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Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

History of American Protest Music: Which Side Are You On?

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
It’s axiomatic: In hard times, the vulnerable suffer most. Although the Great Depression left no American untouched, those who lived in the penury of Kentucky coal country bore a greater burden.

“In the early thirties I had one of my babies starve to death,” recalled Kentucky singer Sarah Ogan Gunning in Voices From the Mountains.

It literally happened — people starved to death. Not only my own baby, but the neighbors’ babies. You seed them starve to death too. And all you could do was go over and help wash and dress ‘em and lay ‘em out and sit with the mothers until they could put ‘em away.

On February 16, 1931, the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association reduced their employees’ wages — already at subsistence level — by 10 percent. The miners responded by organizing a union. Union members were either fired and evicted from their company-owned homes, or beaten and killed. Soon there was a general strike. Thus began a period of harassment and violence known as the Harlan County War, or more simply, Bloody Harlan. The sheriff’s department acted as enforcers for the mine operators.

Sam Reece worked as an organizer for the National Miners Union. “Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam — that’s my husband — he was one of the union leaders,” remembered musician and activist Florence Reece. “I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn’t come home that night.”

The next morning, Florence, in her words, “tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall,” and wrote a new lyric to an old melody.

Come all of you poor workers, good news to you I’ll tell

Of how that good old union has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?


If you go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there

You’ll either be a union man or a thug for JH Blair

Which side are you on?

Reece couldn’t have known that what she created would become the most durable anthem of the labor movement, and a template for protest songs for decades to come. “Which Side Are You On?,” written from acute personal trauma, has been universalized, both in lyric and musical modality. After making its way out of Harlan County and into a New York recording studio, it got modified to fit the message of countless underdog protagonists.

“Which Side Are You On?” quickly became an anthem in the union halls and picket lines. Jim Garland, another organizer and songwriter, immediately used it as a tool for protest. “In the course of such fights, songs expressed people’s feelings in a manner that allowed them to stand together,” he said. “Rather than walking up to a gun thug and saying, ‘You’re a bastard,’ which might have resulted in a shooting, we could express our anger much more easily in unison with song lyrics.”

In December, 1931, Garland and his cousin Aunt Molly Jackson travelled to New York to give concerts to raise money for the striking miners. They performed “Which Side Are You On?”, where it ultimately caught the ear of Pete Seeger.

By the early 1940s, Seeger was changing the face of American popular culture. He formed a band called the Almanac Singers with folk hero Woody Guthrie and singers Lee Hays and Millard Lampell. They sang folk songs — some they wrote and some learned from others — that were pro-union and anti-war. “They did not perform in costume, either of the concert stage or of the radio barn dance,” wrote Robert S. Cantwell in When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, “and yet their street clothes, in which they ordinarily appeared, ranged from pieces of business suits in various permutations and combinations to dungarees, workshirts, and construction boots….”

“Back where I come from, a family had two books,” remembered Arkansas-born Lee Hays. “The Bible to help ’em to the next world. The Almanac, to help ’em through the present world…We became the Almanac Singers.”

The first Almanac Singers album, Songs for John Doe, sold well enough in Communist bookstores to merit a new record. Talking Union was recorded in the same Central Park studio in May, 1941, and released on Keynote records in July. “Which Side Are You On?” was the last of its six songs. Even though they didn’t change Reece’s original melody or lyric, the Almanac Singers took “Which Side Are You On?” from the personal to the universal. It’s instructive to hear both versions. First, Reece, singing her composition in later years.

The melody for this song originated centuries ago in England, and is known as modal music. Modal music doesn’t have a key or chords in the way we would understand from, say, a Beatles song. Traditional Irish and Scottish folk music, which became the basis for Appalachian folk music, is modal, and predates 1650.

Reece’s performance is declarative and singular. She sings as an individual, without accompaniment or harmony. She sings to us as a group of individuals, each with a decision to make. “You have to be on one side or the other,” she once said. “In Harlan County there wasn’t no neutral. If you wasn’t a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be.” She is asking us to decide, because even if the idea of community, in the form of a union, was comforting, the reality is that people were being picked off one by one.

The Almanac Singers’ version of “Which Side Are You On?” is an example of tonal music. (Again, think of a Beatles song, with chord changes and harmonies.) Pete Seeger begins with a stark, descending banjo riff — a foil for the upcoming single-string guitar melody — and then sings the first verse. The chorus is a haunting response to his call, sung by a group of voices. A community has formed, and what they sing is as much indictment as encouragement. Florence Reece’s modal melody, an artifact of Appalachian fiddle music, has been incorporated and expanded. We hear harmonies now, as sympathetic as a friend, as organized as a union.

Jim Garland, who brought “Which Side Are You On?” to New York, stayed and became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, one largely founded by people like Seeger and Guthrie. It was an alternative world, one informed by a mix of races and cultures and classes. These folk artists collected and composed songs of the people, performed them in small clubs, union halls, and regional festivals, and made them available through recordings, virtually none of which were available to Florence Reece back in Kentucky.

Seeger had a knack for popularization. Remember, it was he who changed “I Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger also identified “Which Side Are You On?” as being pliable to other applications. He penned some new lyrics in support of the National Maritime Union in 1947:

The men who hate our union, they say we dodged the draft

Not one of those damn liars knows his forward from his aft

From there the song gained immortality. The Freedom Singers, a group formed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962, rewrote the lyric to reflect their Civil Rights struggle.

Come all you Negro people, lift up your voices and sing

Will you join the Ku Klux Klan or Martin Luther King?

They certainly employed, to great effect, the Almanac Singers’ call and response arrangement, bringing altogether more church into the proceedings.

Len Chandler, a topical singer from Greenwich Village who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, wrote his own version:

Come all you Northern liberals, take a Klansman out to lunch

But when you dine, instead of wine, you should serve nonviolent punch

Through the rolling years, “Which Side Are You On?” has been adapted and covered by myriad artists, including Dropkick Murphys and Ani DiFranco. The question renews itself as each generation struggles against inequality.

The melody proved as durable as the lyrics proved malleable. Although Reece claimed to have borrowed the melody from an old Baptist hymn, the truth is much less sanctified. A listen to an a capella version of “Ho Lily Ho” by Appalachian singer Sarah Hawkes reveals the song’s origin. This is an ancient tune, also known as “Jack Monroe.” In most of its iterations, the song tells the story of a young woman who dresses like a man to find her lost lover in battle. In every version, fearlessness defines her:

‘Your waist is slim and slender, your fingers they are small

Your cheeks too red and rosy to face a cannon ball’


‘My waist, I know, is slender – my fingers they are small

But it would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall’

Even if Florence Reece, the young and beleaguered Kentucky housewife, did not know the original song’s themes of transformation and bravery when she wrote her lyric, she carried them forward nonetheless.

Now it’s our turn. The new lyric has yet to be written, but the circumstances that will inspire it are with us daily. There may indeed be one humanity; there may indeed be “no such thing as other people’s children,” but right now this world is binary, and we are called to choose. Which side are you on?


Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry

John Henry
Illustration by Aimee Flom

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,465 words)


They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said – Drive so much before sundown.

—Sterling Brown, “Strong Men” (1931)


In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed.

Songs about John Henry became popular in the early 20th century. He is a folk hero in all—by resisting either the dehumanizing effects of technology or a racist power structure. His story helped give rise to an iconic American “blues ballad” as well as the “hammer song:” a rhythmic style which helped synchronize the work of manual laborers on railroads, prison work farms, and logging camps. Each axe or hammer blow rang out in rhythm to the tune, and as the tempo of that industrialized century increased, this would ultimately become the backbeat of rock and roll. Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: ‘We Have Got Tools and We Are Going to Succeed’

Illustration by Aimee Flom

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)

Read part one of “Hammer Songs.”

Lee Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He learned to sing Sacred Harp—the traditional shape-note choral music—in his father’s church. Just as he reached his teens, Lee’s life fell apart. His father died in a car accident. His mother lost her mind from grief. The Great Depression wiped the family out, preventing Lee from attending school. He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, working as a page in a local library. Here the 16-year-old Lee Hays—already over six feet tall, blue-eyed and sandy haired—became radicalized.

“Every book that was considered unfit for children to read was marked with a black rubber stamp,” Hays remembered. “So I’d go through the stacks and look for these black stamps. Always the very best books. They weren’t locked-up books, just books that would not normally be issued to children—D.H. Lawrence, a number of European novels. Reading those books was like doors opening.” Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: When Nina Simone Sang What Everyone Was Thinking

Nina Simone
Nina Simone, 1966. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns) via Getty Images

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2017 | 10 minutes (2,329 words)


On June 12, 1963, in the early morning after president John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway of his Mississippi home. He was returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers and officials, and carried an armload of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers was taken to a local hospital, where he died less than an hour after being admitted.

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when white supremacists planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The children were preparing for a sermon titled “A Love That Forgives.” According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement “like rag dolls.” Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: How The Hutchinson Family Singers Achieved Pop Stardom with an Anti-Slavery Anthem

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845
Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845. "Unknown Artist, American School: Hutchinson Family Singers (2005.100.77)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)


On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”

“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”

It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…

The Story of ‘Ella and Louis,’ 60 Years Later

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | November 2016 | 7 minutes (1,807 words)

Nineteen fifty-six was a defining year for American popular music. The foundations of rock and roll were solidified when Elvis Presley, newly signed to RCA Victor, released his eponymous first album. The harder-edged rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did the same. The year’s jazz releases were just as iconic: “Chet Baker Sings” helped originate a smoother West Coast sound, and The Miles Davis Quintet would ultimately find four full-length albums worth of hard bop material recorded during only two day-long sessions. There was magic coming from every corner of musical expression — Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, The Jazz Messengers, Fats Domino — but one album, released in October of that year, was its own quiet revolution.

The album cover is a picture of two middle-aged black people, seated on folding chairs. The woman is in her late thirties, the man in his mid-fifties. She wears a plain print housedress and a wry expression; the man’s white socks are rolled at the ankles. A trumpet is on his lap, supporting his folded arms. There is no written information on the cover other than the name of the record label: “Verve,” it says. “A Panoramic True High Fidelity Record.” On the spine is the album’s title: “Ella and Louis.” Read more…