Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

International Women’s Day/Which Side Are You On?

This version of  the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” reworked by Ani DiFranco, seemed like just the right song for today’s occasion—big in some parts of the world, though not necessarily in the USA. And yet, US Women have long been at the forefront of workers organizing, voting and other equal rights, as well as the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet. DiFranco’s version of the song takes in all of our contemporary concerns and desires for change—not only for the benefit of women, but for all the people of the world.

The origin of “Which Side Are You On?” dates back to the 1930s, when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize in the mines around Eastern Kentucky in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing. It was a miner’s wife, Florence Reece, who first worked up the workers’ rights classic “Which Side Are You On?” based on the hymn, “Lay the Lily Low,” to fit her experience during the miner’s strike in the ‘30s.

They say in Harlan County

There are no neutrals there

You’ll either be a union man

Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff that rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”  In 1969, Loretta Lynn earned a number one country hit when she sang she was proud to be a “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; the autobiographical sketch set her up for a long career during which she’d be aligned with personal stories from her hard scrabble but loving home in Kentucky coal country. Already an advocate of women’s rights in song, Lynn knew full well the contributions women had made to the mining towns of her region. In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.)

“Which Side Are You On?” would go on to be used as a ’60s civil rights anthem (its words adapted for the movement by songwriter Len Chandler); today it is widely considered to be a protest standard.  I am so happy to hear DiFranco sing it whenever she does, and lately she sings it often: Which Side Are You On? is also the title of her new album, released just in time to kick-off the election year.
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