5 Textile Protest Songs To Get You Ready for Labor Day Weekend

From “Cotton Mill Colic” to the “Victory Song of the Dressmakers,” you’ll be ready to create with fighting songs behind you.


In The Voice of Southern Labor: Radio, Music and Textile Strikes, 1929-1934, authors Vincent Roscigno and William Danaher detail southern textile worker strikes starting in 1929 to the biggest rally (to this day) that involved nearly 400,000 mill workers. Worker’s grievances, solidarity and native radicalism of the time were often reflected in the music they listened to and sang.

It’s not hard to see modern day spins on the same cry for rights with musicians ranging from U2, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan championing causes worldwide.

As Robert Browning once said “Who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.”

Truth for many.

This Labor Day weekend, remember all of those who have had to fight and die just to earn a fair wage and basic human rights all in the name of textile production. From poor child workers to the dark side of southern mill towns, these five songs will have you pounding your fists ready to picket for fair labor in the textile industry…even in 2014.

Cotton Mill Colic: David McCarn

“With its biting satire and dark comedy, David McCarn’s Cotton Mill Colic expresses a deep sense of working-class anger and resentment seldom heard on commercially recorded hillbilly records of the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike almost all of the other dozen or so textile songs that appeared on record before 1942, however, Cotton Mill Colic is not specifically about the miseries of factory labor.  Instead, the song concerns itself with working-class consumption –or rather, the lack of it –and the vicious downward cycle of debt and poverty that ensnared tens of thousands of textile worker families.”

Carolina Cotton Mill Song

“This clip documents a dark part of the history of the United States as mostly seen through the lens of photographer Lewis W. Hine. American child labor was prolific in southern cotton mills and all kinds of other industries in other parts of the country. This video doccuments the period of approximately 1900-1920.

Dorsey Dixon was a great songwriter who also happened to have been forced to work in a cotton mill as a young teen. He knew all of the ‘ins and outs’ of that time in history. Dixon wrote Babies In The Mill as a ‘memory song’ remembering his time as a child working in a cotton mill.”

Fight for Union Recognition


“Labor Union organizers came in large numbers to California to encourage and help the migrant field hands. Out of these efforts came many songs that were usually set to a familiar melody so they could be learned quickly. This song, set to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was written by Jack Latham and recorded by organizers Bert and Ruby Rains. Songs, such as this one, was sung at meetings and on picket lines.”

Victory Song of the Dressmakers

“Distributed in 1936 by the Education Dept. of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The ILGWU issued two twelve-inch 78 rpm records of labor songs sung by its “International Chorus.” This was the first recording of labor songs in the United States. Only two known copies exist today, one in the Music Division of the Library of Congress and the other at the New York Public Library, Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.”

Doing the Reactionary/One Big Union for Two: Cab Calloway

“The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union- was already using the old Princess theater as a union meeting place. A few members decided that they would like to participate in a theatrical revue, just among themselves. The revue, which was already somewhat of an old-fashioned form carried over from vaudeville and burlesque, usually contained songs with a very sketchy and or superficial plot, usually just enough of a theme to hold the show together.

But with socially and politically involved writers engaged in putting together the revue, it was not likely to lack social significance, which was indeed the name of the first song sung in it: “Sing Me a Song with Social Significance.” Arthur Arent, Marc Blitzstein, Emmanuel Eisenberg, Charles Friedman, David Gregory, Joseph Schrank, Arnold B. Horwitt, John Latouche, and Harold Rome wrote the dialogue; Harold Rome wrote and composed the songs. Max Danish, editor of the ILGWU publication Justice, came up with the title.

The participants, all ILGWU members, rehearsed in the evenings and on weekends when they had time off. The first production was expanded when word of mouth excitement over the production brought hundreds of expectant and non-ILGWU members to the revue. The show was moved to the Labor Stage Theater and opened officially on November 27, 1937. In 1939, it moved to the Windsor Theater. It closed in 1940 after 1108 performances.The recordings by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra were made January 26, 1938. What prompted Cab, and/or his management, to select such political material is unknown, but it makes an interesting variation in his discography.”

Images: Tobias Higbee, David Foster