war against Nazi Germany.
After the Almanac Singers disbanded in 1942, Lampell wrote the lyrics for The Lonesome Train, a ballad opera on the death of Abraham Lincoln. He went on to a career as a scriptwriter for movies and, later, television. In the 1950s, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted. He wrote the screenplay for the marriage guidance film This Charming Couple (1950) using the pseudonym H. Partnow. Some other of his screenplays were Chance Meeting (1959) and The Idol (1962).
Notable television plays included The Adams Chronicles and the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (both 1976). In 1966, he was awarded an Emmy for his teleplay for the Hallmark Hall of Fame drama Eagle in a Cage. He also wrote novels, and the play The Wall which was produced on Broadway.
As a song writer, he is best known as the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (with Joe Hickerson), "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)", (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s, as did Judy Collins in 1964, and The Seekers in 1966. Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS "American Masters" episode Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, Seeger states it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional "We will overcome" to the more singable "We shall overcome".
In 1950, the Almanacs were reconstituted as The Weavers, named after the title of a 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptmann about a workers' strike (which contained the lines, "We'll stand it no more, come what may!"). Besides Pete Seeger (performing under his own name), members of the Weavers included charter Almanac member Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman (later, Frank Hamilton, Erik Darling and Bernie Krause serially took the place of Seeger). In the atmosphere of the 1950s red scare, the Weavers' repertoire had to be less overtly topical than that of the Almanacs had been, and its progressive message was couched in indirect language—arguably rendering it even more powerful. The Weavers even on occasion performed in tuxedos (unlike the Almanacs, who had dressed informally) and their managers refused to let them perform at political venues. Because of this, the somewhat hokey string orchestra and chorus arrangements on their hit records with Decca Records, and, no doubt also because of their considerable, if temporary, financial success, the Weavers incurred criticism from some progressives for supposedly compromising their political integrity. It was a tricky dilemma, but Seeger and the other Weavers felt that the imperative of getting their music and their message out to the widest possible audience amply justified these measures. The Weavers' string of major hits began with "On Top of Old Smokey" and an arrangement of Leadbelly's signature waltz, "Goodnight, Irene," which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950 and was covered by many other pop singers. On the flip side of "Irene" was the Israeli song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." Other Weaver hits included Dusty Old Dust" ("So Long It's Been Good to Know You") (by Woody Guthrie), "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (by Hays, Seeger, and Lead Belly), the South African Zulu song, "Wimoweh" (about "the lion," warrior chief Shaka Zulu), to name a few.
The Weavers' performing career was abruptly derailed in 1953 at the peak of their popularity when blacklisting prompted radio stations to refuse to play their records and all their bookings were canceled. They briefly returned to the stage, however, at a sold-out reunion at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and in a subsequent reunion tour, which produced a hit version of Merle Travis's "Sixteen Tons" as well as LPs of their concert performances. "Kumbaya," a Gullah black spiritual dating from slavery days, was also introduced to wide audiences by Pete Seeger and the Weavers (in 1959), becoming a staple of Boy and Girl Scout campfires.
In the late 1950s, the Kingston Trio was formed in direct imitation of (and homage to) the Weavers, covering much of the latter's repertoire, though with a more buttoned-down, uncontroversial, and mainstream collegiate persona. The Kingston Trio produced another phenomenal succession of Billboard chart hits and in its turn spawned a legion of imitators, laying the groundwork for the 1960s commercial folk revival.
In the documentary film Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007), Seeger states that he resigned from the Weavers when the three other band members agreed to perform a jingle for a cigarette commercial.