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Which Side Are You On?

Which Side Are You On?

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“Which Side Are You On?” is a song written by Florence Reece in 1931.

     In 1931, coal miners in Harlan County, in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, were on strike. Armed company deputies roamed the countryside, terrorizing the mining communities, looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill. But coal miners, brought up lean and hard in the Kentucky mountain country, knew how to fight back, and heads were bashed and bullets fired on both sides in Bloody Harlan.

     It was this kind of class war — the mine owners and their hired thughs on one side, and the independent, free-wheeling Kentucky coal-miners on the other — that provided the climate for Florence Reece's “Which Side Are You On?”. In it she captured the spirit of her times with blunt eloquence.

     Florence was a thirty-years-old miner's wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Eastern Kentucky. In 1931, the midst of the coal wars, the miners of that region were locked in a bitter and violent struggle with the mine owners. In an attempt to intimidate the Reece family, Sheriff J. H. Blair and his thughs —hired by the mining company— illegally entered and ransacked the whole Reece family home, and then kept watch outside, ready to shoot Sam down if he returned. Sam Reece had been warned in advance and escaped, but Florence and their 7 children were terrorized in his place. That night, after the men had gone, Florence wrote the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?” on a calendar that hung in the kitchen of her home. She took the melody from a traditional baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low”, or the traditional ballad “Jack Munro”.

     It spoke of the “good news” of the union, the violence of the gun thugs, the hardships for workers and families, and the necessity of deciding “which side are you on.” Florence recorded the song and it can be heard on the CD “Coal Mining Women”. Reece supported a second wave of miner strikes circa 1973, as recounted in the documentary 'Harlan County USA'. She and others perform “Which Side Are You On?” a number of times throughout.

     This is Natalie's Merchant's remarkable version; I do hope you'll love it, dearest Jaana & Martha & Pia & Sabine, and this song get under your skin... and your synapses.

• Lyrics:

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!!

• French Translation (Gwénaël Forestier)

Venez vous tous, les bons ouvriers
j'ai de bonnes nouvelles à vous dire!
Comment va ce bonne vieux syndicat?
Je te dirais qu'il est là pour durer!

De lequel le côté es tu?
De lequel le côté es tu?
De lequel le côté es tu?
De lequel le côté es tu?

Mon papa était un mineur
Et je suis le fils d'un mineur
Je resterai fidèle au syndicat
Jusqu'à ce que chaque bataille soit gagnée

Ils disent dans le Comté de Harlan
Qu'il n'y a personne de neutre ici
Vous, êtes vous un syndicaliste?
Ou, vous êtes, un voyou de la bande à J.H. Blair?

Oh, comment les ouvriers peuvent-ils vous supporter?
Oh, dites-moi comment vous le pouvez?
Êtes vous une vieille croûte?
Ou serez-vous des hommes?

Ne faites pas de boulot pour les patrons
N'écoutez pas leurs mensonges
Nous les pauvres gens, nous n'aurons aucune chance
Sans que nous nous organisions!!

Pete Seeger in an introduction to “Which Side Are You On?” on his record “Cant You See This System's Rotten Through and Through” says:

“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 organiser in that “bloody” strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931.
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 Florence 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.”

florence reece & pete seeger
Pete Seeger and Florence Reece

Enjoy the original “Which Side Are You On?” version, as well, ↓ below ↓

This sheet music, especially for Ioannis ↓↓

which side - flo reece - sheet

     This is Barbara Kopple's full-lenght documentary masterpiece “Harlan County, USA” movie trailer. Kopple and her photographers unflinchingly documents a grueling coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town, and captured the miners’ struggles with strikebreakers, local police, and company thugs. Featuring a haunting soundtrack—with legendary country and bluegrass artists Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis, Sarah Gunning, and Florence Reece—the film is a heartbreaking record and brilliantly detailed report of the thirteen-month struggle —that took place between 1973 and 1974— between a community fighting to survive and a corporation —Eastover Mining, owned by Duke Power Companythat caused one death, several shootings and a flood of violent bitterness; and that brought back to Harlan County memories of the much-bloodier coal strikes of the early 1930's.

     The coal that powers our microwave ovens and recharges our laptops and iPads is mined by workers like those in this film, humble folk with no better option than to spend their lives laboring in deep tunnels, breathing black, lung-destroying dust, risking death in return for a paltry wage.

     Definitely one of my all time favorite documentary. One of the best, provocative, shocking, brutal, primitive, and deeply affecting documentaries ever made, imo.

By the way, happy International Women's Day!

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