Here Come The Wobblies!

The real turning point came at the organization’s fourth convention, in 1908. The believers in “direct action at the point of production” forced a change in the I.W.W.’s holy writ, the preamble. It had originally contained the sentence: “A struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce” (italics added). Now this “political clause” was scuttled, over the violent protests of Socialist De Leon, who helplessly denounced the change as an exaltation of “physical force.” The shock troops of the direct-action group were twenty lumber workers known as the Overalls Brigade. Gathered in Portland by an organizer named Jack Walsh, they had bummed their way to Chicago in boxcars, raising grubstakes along the way at street meetings in which they sang, harangued, peddled pamphlets, and passed the hat. One of their favorite tunes, with which they regaled the convention, was “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum,” set to the old hymn tune “Revive Us Again”:

O, why don’t you work
Like other men do?
How in hell can I work
When there’s no work to do?

Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout—
To revive us again.

Sourly, De Leon dubbed Walsh’s men The Bummery, but the day was theirs. The veteran Socialist leader retreated and organized a splinter I.W.W., which dwindled away in seven years.

It was the I.W.W.’s second split in a short history, but its most important. It gave the organization over to soapbox singers and bums, brothers in idealism who were poor in all things save “long experience in the struggle with the employer.” They were to break from past labor practices and give the I.W.W. its true inwardness and dynamism; to fit it with its unique costume and role in history.

They gave it, first, a musical voice. Walsh’s crusaders sang because when they sought the workers’ attention on street corners they were challenged by those competing sidewalk hot-gospellers, the Salvation Army. By 1909, the press of the organization’s newspaper, the Industrial Worker, was able to put out the first edition of Songs of the Workers to Fan the Flames of Discontent. More succinctly known as the “Little Red Songbook,” it has gone through over thirty subsequent editions—all scarlet-covered and fitted to the size of an overalls pocket. The songbook and the preamble were to the I.W.W. membership what the hymnbook and the Discipline of the Methodist Church had been to frontier preachers—the sum and touchstone of faith, the pearl of revelation, the coal of fire touching their lips with eloquence. Most of the songs were the work of men like Richard Brazier, an English-born construction worker who joined up in Spokane in 1908; or Ralph Chaplin, a struggling young Chicago commercial artist who wanted to chant “hymns of hope and hatred” at the shrine of rebellion; or Joe Hill, born Joel Haaglund in Sweden, who wrote not parodies alone but also original compositions, which Chaplin described as “coarse as homespun and as fine as silk”; or bards known simply as T-Bone Slim or Dublin Dan. The I.W.W. members soared on those songs, enjoying them as much for their mockery as anything.

To the patriotic cadences of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” they sang “Solidarity forever, for the Union makes us strong” (a version which Ralph Chaplin had given them and which the entire labor movement took over without credit). To the sentimental notes that enfolded Darling Nelly Gray they sang of “the Commonwealth of Toil that is to be,” and to the strains that had taken pretty Red Wing through ribald adventures in every barroom in the country, they roared that “the earth of right belongs to toilers, and not to spoilers of liberty.” They raided the hymnbook of Moody-and-Sankey revivalism for “Hold the fort for we are coming, union men be strong,” and for “There is power, there is power, in a working band” (instead of “in the blood of the Lamb”). They laughed in sharps and flats at Casey Jones, of the craft-proud Brotherhood of Railway Engineers, as a union scab who “kept his junk pile running” and “got a wooden medal for being good and faithful on the S.P. line.” They sang in the hobo jungles, on the picket line, and in the jailhouse, and it was their singing especially that separated them from the A.F.L. by an abyss of spirit.