Disability Activism, History, and the Power of a Song

Hankkeen tutkija Daniel Blackie kirjoittaa Florence Reecen kappaleesta Which Side Are You On? Reece kirjoitti kappaleen sen jälkeen kun Kentuckyn viranomaiset olivat tunkeutuneet hänen kotiinsa etsien hänen aviomiestään, joka oli kaivostyöntekijäliiton aktivisti. Alun perin tästä työväen aktivismista syntyneestä laulusta on tehty uusia versioita epäoikeudenmukaisuuden vastustamiseen. Vuonna 2015 brittiläinen vammaisaktivisti John Kelly valjasti sen omalla sanoituksellaan taisteluun vammaisten sosiaaliturvan leikkaamista vastaan.  Reece olisi varmasti suhtautunut myönteisesti kappaleensa muovaamisen tällaiseen tarkoitukseen, toisin kuin ehkä joihinkin muihin tarkoituksiin, olihan hänen edellä mainittu aviomiehensäkin vammautunut kaivostyössään. 

 

When Florence Reece (1900–86) wrote ‘Which Side Are You On?’ in 1931, she probably had no idea that her song would inspire this reworking by disability campaigner and musician, John Kelly:

 

Written in the midst of the Harlan County ‘War’ that saw striking Kentucky miners take on their employers in a series of bloody skirmishes, Reece came up with the original version of the song after armed deputies raided her home looking for her husband, Sam, a local union leader. 

A defiant call to action and an expression of community, the song, which has often been rewritten to suit local conditions, quickly became a union classic. It has been sung during labour disputes in the United States and other countries many times since.

Moved by the power of the song and its message of struggle, activists for other causes, such as the Civil Rights Movement, also took it up, significantly modifying the lyrics in the process. For instance, this rousing version of the song was sung by protesters during the famous Selma marches in Alabama in 1965. And newer renditions have been heard more recently at Black Lives Matter protests. 

Given the song’s history, it’s easy to see that John Kelly’s version of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ sits within a rich protest tradition. And this is a tradition of which Kelly himself is well aware!  As his introduction to this performance suggests, Kelly knows about the song’s history, and this was one of the reasons he was inspired to make it his own. 

Like Florence Reece and the Selma protesters before him, Kelly’s version of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ was born out of his own experiences. He might not have been a terrorised labour activist in depression-era America or a brutalised Civil Rights campaigner, but he was just as angry. When the British government decided to abolish the Independent Living Fund in 2015, Kelly, along with thousands of other disabled people, saw it as an attack on their freedom to choose how they wanted to live their lives and fought back. Kelly’s ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is his musical contribution to that fight. 

Just as Reece and the Selma singers had, Kelly realised the power of song for mobilising people and evoking a sense community. In the deadly Harlan County War of the 1930s, Florence Reece’s song called on members of her community to choose sides, to get involved, to fight. In twenty-first century austerity Britain, John Kelly’s reworking did the same – and perhaps with even more success than the original!

Although variants of Reece’s version were indeed sung by labour activists soon after she composed it, there appears to be some doubt about whether miners ‘actually sung the song in the [Harlan County] conflict that inspired it’ (Jones 1984, 70). As this 2015 video of demonstrators in Norwich shows, no such thing can be said of the Kelly version – disability activists swiftly incorporated it into their protests against government cuts:

I have heard lots of different versions of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ over the years. But John Kelly’s is the first I’ve heard to include a disability perspective that speaks to the experiences and political struggles of disabled people explicitly. 

Given the way the basic message of Reece’s original lends itself to endless possible re-writes, it’s possible other disability versions may also exist. And if they don’t, disabled people’s ongoing struggle for rights and recognition makes it seem likely that new renditions of the song will be heard at future disability protests. 

Whatever the case, as a miner’s wife and labour activist, I think Florence Reece would have approved heartily of John Kelly’s version and would love it if other disability activists reworked the song. 

Mining has always been a dangerous occupation, and occupational disability has been a major issue in the industrial politics of the industry. Mining unions in different countries have long fought for compensation for disabled mineworkers. The campaigns they have waged concerning miners’ respiratory diseases are among some of the most high profile. 

Florence Reece knew this side of mining intimately. Her husband, Sam (yes – the same Sam she had when she wrote her song in the 1930s!), experienced great trouble breathing as a result of his work in the mines and eventually died of ‘black lung’ in 1978. It seems fitting, then, to let Florence Reece have the last word. 

Take it away, Florence!

 

Daniel Blackie

historiantutkija

 

Further reading

 

Bohata, K., A. Jones, M. Mantin & S. Thompson (2020) Disability in industrial Britain: A cultural and literary history of impairment in the coal industry, 1880–1948 (Manchester University Press).

Jones, L. (1984) ‘Florence Reece, “Against the Current”’. Appalachian Journal 12 (1): 68–72.

Morris, C. (2019) ‘Life of a Song: Which Side Are You On?’. Financial Times, 2 December. 

Rose, S. F. (2005) ‘“Crippled” Hands: Disability in Labor and Working-Class History’. Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, 2 (1): 27–54.

Serrin, W. (1984) ‘Labor Song’s Writer, Frail at 83, Shows She is Still a Fighter’. New York Times, 18 March.

Turner, D. M. & D. Blackie (2018) Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalmining, 1780–1880 (Manchester University Press).

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