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Showing posts with label Christopher Cardinale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christopher Cardinale. Show all posts

6.11.2012

Which Side Are You On? (2011)


Retold by George Ella Lyon

Illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

Cinco Puntos Press

Phew, this one is great, great, great. A great book and an important book. This is only the second Cinco Puntos Press book I've reviewed (the other being the amazing Crossing the Bok Chitto), and I am extremely impressed. They know what's up.

My wife bought me a Pete Seeger album a couple of years ago, containing two CDs. The first had all of Pete's kid's songs and stories - Abiyoyo and the Foolish Frog and the like. But the second disc was filled with old union and labor songs. I'm happy to say, my 5-year old son Arlo took to the union songs just as well as the others, especially the rousing, "Solidarity Forever!"

One of the songs on the album was, of course, "Which Side Are You On?" and though I had no idea of the story behind the song, the tempo always strikes me when I listen to it. Most of are upbeat and filled with pride. They had to be. This one, however, feels mournful to me, creeping with dread.

"Come all you poor workers, good news to you I'll tell, of how the good old union has come in here to dwell."

It was written by Florence Reece in 1931, the wife of a coal miner and the mother of seven, and this story is told in the voice of one of those seven children, talking about her pa working in the mines, blasting and loading coal, putting food on the table, how they live in a coal company house on coal company land, and how their Pa gets paid in money that can only be redeemed at the coal company store.

"He says the company owns us sure as sunrise. That's why we've got to have a union. Pa says if miners get together and say what they want and refuse to dig coal till they get it our lives will get better," she tells us, adding, "They ain't better yet."

From there, the book takes a startling turn. Without explanation, the next page finds the children peeking out from under their bed while their mom hides behind a beam. Their pa is a union organizer and the thugs are after him. Should they call the sheriff? No. The sheriff is the man who hired the thugs in the first place. The book even calls him by name: Sheriff Blair, as does the song:

"If you go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there. You will either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair."

Suddenly, a bullet zips through the wall, just as their mom yells out, "Any of you youngins got a pencil?" and so the song comes to be written.

"When the thugs finally quit shooting and we crawl out of hiding, we're sore and hungry, and our house is busted up, but Ma has written us a song."

I felt pretty swept up in the telling, but the author's note brought me down a bit, as she writes that there are "many accounts of how Florence Reece wrote the song and they won't all agree."

This version, however, comes only twice removed. A woman named Bev Futrell heard this version from Reece herself at her 85th birthday celebration. The story changes and grows, the song changes and grows. Verses have been added to the original song to reflect struggles through the years.




Here's the woman herself singing it.

And here's the group Rebel Diaz singing a version of it.

Please listen to both of these versions, in their entirety, one following the other, for an out-of-body experience.
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