Reflection: Legacy of American labor song poems

By Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholar

American history has been filled with interesting forms of protests, and one of the more underrated forms includes the protest songs that are discussed in “Jesus was a Carpenter,” written by Clark Halker. According to the article, from 1865-1895, there were thousands of labor song poems that appeared in labor papers, union journals, broadsides, songsters and chapbooks. The poems were created by poets who supported the labor movement in the United States, which was highly controversial in that time. Many equated the labor movement and socialism to anarchy, and there was a fear by the wealthy business owners in the capitalist system that they would lose their power because workers began fighting for more rights.

The protest song-poets utilized writing poetry and songs with the labor movement in order to appeal to more people and spread their messages. The most notable parts of the labor song poems were the religious messages that are present throughout them. The religious aspect of the labor song poetry was common with protest movements, and it was significant because in order to not seem like an anarchy movement, the protesters of the labor movement wanted to appeal to the religious morals of the populace and appeal to the capitalists.

While reading the poems, I immediately made the connection to the songs that African-American slaves sang while they worked the fields under the eyes of their masters in the United States. Slaves would create songs about escaping to freedom and being freed by God, and they made religious symbols and messages within their songs to hide their true messages. For example, they might have created a song about Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and away from bondage, but they created the song as a form of protest against their enslavement and hid their desire to escape to freedom through the religious message of the song. While their masters thought they were simply singing about God and Moses, the African-American slaves were actually talking to one another and hoping to escape.

Those songs were similar to the labor song poems because they both used religious messages in order to create songs that protested their oppressors, although the slaves did not intend to appeal to people when they used their religious songs like the labor protesters did.

While reading about the labor song poetry, I also made an immediate connection to rap music, which is often used as a form of protest in the music industry. Since the election of President Trump, hip-hop and rap music have especially been used as forms of protest against him and his policies. I made this connection because rap and hip hop are considered “edgier” genres of music, and they are often used as platforms for protest songs against society and against oppression in society. While many rap songs don’t have a religious connection, there are many that do, and one can often see the religious connection being made in the song in order to appeal to the listener’s humanity, which is similar to the labor protest songs.

One example of a rap protest song was called “The Storm” by Eminem, which he sang at the BET Hip Hop Awards. In the song, Eminem talked about his dislike of President Trump for the president’s disrespect of the military, his ineffectiveness in Puerto Rico, and his attacks on former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the National Anthem, according to the Billboard Music Awards. Eminem finishes the song with a call to action: “The rest of America stand up/ We love our military, and we love our country/ But we f****** hate Trump.”

Rap music and hip-hop music can be seen as a form of protest against the injustices against minorities, in particular, since its introduction in the late 1980s and during the 1990s. Now, as rap has dominated the music industry, forms of protest through rap music are more easily found. However, it can be argued that with the surge of rap music, using that music as a form of protest may not be as impactful because of how it has saturated the music industry.

In conclusion, the labor song poetry of the 1860s-1890s can be seen as a descendant of the songs created and sang by the African-American slaves in the United States and can be seen as the ancestors of rap songs, all because of their similar message of protest against injustices.

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Nicole Ziege

Nicole Ziege is a honors student at WKU. She is majoring in journalism and minoring in history.

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