In the winter of 1933, the coal miners of the twin valley towns of Davidson and Wilder in Tennessee went on strike. The one-industry towns were completely company-run. The miners were paid in scrip which could only be used at the company store. In fact, when the miners struck, the company turned off the electricity in town and took the doors off the miners' homes.
But the miners held out. The company then turned the struggle into a lockout -- importing hired strikebreakers at better pay than the union had ever received, and protecting them with the National Guard.
Leader of the striking miners was Barney Graham. At the end of April, Barney was shot by a Chicago gangster specifically brought in by the company for the job.
A number of songs came out of this bitter strike in two little mining towns in Tennessee. Few labor songs have ever summed up the goals of a strike more precisely than this strangely-moving ballad.
''Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes.''
Irwin Silber, liner notes for Pete Seeger, "American Industrial Ballads" (Folkways FH 5251, 1956).
Lyrics as reprinted ibid.
My children are seven in number,
We have to sleep four in a bed;
I'm striking with my fellow workers.
To get them more clothes and more bread.CHORUS:Pellagra is cramping my stomach,
Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes.
My wife is sick with TB;
My babies are starving for sweet milk,
Oh, there as so much sickness for me.Milk, milk, we're striking for gallons of milk,I'm needing a shave and a haircut,
Milk, milk, we're striking for gallons of milk.
But barbers I cannot afford;
My wife cannot wash without soapsuds,
And she had to borrow a board.Soap, soap, we're striking for bars of soap,My house is a shack on the hillside,
Soap, soap, we're striking for bars of soap.
Its doors are unpainted and bare;
I haven't a screen to my windows,
And carbide cans do for a chair.Homes, homes, we're striking for better homes,They shot Barney Graham our leader,
Homes, homes, we're striking for better homes.
His spirit abides with us still;
The spirit of strength for justice,
No bullets have power to kill.Barney, Barney, we're thinking of you today,Oh, miners, go on with the union,
Barney, Barney, we're thinking of you today.
Oh, miners, go on with the fight;
For we're in the struggle for justice,
And we're in the struggle for right.Justice, justice, we're striking for justice for all,
Justice, justice, we're striking for justice for all.