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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dumping the Bosses off your Back: Collector Records and Labor Song

Brochure from the Coalition of Labor Union Women, 1980. Collector Records business papersRalph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
In the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, I often have the good luck to work with the papers of individuals and record labels full of materials that are rooted in history and continue to stay topical today.  For the past few months, I have been working with the Collector Records business records , and I've enjoyed exploring the materials that intended to inspire and capture the music of the labor movement.  Joe Glazer, often referred to as “Labor’s Troubador," founded Collector Records in 1970 in order to share his own recordings of labor songs as well as those of other musicians.  He set out to explore workplace issues, such as women's struggles through the release of albums like Bread and Raises: Songs for Working Women sung by Bobbie McGee. Glazer also released albums that were meant to laud and inspire union members such as with his celebration of the United Auto Workers in his album The UAW: Fifty Years in Song and Story.
Paste-up for Songs of Steel & Struggle, 1975. Collector Records business papersRalph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
Although it is a historical collection, the songs, sentiments, and commitment to the Labor Movement by Glazer and Collector Records are still applicable today.  I was a member of Transportation Workers Union of America: Local 100 and a colleague was previously a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local: 30.  In a lunchtime anecdote, he recalled the time he brought his banjo to the picket line and led striking workers (UPS strike 1997) in the singing of protest songs such as "Solidarity Forever". This particular song appears on at least eleven of Collector Records' commercial records and has been an important tool in the movement.  Labor songs such as "Solidarity Forever" can be effective on many fronts, but especially for education, relaying a message, and political organizing. This uniqueness is found through the song's abilities to both teach and keep morale high while on the picket line.
Songs of the Wobblies, 1977. Collector Records business papers, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

Oppressed groups have historically addressed their oppressors through song.  Folk song, and labor song, are a reflection of the community from which they are created.  They reflect the values, social norms, and concerns of the surrounding community.  For particular social movements and historical time periods where printed media could not carry a message fast enough, or for communities in which literacy is not a given, folk music served as substitute for mass media and a way to relay social and political messages off the wire.  The idea of using music as a political unifier has deep roots and Glazer recognized that idea through the release of albums such as I Will Win: Songs of the Wobblies which contains songs published as early as 1909 in the Wobblies' original hymnal I.W.W. Songs: To Fan the Flames of Discontent. 

Nichole Procopenko
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections

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