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IWW SONGS – to fan the flames of discontent
Songs were an important weapon in the IWWs armoury of propaganda. They were easily remembered and so were useful in spreading the revolutionary message. When the IWW were originally considering producing a songbook in the USA, its chief proponent J.H.Walsh, a national organiser for one of the strongest locals in Spokane, Washington, pointed to the ease with which the popular songs of the day would sweep the country and remain in the memory. Tom Barker of New Zealand and Australia IWW described how IWW songs were catching on and would be sung at meetings between speakers to keep hold of the audience.
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky
When you die
This is the chorus from a Joe Hill song written in 1911, The Preacher and The Slave, that was a parody of a hymn ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’. The parodying of hymns and popular songs of the day was a common feature of IWW songs, and a way of subverting what the bourgeoisie held to be respectable. Typically the lyrics of the songs ridiculed the ruling classes and their structures and held up the exploitative nature of capitalism for examination, with the aim of stirring up a revolutionary feeling within the workers. They dealt with aspects of life that the worker could readily identify with. The songs were not only of protest, but also spoke of hope for a better future. For example, the first verse of a song entitled the Commonwealth of Toil, written by American IWW activist, Ralph Chaplin, declared
But we have a glowing dream
Of how fair the world will seem
When each man can live his life secure and free.
When the earth is owned by Labor
And there’s joy and peace for all
In the commonwealth of Toil that is to be
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