NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 14, Nos. 1-2, 1988
SONGS OF WORK AND SONGS OF WORKSHOP: SANCTIFYING BLACK UNIONISM IN THE SOUTHERN CITY OF STEEL
by Brenda McCallum
Set within the historical context of New South industrialization and
the resurgence of black unionism in the New Deal era and against the
background of racial and social stratification in Birmingham, Alabama, this
paper examines expressive culture as an agent for social change. Many
members of Birmingham’s black workforce during this period had rich
associationallives as gospel singers, and their interconnected contexts for
alliance - at the workplace, in company towns and industrial communities,
in the union hall, and in the church — provided alternative arenas, modes,
and levels of communication and expression. The discourse, narratives,
and songs that emerged from this complex matrix of overlapping social
networks served as analogous channels for black workers’ heightened
response to the inequities of the industrializing environment and, in particular,
to the prospects for profound economic and social reform brought
about by black unionism.
By drawing on and reinterpreting traditional religious speech and song,
black miners and industrial workers in Birmingham helped give unionism
“an extraordinary cultural and ideological vitality” (Grossberg 1986: 54–55).
This paper investigates the practice, among some Birmingham black
workers and gospel singers, of transforming religious songs to union songs
which commemorated and canonized labor leaders, sanctified labor
organization, and praised the gospel of black unionism. Performed in a
quasi-sacred style and empowered by the unifying ideologies of evangelical
Protestantism and democratic unionism, these pro-labor songs provided
an active mode in which black industrial workers could articulate an emerging
consciousness and a new collective identity.....
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