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December 17, 2012

Protest Song of the Day: ’1913 Massacre’ by Woody Guthrie

Posted in: Protest Songs

Weeks ago, to recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in creating a culture of dissent and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter launched a daily feature to highlight a protest song every weekday. The daily feature went on hiatus while I was covering Pfc. Bradley Manning’s latest hearing. Now, I would like to resume the daily feature with a particular focus on Christmas-themed protest songs.

Legendary folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote a song called the “1913 Massacre” about a a tragedy that happened December 24, 1913, in the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan. Hundreds of striking copper miners and their families were in the Hall for a Christmas party when someone shouted, “Fire!” There was no fire. The people panicked and rushed toward a steep stairway, the only way the Hall could be accessed. A stampede resulted in over seventy people being killed. Fifty-nine of the dead were children.

The person alleged to have shouted, “Fire!” is thought to have been wearing a Citizen’s Alliance pin. The Citizen’s Alliance was funded by mine management and not surprisingly opposed the 1913 strike. So, in labor history and Guthrie’s song, the person who shouts, “Fire!” is a crude prankster responsible for the massacre.

It is believed the doors could only open inward. So, when they were opened, the doors ended up smashing more people who were killed.

The song is classic storytelling. Guthrie sets the scene. We’re taken to Italian Hall where a big Christmas ball is happening. There’s singing and dancing. The children are dancing around the Christmas tree.

A little girl sits down to play piano. The people in the hall are paying attention to the girl and do not notice the “copper boss’ thug men are milling outside.” The “thugs” stick their heads in the door and one yells, “There’s a fire.” A lady hollers back, “There’s no such a thing. Keep on with your party, there’s no such a thing.”

Guthrie sings:

A few people rushed and it was only a few,
“It’s just the thugs and the scabs fooling you,”
A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor,
The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,
While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.

In the song, seventy-three children have died. This is incorrect. In the real tragedy, as mentioned above, fifty-nine children died. Nonetheless, the essence of the song remains.

The children are carried up to to the tree while “the scabs” outside laugh. The piano plays a “slow funeral tune.” The parents cry and the miners, who are on strike, moan, “See what your greed for money has done.”

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If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email [email protected] And all previous Protest Song of the Day selections can be found here.


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