Last Saturday night a group of protesters interrupted the St. Louis Symphony at the very end of intermission. The protesters sang an adaptation of the old folk song “Which Side Are You On?” They dubbed the performance “Requiem for Mike Brown” and began their protest shortly before the Symphony began Brahms' German Requiem.
This song wasn’t picked at random.
Protest organizer Elizabeth Vega sang an updated version of the song as done by Rebel Diaz while being held by police overnight a couple weeks ago. She'd been arrested during a protest related to Michael Brown's death. Two nights after her arrest, organizers planned the action at the symphony.
The song has been used during strikes and protests for years, manifesting as one of the top songs of the civil rights movement. However, the song's origins are not what you might expect.
Its genesis lay in the famous mining labor disputes of Harlan County, Ky., sometimes referred to as the Harlan County War. Historians say “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece in 1931. Reece’s husband was a coal miner and labor organizer involved in a strike. A moment of violence directed at Reece’s husband compelled her to write the song.
“Some of the company thugs came around her house looking for him,” said Smithsonian Folkways Archivist Jeff Place. “They came and they kind of tore her house apart trying to find him hiding under everything, under beds and places. They were very threatening.”
When the men left, Reece took a calendar from off the wall and wrote out the song to express her rage. The song gained popularity among the Harlan County protesters and spread throughout the labor movement. It was later embraced by other social justice movements and entered pop culture through noted folk musician and activist Pete Seeger’s recording and performance.
Place characterizes the Reece’s lyrics as a zipper song, a term used by some ethnomusicologists to describe songs “where you have a chorus but the verses can be composed right on the spot.”
The song was embraced by the civil rights movement and sung at protest marches throughout the South. One version was sung and recorded by The Freedom Singers, a group of black vocalists. (see performance videos below)
Ron Cohen, 75, is a retired professor of American history who’s written numerous books on the history of folk music and its influence on American culture. He says this trajectory is not unusual for certain folk tunes.
“The songs take on various incarnations or various meanings depending on the setting,” he said. “What could start as a labor song could keep going in northern urban folk circles, particularly in the '50s or after the fifties, or become part of the civil rights movement in the '60s with new words to it. They take various twists and turns.“
At least one twist was reflected in Reece’s life. She went on to perform the song and other regional songs at union conventions and folk festivals throughout the region although she wasn’t a singer or musician by trade. One of these performances was captured at a Smithsonian Folklife Festival organized performance 40 years after the song was written.
Ralph Rinzler was one of the co-founders of the Folklife Festival and a worker at the Newport Folk Festival. He brought Reece to the 1971 festival to perform "Which Side Are You On." She sang at the festival again in 1976. Reece spent most of her later years in Kentucky, in the same area she lived during the strike that inspired her song.
Place says the song’s legacy indicates a continued appearance in protest culture.
“If anyone can write that one song that’s going to stick around, that’s the song she wrote,” said Place.
Cohen concurs and cites the song’s message of standing up to systemic oppression regardless of whether it’s manifested in mining company bosses, textile industry bosses or people protesting police violence.
“The context changes but the meaning of the words stays the same Protest against oppression,” said Cohen.