Which Side Are You On?

Words by Florence Reece; tune hymn "Lay the Lily Low," 1931

Explain the circumstances behind the writing of this song. What "sides" does this song refer to? Union and company. Who was it directed to? "Scabs." Why did the singer insist that there "are no neutrals here"? Could there possibly have been more than two sides?

What was the sheriff's role in this conflict? How did labor unions combat this kind of corruption? Solidarity, so owners couldn't continue business and called off the "goons."

Why would this strike add an urgency to "choosing sides"? Choosing to join and side with the union could be a life-threatening choice but was seen by many as the only way for workers to become free from intimidation. Why was "scabbing" so threatening to unions?

This song is sung to the tune of the hymn "Lay the Lily Low." How significant is the choice of this hymn? The hymn is about death, and sheriff deputies were trying to beat or kill union organizers.

What New Deal legislation addressed the difficulties of labor unions? National Industrial Recovery Act, National Labor Relations Act/Wagner Act. What did it do to address the situations described in this song? Right to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

"Which Side Are You On?" performed by The Weavers on Wasn't That a Time? Santa Monica, CA: Vanguard [VCD4-147/50], © 1992. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

The Weavers were a folk-singing quartet in the 1950s and 60s. They were "blacklisted" (shunned by record companies and concert organizers) for their political views during the McCarthy Era in the mid-1950s. They recorded this song in 1963, the peak year of the Civil Rights movement. Although the lyrics describe a coal strike, the question "which side are you on?" could be applied to any number of ethical dilemmas. The Weavers' style of vocal harmony heard in this recording became the style of many folk groups in the 1950s and 60s.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:


Harlan Miners Speak
Harlan Miners Speak

The 1931 coal-miner strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, prompted the composition of this song. It was a violent strike pitting the mine owners and hired deputies on one side against the coal miners on the other side. Supposedly, armed company deputies roamed the countryside looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill. Florence Reece, the wife of union organizer Sam Reece, was alone with her seven children when Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men came to her house in search of her husband. Shortly after this incident, she penned the words to this song which is sung to the tune of a hymn.

This is a "come-all-ye," a story-telling homiletic type of ballad related to old British broadsides of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which narrates a historical event to engender sympathy for the point of view of the storyteller. The refrain sung after every verse (or every other verse in very long ballads) carried the moral question; the verses unfolded the story of the event. This particular song doesn't bother with a lot of details about the event that led up to the strike or its bloody consequences, but it does contain a few details (like the name of the county and the company "boss").

scab: Non-union worker who continues to work during a strike.

J. H. Blair: Sheriff who did the bidding of company owners during the 1931 Harlan County, Kentucky, coal strike.

Compose picket signs for strikers to carry while singing this song in 1931.



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