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Speeches and poetry of the labor movement in the 1910s are featured in the Books Unbound Labor Day weekend special “Bread and Roses”. “Bread and roses!” was a rallying cry that originated around 1911. It first appeared in literary form in a poem of that title by James Oppenheim, who was inspired by versions of the phrase on banners carried by women strikers. “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too,” is the most famous quotation from Rose Schneiderman, a Jewish activist for workers’ and women’s rights. The episode is motivated by the “roses” of verbal artistry that expressed the plight of workers in the early to mid-20th century: the transformation of poetry into song lyrics and other forms, the relation of speech and action, and the soundscape of physical labor.
Tony Brewer reads “The Song of the Wage Slave” (1911) by Robert W. Service. The poem is set to “Sourdough / The Miner’s Song” performed by Bill Staines, from his album Wild Wild Heart (Philo, 1985). Service was a Scottish immigrant to Canada whose verse, like the fiction of Jack London, mythologized the Klondike Gold Rush and the Canadian Arctic. His ballads influenced the Canadian folksinger tradition, and inspired novels and movies.
The second segment focuses on the 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. During the demonstrations, a woman was shot and killed—according to some accounts, by a police officer. Labor organizers Arturo Giovannitti and Joseph Ettor were charged as accessories to murder, although witnesses’ testimony was consistent that the two were miles away. Giovannitti, a socialist, was an Italian immigrant who wrote bilingually as a poet, playwright, and orator. He composed his most famous English poem, “The Walker,” while in jail, and delivered a speech in the defense of his cause that is a classic of early 20th century oratory. He was acquitted. His “Address to the Jury” is read in a condensed version by Frank Buczolich.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 was the worst industrial disaster in the history of New York, and remains one of the worst in U.S. history. Management testified at trial that doors were kept locked to prevent the possible petty theft by workers of the clothing items they made. When a fire broke out, 146 garment workers died. Most were recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, and all but 23 were women. In a scene that was recalled in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, horrified witnesses watched workers leap from ninth- and tenth-floor windows to escape being burned alive. One of these witnesses was the young Frances Perkins, who was so altered by the event that she devoted her life to workers’ rights. In 1933, she was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first woman to serve in a U.S. Cabinet post. Sarah Torbeck reads an excerpt from a talk in September 1964 that Perkins gave on the fire and its aftermath. Perkins also recalls hearing the short but fiery Triangle Shirtwaist speech made by Rose Schneiderman, which is read by Berklea Going.
Excerpts from songs based on “Bread and Roses” are performed by the Rheingans Sisters, the Seattle Labor Chorus, and the Harrington Saints. “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister” and “Which Side Are You On” come from the album Talking Union and Other Union Songs by the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and Chorus. A second version of “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister” sung by Tillman Cadle, and “Overtime Pay” by the Priority Ramblers, come from the Labor Sings! Online Exhibit of Labor Arts.
Sound effects from Freesound.org were created by contributors under the names epicwizard, rutgermuller, mediapetros, evernaut, sengjinn, dnewtonjr, and jagadamba.
The summer series “Elizabeth Stoddard and the 1860s” resumes next time with the final episodes of the novel Two Men.
Heather Perry hosts, with announcer Jack Hanek. This episode was produced, written, and edited by Cynthia Wolfe, with assistance from Heather Perry, Sarah Torbeck, and Jack Hanek.
Executive producer: Joe Crawford
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes