Whether your Labor Day falls on May 1 or the first Monday in September, the core concept remains the same: honoring the workers who keep countries running. In this decade, we’re facing another cultural reexamination of work—one perhaps best summarized by a TikTok sound that has somehow been attributed to both “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and James Baldwin: “Darling, I’ve told you several times before, I have no ‘dream job,’ I do not dream of labor.”
In the last century, labor movements challenged the nature of work, fought for the humanity of the worker, and ultimately questioned the idea of a fulfilling life—and who was entitled to live such a life. It’s a theme that came up continually for composers, many of whom, despite working in a medium that catered to the wealthy industrialists who served as figureheads for inhumane working conditions, sided with the workers. This playlist brings together a selection of works by those composers, as well as those of a few working today who have picked up the thread…and one unlikely late Romantic who stumbled ass-backwards into the cause.
Florence Reece: “Which Side Are You On?” (1931)
Legend has it that the Tennessee-born Reece originally drafted this song when she was 12 and her father, a coal miner, was on strike (he would die two years later in a slate fall). Two decades later, Reece was living in Kentucky with her husband, Sam—also a coal miner and an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America—when the Harlan County Coal War broke out. Five cars of sheriff deputies pulled up to the Reece homestead in search of Sam, who would have likely been killed. Sam had already fled into the mountains, leaving Florence and her seven children to be terrorized as the police ransacked their home. When they left, Florence returned to the poem she’d written more than half a lifetime ago. Thanks to Pete Seeger’s cover of the tune, it soon became an anthem.
Marc Blitzstein: Finale from “The Cradle Will Rock” (1937)
According to my editor, we have “word counts” at VAN and I “can’t just write 1,500 words on one entry in a playlist.” And, according to my union, this “doesn’t justify a violation of workers’ rights.” But the history of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union play in music, not to mention the history of the WPA-led program that funded it, merits at least as much. The work’s satire of the moneyed industry leaders provides the sort of tuneful irony that would later be picked up by the likes of Randy Newman and Matt Marks. But it’s a rousing, at times enraged, hope that triumphs at the end. “This is an open shop,” the firebrand Larry Foreman says just before the finale, holding his hand open. Drawing his fingers in: “This is a closed shop.” Holding his fist in the air: “This is a union.”
Julia Wolfe: “Fire in My Mouth” (2019)
A definitive moment for the American labor movement, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was in part so devastating due to dehumanizing practices like locking the doors to stairs and exits (thus preventing unauthorized breaks). In the wake of the 1911 disaster, however, Congress passed legislation that improved safety standards. Another win for labor: Membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union skyrocketed.
It’s both the fire and the protests that came before and after it that form the basis of Julia Wolfe’s gripping oratorio, which blends eyewitness accounts and testimonies, the Yiddish and Italian folk music that would have been familiar to the sweatshop’s immigrant employees, and terse declarations of want and need that suit Wolfe’s musical sense of urgency. The score taps into the violence of the fire as well as the violence faced by the labor movement the event helped to galvanize. Clara Lemlich, who was arrested 17 times and once had six ribs broken by company-hired thugs, said of her heyday as an activist: “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth.”
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Ruth Crawford Seeger: “Chinaman, Laundryman” (1933)
Pete Seeger came by his own activism honestly, owing much to both his father, Charles, and his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. What Charles dubbed “proletarian music,” music that expresses the workers’ struggle and thereby helps to further the success of the movement, was a natural fit for Crawford and her own musical style—sinewy with unexpected leaps between notes, opting for barren landscapes of modernity versus lush gardens of Romanticism. This song, one of her “Two Ricercari” set to texts by the Chinese-American poet Hsi Tseng Tsiang, dramatizes the exploitation and dehumanization of Chinese immigrant workers in the United States. At times, the text becomes too fast for the music, presaging Julia Wolfe’s sense of sonic imperative; the soprano veers into sprechstimme as the piano gallops to keep up the pace.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3, “First of May” (1930)
Unsurprisingly, the workers are central to many of Shostakovich’s compositions as the composer drifted in and out of favor with Soviet tastemakers. Work on his Third Symphony coincided with the composition process for “The Nose.” The dichotomy between the two works is striking: one set to a poem that reads like a Leninist Hallmark card, the other a work so interwoven with metaphor that the Kremlin balked. But there are also similarities, and it’s hard to take even Shostakovich’s most party-lined works at face value. Is this single-movement symphony marching by unironically, carrying pomp and grandeur in its arms like bouquets of roses? Or is there at least an iota of cynicism; one that lights a cigarette off of the fires of revolution and blows smoke rings over the heads of the Politburo?
Richard Strauss: “Der Arbeitsmann” (1889)
Strauss is quite possibly the last composer you’d expect on a list of May Day songs. Yet, despite a conservative personality and political views that were apathetic at best, the composer’s catalog includes a Lied that begins with the following stanza:
We have a bed, we have a kid, my wife!
We also have work, enough for two,
we have the sun, and rain, and wind, too;
there’s just one small thing that we lack,
It’s one of several songs Strauss set to texts by confirmed socialist Richard Dehmel (through whom he also met Hugo von Hofmannsthal). Biographer Norman Del Mar called the composer “the last one to become involved in social reform.” But he suggests that Strauss squared the circle by seeing the poem—and its narrative of material fulfillment at the expense of spiritual freedom—as “a magnificent vehicle for music…full of drama and pathos.”
Louis Andriessen: “Workers Union” (1975)
Asked about how his politics reflect in his music, Louis Andriessen once said, “Well, it doesn’t sound Marxist.” He then added: “But I did think there should be equality of information between the parts. I didn’t want some leading and others just supporting.” This sense of cohesion, Marxist or otherwise, comes through in many of Andriessen’s works, but is especially apt in “Workers Union.”
Written for “any loud-sounding group of instruments,” the score to “Workers Union” balances pinpoint-precise rhythm with malleable pitch. The challenge is for every musician to remain in step with their colleagues, a metaphor Andriessen connects to political organizing. “Only in the case of every player playing with such an intention that their part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political work,” he wrote.
Hans Werner Henze: “Das Floß der ‘Medusa’” (1968)
In contrast to Andriessen, Henze’s “Raft of the ‘Medusa’” suffered from being overly-politicized during its 1968 premiere in Hamburg. As the house filled up, students hung a red flag from the conductor’s podium and papered the hall with portraits of the work’s dedicatee, Che Guevara. Members of the NDR Symphony Orchestra and RIAS Chamber Choir refused to sing “under the red flag.” The scene soon became a pressure cooker, exacerbated by police involvement, and the premiere was postponed.
All of this lore crackles with the spirit of ’68, but the legend of Henze’s oratorio overshadows the value of the work itself—of which Guevara only exists on the periphery. Based on a historical shipwreck without enough lifeboats, Henze and librettist Ernst Schnabel weave together Greek mythology, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the details of the “Medusa” crew to paint a composite of humanity’s dissolution under capitalism. It’s a phantasmagoria that, at times, tightens the screws of Berg’s “Wozzeck” and, at others, presages Poul Ruders’s own worker-martyr opera, “Selma Ježková.” Posing the work, after it was written, as a requiem for Guevara was simply gilding the lily.
John Adams: “Jesus, Incomparable Perdonador de Injurias” from “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” (2012)
Also in the vein of sanctifying labor leaders, John Adams’s cantata about Mary of Bethany (sister to Lazarus) extends beyond Biblical times to a plethora of interwoven stories and texts. This overflow can sometimes work against the piece, but a scene in Act II, set against the backdrop of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s fight for fair farm labor conditions in California, is quite moving. In Peter Sellars’s libretto, the women’s chorus sing the roles of striking farm workers who go toe-to-toe with the police. After their arrest, they pray for grace “in the face of furious hell.” Musically, it’s like the moodier cousin to “The People Are the Heroes Now” from “Nixon in China,” a subtext that underscores a millennia-long struggle for class equity and economic justice.
Aaron Copland: “Into the Streets May First” (1934)
In a letter to composer Carlos Chávez, Aaron Copland described “Into the Streets May First” as “my communist song.” It was one of several submissions to a New York Composer’s Collective contest with the charge of setting Alfred Hayes’s text, one that Copland won. But he later withdrew the song from his catalog, making it tricky to track down. It’s a pity, as it’s a short but lovely burst of optimism, wrapped up in “a song and a banner.” Given that Copland also considered mass song a “powerful weapon in the class struggle” that “creates solidarity and inspires action,” it also seems more fitting an entry on this list than “Fanfare for the Common Man.”From Shostakovich's Soviet subversion to Copland's "communist song," this is music for those who do not dream of labor. A #MayDay playlist in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
Earl Robinson: “Joe Hill” (1936)
Another member of the Composer’s Collective, Earl Robinson set another Alfred Hayes poem, one about the Swedish-American union organizer and folk hero Joe Hill. One of the song’s greatest champions became Paul Robeson, who included it on recital programs throughout his career. Hill’s story is another example of the violence levied against labor activists. Following a false murder charge and a sham trial, he was executed at just 36. Robinson and Hayes immortalize Hill, pointing him out “in every mine and mill where workers strike and organize.” There are many Robeson covers of this song to choose from, but most touching is this footage from a performance for a group of Scottish miners. Robeson, surrounded by the sort of audience he loved most, sings without accompaniment. None is needed.
Luigi Nono: “Al gran sole carico d’amore” (1975)
Nono’s Labor Day bingo card is full with this opera, whose libretto is cobbled together from Brecht, Gorky, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, and Castro, as well as historical accounts from the Paris Commune and First Russian Revolution. Similar to “Fire in My Mouth,” Nono’s opera focuses on the women who were part of these two historical eras, many of whom lost their lives in an attempt to bridge the gap between justice and peace. Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” isn’t too far off from this world.
The final product is, as one interviewer put it, “an ideal testimony on the history of the workers’ movement and anti-imperialist liberation.” For Nono, history is interdependent, and while he refers specifically to two events in 1871 and 1905, respectively, he was also thinking of his 1970s visits to the Chile of Popular Unity president Salvador Allende and, closer to home, the 1943 Fiat strike. History, particularly the history of workers’ rights, may not repeat itself; but at the very least, it rhymes. ¶
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