Skip to main content

Fight Like Hell: Music for Labor Day

Fight Like Hell: Music for Labor Day
Fight Like Hell: Music for Labor Day | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Written and curated by Kim Kelly

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S. of A. and for many folks, that means one thing: a day off work, and maybe, if you’re lucky, a long weekend. Unless you’re in a union or otherwise active in the labor movement, the deeper history of the day—itself a jingoistic stand-in for International Workers’ Day, which is celebrated in most other countries around the world—may be lost on you, obscured by the all-encompassing stresses and struggle of making it one more day in America. Luckily, as your friendly neighborhood labor journalist and author of FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, I absolutely love sharing tidbits of our shared proletarian history with my fellow workers. Music has always been used as a messenger by workers, organizers, and agitators, so to celebrate the holiday, I’ve pulled together some choice labor-themed gems from the Folkways catalogue (plus a couple of bonus tracks I couldn’t resist adding in).

Some of them are working songs. Some are union songs, or solidarity songs. Some are songs for living, and others are for dying. Some are joyous, some are filled with pride, and some will shatter your heart once you look up the lyrics. That’s the thing about working peoples’ history—it encompasses so much more than one era, or one movement. Work is as close to universal an experience as one can find outside of death and taxes (and as we all know, the latter isn’t really all that universal if your net worth is high enough). It is the story of our lives together, and the diverse array of artists on this playlist do a beautiful job of illustrating how working folks live, love, and sometimes, lose it all.

You’ll notice a couple of themes running through this playlist. For one thing, here’s a whole lot of songs about coal, and black lung, and Appalachia’s bloody, brutal history of labor struggle. I snuck a few more contemporary artists in there, like Sturgill Simpson and Patty Loveless, but the bulk of those songs come from legendary old-timers like Hazel Dickens, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Florence Reece. These women had coal dust in their blood; they were born and bred in the coalfields, and knew what awaited their loved ones down in the darkness and prayed each night that they’d see sunlight again. They also knew the power of a union—and knew what it felt like to fight tooth and nail for a union card. In their day, organizing a union meant midnight meetings, days spent down the pit and nights spent dodging armed mine guards. It’s a little easier to join a union now, but not by all that much; today’s workers who are standing up for freedom, respect, and a decent living right now have a great deal in common with their forebears (and not just a penchant for acoustic guitar).

Those coalfield balladeers also remind me of the union women I know in Brookwood, Alabama, who worked their fingers to the bone supporting their striking husbands, brothers, fathers, and friends during the Warrior Met Coal strike, and blossomed into full-throated labor activists in their own right. I spent more than two years reporting on that strike, and through that reporting got to know a bevy of other coal miners throughout the country. Listening to their stories—and labored breathing—sparked my interest in the resurgence of black lung disease currently ravaging the coal miners of Appalachia, and led to my recent investigation into the epidemic for In These Times Magazine. That crisis continues, and I’ll keep writing about it for as long as those stories need amplifying. You’ll notice a few other songs here that reference workers’ health (or lack thereof), too. Anne Feeny’s “We Just Come to Work Here, We Don’t Come to Die” perfectly encapsulates the sentiment that so many of us carry into work with us each day—and our lives are worth “more than a paycheck,” as Sweet Honey in the Rock reminds us.

There are also a lot of songs that harken back to labor’s earlier days (a fitting choice, perhaps, for a gal who wrote a book about labor history!). Iconic labor organizers and rabble-rousers Joe Hill and Mother Jones loom large, as does the ghost of poor John Henry, who worked himself to death in the name of progress, and the soul of old John Brown, who fought with blood and gunpowder to cleanse this country of its sins. The history of the labor movement in this country—and of its poor and working people in general—is red, Black, and radical as hell. There is a reason that there are freedom songs on here alongside odes to factory girls and solidarity; the most vulnerable and marginalized have always fought the hardest to move us all forward, and so it remains today. If we as a movement are to continue to inch our way towards collective working class liberation, we must remember our roots—and never forget the struggles, joys, and sacrifices of those who came before. Which side are you on?

Kim Kelly is an independent labor journalist, author, and union member based in Philadelphia, PA. Her first book, FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, is now out in paperback from One Signal/Simon & Schuster, and her new investigation into the black lung crisis was recently published by In These Times Magazine.
Apple Music


Listen on Pandora here