Which Side Are You on?
"WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?"
Of the many songs born out of labor strife in America's coal camps, Florence Reece's classic 1931 union song "Which Side Are You On?" is one of the best known. The struggle in Harlan County emerged from the depths of the economic crisis in the coal fields in the early 1930s, which produced successive wage cuts and layoffs for miners. In the battle of Evarts, strikers and mine guards fought a violent battle, leading to mass arrests and prosecutions of striking miners on criminal charges. The struggle in Harlan aroused people across the country in support of the right to organize, leading ultimately to the enactment of the Wagner Act's protections for union rights.
In the spring of 1931, citing the dangerous conditions in the mines and their low pay, the coal miners of Harlan County, Kentucky, began a strike that was stridently opposed by the local Coal Operators' Association (COA). On one side of the conflict stood the forces of the COA and local law enforcement, led by the high sheriff of Harlan County, J. H. Blair. (In an interview with the writer John Dos Passos, Blair admitted that most of his deputies were mine guards who were still being paid by mine owners.) On the other side were the striking miners, who organized themselves under the tutelege of the National Miners' Union (NMU) and armed themselves against Blair's forces of so-called law and order.
Florence Reece became involved in the conflict when Sheriff Blair and his men broke into her family's cabin, ransacking it in their search for union literature, terrorizing her and her children, and lying in wait for her husband, Sam Reece, an NMU organizer. Luckily, Sam did not fall into Blair's trap, but Florence was moved to action. She tore a sheet from a wall calendar and, using the old Baptist tune "Lay the Lily Low," she wrote "Which Side Are You On?" The song opens by asking "all you poor workers" to listen to the good news that the union "has come in here to dwell." The chorus asks the dividing question: "Which side are you on?" Then the third verse lays out the two sides: "If you go to Harlan County/There is no neutral there/You'll either be a union man/Or a thug for J. H. Blair."
"Which Side Are You On" became an anthem of labor struggle, as the folk process transformed it in different ways. Pete Seeger and various workers organizing unions as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations picked up the song as their own, changing lyrics to fit the situation at hand. Song leader Zilphia Horton and others at Highlander Folk School transmitted the song to new groups of southern workers who came there to learn about organizing. The song eventually passed over from the union movement to the black freedom movement. In 1961, Congress of Racial Equality leader James Farmer revised the words to fit the circumstances in the south during the Freedom Rides: Whenever members felt that other African Americans were betraying the cause of equality and freedom, CORE members sang, "Oh people can you stand it,/Tell me how you can./Will you be anUncle Tom/Or will you be a man?" Reece's song moved from Harlan County to Mississippi, and then to Alabama, where Len Chandler created new verses for the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, satirizing people who feared to take a stand as well as the state's bigoted governor George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan.
"Which Side Are You On?" has long outlasted Reece, who died at her home in Knoxville in 1986. It remains her lasting legacy to the world and a reminder of how the culture of struggle created during the Depression era continues to influence protest and social movements.
Carawan, Guy, and Candie Carawan, eds. We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement. 1963.
Florence Reece interview with Ron Stanford, "Which Side Are You On?" in Sing Out! 20, no. 6 (July/August 1971): 13–15.
Reece, Florence. Against the Current: Poems and Stories. 1981.
Mark Jackson Michael Honey