The most essential music is conceived by real human beings: ordinary, anonymous, often poor—people who stood up and joined together to fight injustice and institutional oppression. This is the story of Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle and Song, a collection of American working class, pre-World War II folk songs revived by folk singers Mat Callahan & Yvonne Moore.
Both Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore come from rich backgrounds as folk singers and songwriters. Mat Callahan’s roots in San Francisco connected him with larger intellectual communities, and he’s known as an author as well as a musician for his writing on intellectual property and Bay Area political movements. Swiss artist Yvonne Moore is a renowned bandleader, known for her work as co-founder and treasurer of the Association "Art in History and Politics."
Though both Callahan and Moore regularly perform together with various projects, it was Moore’s exploration of the songs of Sarah Ogan Gunning that first led to the making of Working Class Heroes. Gunning was a “discovery” of the 1960s folk revival, a labor songwriter born in Kentucky coal country who grew up around the ravages of big companies. Though Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie were both fans of hers, she never got the credit she was due for being such a powerful voice for the people.
Looking into Gunning’s songwriting through the lens of the 200 labor songs collected in the American songbook Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, Moore and Callahan found other key artists, including Gunning’s more famous siblings Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland, but also other songwriters like Ella May Wiggins and John Handcox. Studying these songs and working on new ways to present them has led Moore and Callahan to showcase some of the original songwriters who put their very lives on the line with their activism.
Working Class Heroes delivers a deathblow to the myth that so-called political songs of the twentieth century were all written by intellectuals and outside agitators in New York. Many, like Ella May Wiggins, were literally murdered by the bosses. Others, like Sarah Ogan Gunning, watched their children starve to death and their husbands die of black lung, only to rise up singing against the system that caused so much misery. Their heroism resulted not from their being different from their fellow workers but from being the same. That such heroism would arise from such stricken conditions is the real poetic meaning of these songs.
Photo Credits: (1) Woody Guthrie singing aboard a New York City subway train (Eric Schaal/Life Pictures/Getty Images); (2) "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People", (3) "Working Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song", (4) Yvonne Moore, (5) Mat Callahan (unknown/website).