If it seemed like I phoned it in a bit the last few days, well, you’re not wrong. The truth is, I could blame it on being sick, but mostly I blame it on my personal fears that I wouldn’t treat the freedom songs from the African American spirituals tradition well – and in fact I may have been unclear or hurtful more than once in my efforts to seek balance and information. For all this, I apologize.
What I won’t apologize for, however, is a sense of pride in myself that despite the horrible sinus headaches and annoying coughs, I have kept this up. Much like those hard weeks after the election, I felt a sense of commitment to myself and the process. And that matters. (Now if I could only feel the same sense of commitment to exercise…)
Anyway… we’re on to the Labor and Learning hymns, beginning with this iconic song of the labor movement. In learning more about the song, I ran across an interview with singer-songwriter John McCutcheon, who spoke of his admiration of this song, which is
able to say everything you need to say in four lines. I tried to write verses for it and they were just pointless. … They can’t be improved. It was like a perfect distillation of the sentiment of the song. … the way it talks about the basic, the most basic things about communities and unions, and … it’s just a perfect song as a piece of craft work.
The song, like most folk music, has its own stories, with various sources claiming various origins. In his songbook Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Pete Seeger says this:
Waldemar Hille, editing the People’s Songs bulletin in 1948, once showed me two short verses he found when researching U.S. labor history:
Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none.
And by union, what we will can be accomplished still;
drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.
It was printed in the preamble to the constitution of an early coal miner’s union. Says Wally, “good verse.” Says I, “What’s the tune?”
“I don’t know,” says Wally, “I suppose some old Irish tune might fit it. Like the song from the Irish famine of the 1840’s, ‘The Praties they Grow Small.’”
“Let’s try it,” says I. It fit. And has been sung to that melody ever since.
And so this is the melody we sing. Two simple, compact, complete couplets – a perfect introduction to this section, and a good section to be starting on this day after the International Women’s Day general strike, A Day Without a Woman. There will be more space to talk about women and the labor movement in upcoming songs… so I’ll save my energy for those.
For now, I leave you with this wonderful, short, meaningful song. I’m glad we sing it.