From The Happy Farmer via Red Wing to the Union Maid

A musical feast for you today!

Our ‘protest song’ workshop has latterly been rehearsing a new song, Si Kahn‘s They All Sang ‘Bread and Roses’, first recorded in 1990 by American folk singer and political activist Ronnie Gilbert (1926-2015), one of the original members of The Weavers.  The song has, like many a great protest song, a very catchy and memorable sing-along chorus:

And we all sang Bread and Roses,
Joe Hill and Union Maid.
We linked our arms and told each other
We are not afraid.
Solidarity Forever
Would go rolling through the hall,
We Shall Overcome together
One and all.

This invariably led to our talking about the songs referenced in the lyric, and in particular to our playing through a recording of Union Maid.  One of our workshop participants then asked me whether I knew how old the song Union Maid might be.  I remembered the tune to be that of Kerry Mills and Thurland Chattaway’s Red Wing which I thought to be around 1915; it turns out that it was in fact composed and written in 1907, an early recording of the song by Frank C Stanley and Henry Burr dating from 1910:

So 1907, then.  Question answered.  Or so I thought … until Maria pointed out the similarity to Robert Schumann’s 1848 piano composition The Happy Farmer, Returning From Work from which, it seems arguable, Mills had, consciously or not, adapted the music of the verse.  So, yes, in the fine tradition of folk and protest song, tunes are ever re-usable.  (This is, incidentally, also the key to how we know the tune to which Gerrard Winstanley’s Ye Noble Diggers, All would have been sung: it was also, so its metre and structure show, the tune for Jack Hall, John Benbow, and Captain Kidd.)

If tunes are re-usable, so are lyrics.  The chorus (‘Now the moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing’) is transformed during the First World War into The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin:

The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin
His boots are crackin’ for want of blackin‘
And his owd fusty coat is wanting mending
Until they send him to the Dardenelles

Fast forward to June 1940 and Woody Guthrie’s own re-write of the song in response to a request for a union song from a female point of view: Union Maid.

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come ’round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.

The song was recorded in 1941 by the Almanac Singers (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays) on the album Talking Union & Other Union Songs.

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