On a windblown, gray Chicago day 100 years ago, January 17, 1915, Ralph Chaplin left his home on the South Side for a raucous, poor person’s rally at the city’s famous women’s center, Hull House. He asked a visiting friend he’d met organizing coal miners with Mother Jones to listen to the lyrics of a new tune he had been working on:
For the union makes us strong!
The self-described Chicago “stiff” and “rebel editor” wanted to write a song that could be for workers what “John Brown’s Body” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were for abolitionists. In fact, he borrowed that very melody.
One hundred years later, despite the rise and precipitous fall of workers’ movements in the U.S., Chaplin’s song is a classic still widely sung with fists raised and demands for justice submitted. It’s an international and national anthem, the official song of the United Auto Workers; it was regularly belted out by “Occupy,” and it’s still sung every weekday by crowds from 20 to 100 protesters at the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda.
In place of John Brown’s and the Battle Hymn’s antagonists, the slaveholders of “Solidarity Forever” are railroad barons and rich “parasites,” the takers of “untold millions that they never toiled to earn.”
It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railway laid
Now we stand outcast and starving ‘mid the wonders we have made…
But the song had a surprisingly “viral” ascent to popularity. In Chaplin’s own account, “Why I Wrote Solidarity Forever,” he tells how the song initially made its way to struggling workers as the nation’s first “lumberjack” anthem.
Chaplin’s troubadour and journalism work (he also designed the Industrial Workers of the World black cat logo) took him around the country. During strikes for safer conditions and the eight-hour day, his song was introduced to Washington state lumber workers.
“Fifty thousand striking Puget Sound loggers bellered it out to a world that didn’t care a hoot about the problems of vote-less Read More