If you’re an American of a certain age, and went to public school when music class was still considered relevant and mandatory, you’ll most likely recognize this historical song. Here’s the link to legendary folk singer Pete Seeger’s rendition.
“What’s going on here?” the front book flap asks. “Let Omie, the eldest, tell it – eighty years after it happened.” That 80 has since become 81, but the story’s power doesn’t age. Welcome to Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931 where the men work long, dangerous hours in the coal mines: ”We live in a coal company house on coal company land, and Pa gets paid on scrip that’s only good at the company stores. He says the company owns us sure as sunrise. That’s why we’ve got to have a union.”
But Pa’s views don’t make him popular with the controlling coal company, nor with the local sheriff and his “gun thugs.” With mounting threats, Pa goes on the run. Ma stands firm, announcing “‘We need a song’” to her frightened children hiding under the bed. “‘This ain’t easy, but sometimes you’ve got to take a stand,’” she insists. “This is how the night goes: bullets through the walls, talk under the bed, words on the page.” When Pa returns, he recognizes that Ma’s newly composed rallying cry will “bring folks together … And it still does.”
Harlan resident George Ella Lyon tells the remarkable story of how Florence Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On,” the song that “has been sung by people fighting for their rights all over the world.” The broad strokes of graphic artist and muralist Christopher Cardinale (who imbued magic realism onto the pages of Luis Alberto Urrea’s Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush) add a sense of urgency, the firm depictions emphasizing the determination to survive and succeed.
After the story — which came to Lyon via “Bev Futrell, a member of the Reel World String Band, who heard it from Reece herself” – Lyon’s informative “Author’s Note” is not to be skipped. “Whenever one side has all the power in a relationship something needs to change,” she writes, while also acknowledging that “[l]ike anything we humans make, unions are not perfect.” Greed and power plague unions, too, but unions can play a positive role in improving work conditions and establishing fair workers’ rights, she explains.
Like the song’s rallying cry, Lyon’s storytelling is ultimately a powerful call to seek social justice at any age: “It’s never too soon to become informed, decide what you think, and speak out. You have a choice. You have a voice. We are how change happens.” Great advice for the 18+ set, too, especially in this election year …