'Which Side Are You On' sung by Pete Seeger

One of the things teachers might want to do this summer is learn more labor songs. One of the most famous is "Which Side Are You On?" which grew out of the coal miners' struggles for unions, particularly in this case in Harlan County, Kentucky ("Bloody Harlan"). When you read Pete Seeger's description of how the song was written, it makes you realize how much those who brought unions to working people have had to do so that we could have the unions we have today.

Of all the movies about union organizing and the struggles of working people, one of the best is still "Harlan County USA", made just a few decades ago.Pete Seeger says in an introduction to “Which Side Are You On?”:

"Maybe the most famous song it was ever my privilege to know was the one written by Mrs. Florence Reece. Her husband Sam was an organizer in that “bloody” strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1932. They got word that the company gun-thugs were out to kill him, and he got out of his house, I think out the back door, just before they arrived. And Mrs. Reece said they stuck their guns into the closets, into the beds, even into the piles of dirty linen. One of her two little girls started crying and one of the men said “What are you crying for? We’re not after you we’re after your old man.” After they had gone she felt so outraged she tore a calendar off the wall and on the back of it wrote the words and put them to the tune of an old hard-shelled Baptist hymn tune, although come to think of it the hymn tune used an old English ballad melody. And her two little girls used to go singing it in the union halls.”

The URL for Pete Seeger singing the song is:

Pete Seeger which side are you on (YouTube 2:47)

Watch video on Bing


Come all of you good 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?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner

And I’m a miner’s son

And I’ll stick with the union

Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County

There are no neutrals there

You’ll either be a union man

Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Oh, workers can you stand it?

Oh, tell me how you can

Will you be a lousy scab

Or will you be a man?

Don’t scab for the bosses

Don’t listen to their lies

Us poor folks haven’t got a chance

Unless we organize

There are several movies about the struggles of the miners for unions. Documentaries include "Harlan County USA" and regular films include "The Harlan County Wars."

One of the most powerful movies about the struggle of miners in the USA for unions is the John Sayles movie "Matewan." Like most union and worker movies, it wasn't easily made -- or easily financed. In a You Tube video, John Sayles tells some of the problems they faced in making the movie, which is worth watching.

The URL for the John Sayles interview is:

The movie "Matewan" is widely available.

For those who want to share contemporary history, the year after the Matewan Massacre was the "Battle of Blair Mountain." At this time (June 2011), people are marching in West Virginia to save Blair Mountain from being destroyed by the new "mining" method ("mountaintop removal") which removes the mountain to get at the coal inside.


June 13, 2011 at 9:22 PM

By: Kenzo Shibata

Which Side Are You On?

Don't forget the Dropkick Murphys version.

They also wrote this labor gem with proceeds going to Wisconsin labor:

"Take 'Em Down"

June 13, 2011 at 9:25 PM

By: Danny

Authentic labor history and its music

This album of songs is dear to my heart because I am a native of Harlan County, Kentucky—and my dad still lives there. His maternal grandfather was a coal miner during the early 1930s when the United Mine Workers were organizing amidst the violence that gave the county the epithet “Bloody Harlan.”

The documentary “Harlan County USA” is set in the early 1970s at the Brookside mine along the Clover Fork of the Cumberland River. I lived the first year of my life there, until my parents moved to where they could find work during the next decade. We returned when I was in middle school, just a few years after the Brookside strike. I knew that there was a documentary made of the strike and that it won the Oscar for Best Documentary that year. But I never saw it over the next thirty years.

And then a few years ago, a newbie teacher with whom I shared a classroom showed the film to his classes. I had been sitting in the back of the room grading papers at my desk when the film began, and I became engrossed at the events that had taken place around me three decades earlier. I only recognized two people in the film and wished that I had watched it with my grandmother while she was still alive. As postmaster, she knew just about everyone. How odd that someone who is both a student and a teacher of history could ignore for so long the local history through which he lived.

Fortunately, thanks to Amazon-dot-com, I was able to purchase both the movie and the soundtrack. The music seems even more historically authentic to me than the video. And John is right. We may want to learn some labor songs this summer.

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