As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops. As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights. In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music. In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”
The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics. Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well. They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one. Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill. “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed. In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores. Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label. Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work. Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album. Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song. As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43. The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.
Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303. It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July. The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar. The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.
Drawing from the talking blues tradition of Chris Bouchillon, Pete Seeger’s “Talking Union” pull no punches in the push for unionization: “What I mean; take it easy, but take it!” Rather surprisingly, the 1955 Folkways reissue bowdlerized the lyrics, cutting down the line “they’ll call every one of you a goddam red, unpatriotic; Japanese spies, sabotaging national defense,” to “they’ll call every one of you a damn red…”
Written by members of the UCAPAWA, future Weavers bass singer Lee Hays, sings lead in “Union Train”, set to the melody of “The Old Ship of Zion”, with the rest of the Almanac Singers filling out the train imitating backing vocals.
Florence Patton Reece’s haunting union ballad “Which Side? [Are You On?]” evokes coal country unrest, written explicitly as a response to the bloody Harlan County War of 1931, which saw armed thugs under Sheriff J.H. Blair clash with miners—who were fired for attempting to unionize in the wake of a ten percent wage cut—in the hills of east Kentucky.
Josh White’s deft guitar picking highlights “Get Thee Behind Me [Satan]” with Lee Hays singing lead vocals on the swinging blues number.
Seeger sings the lead on the Woody Guthrie-penned “Union Maid”—who ain’t afraid of “goons and ginks and company finks”—set to the melody of the old 1907 Indian song “Red Wing”.
Set to the tune of the folk standard “Greenback Dollar”, Seeger again leads the Almanac Singers in calling for a Farmer-Labor Party in Jim Garland’s pleading “All I Want”, perhaps better known by its opening line: “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”.