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Florence Reece (1900-1986) was an American labor activist, poet, and folk songwriter.


"The bloodiest battles to build a union have been in the coal fields—in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, and Kentucky. And surely the toughest and meanest of all the coal fields where men fought for a voice and a place in the sun was 'Bloody Harlan' in Kentucky. The 'Harlan County Blues' summed up the story: 'You don't have to be drunk to get throwed in the can. / The only thing you needed be was just a union man.' In 1931, coal miners in Harlan County were on strike. Armed company deputies roamed the countryside, terrorizing the mining communities, looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill. But coal miners, brought up lean and hard in the Kentucky mountain country, knew how to fight back, and heads were bashed and bullets fired on both sides in Bloody Harlan. It was this kind of class war—the mine owners and their hired deputies on the one side, and the independent, free-wheeling Kentucky coal-miners on the other—that provided the climate for Florence Reece's fine song, 'Which Side Are You On?' In it she captured the spirit of her times with blunt eloquence. Mrs. Reece wrote from personal experience. Her husband, Sam, was one of the union leaders, and Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men came to her house in search of him when she was alone with her seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, ready to shoot Sam down if he returned. One day during this tense period Mrs. Reece tore a sheet from a wall calendar and wrote the words to 'Which Side Are You On?' The simple form of the song made it easy to adapt for use in other strikes, and many different versions have circulated. The tune is usually said to be an old Baptist hymn, 'Lay the Lily Low,' but the British folklorist A. L. Lloyd points out its similarity to that of the British ballad 'Jack Munro,' which uses 'Lay the Lily Low' as a refrain."

—Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Freedom


Which Side Are You On?


 

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