Union Songs

The Past is Before Us: The Ninth National Labour History Conference (2005)

PART 1 Class and tradition in singing together: from Europe to New South Wales
Rod Noble, University of Newcastle

The musical culture of a nation is to be estimated upon the extent of participation of the whole population rather than upon the extent of the virtuosity of a fraction of it. The basis for musical culture is the vernacular of the broad mass of the people – its traditional 'folk' idiom; popular music and professional music are elaborate superstructures built upon the common base.1

Though there is no strong reason to doubt what Charles and Pete Seeger believe, it is sometimes hard these days to see the 'folk' in the 'elaborate superstructure'. Folk singing and folk songs are about human life in its every form and activity. They involve traditional tunes and words of and by the 'ordinary' people. More often than not these are passed on from one generation to the next.

Others talk of the subjugation or even disappearance of 'folk music' under the weight of industrial society and capitalism.

However, the development of modern (industrial) society created a new form of transmission of music that first influenced, then, in some societies, eliminated the original folk tradition.2

What this paper tries to do is set the development of choirs in general and 'workers' choirs in particular into a context bounded by economic and political imperatives.

The process of the subjugation of folk music was linked to the industrial revolution which was marked by urbanisation, erosion of musical experience in the population and the overlay by 'popular' music.

Tied directly into this is the rapid increase in population and technological advances and intensification of labour – in other words the labour process. The labour process, so adequately described by many authors, was the motive force for the change in fortunes of folk music as it was for so many things during the industrial revolution. The stricter regimes of employment and longer hours were the norm as industrial capitalism expanded over a very short period of less than 100 years. This tore apart traditional communities through urbanisation and centralisation of production and pulled apart the connection between traditional folk music, musicians and community. What developed was a new folk music with less direct participation and more of passive participation. Choirs were a part of this.

There are many examples of this process not just in the UK (ie Cornwall, Lancashire, Durham, The Tyne and Glasgow etc.) which has been one of the prime examples used but also in other countries undergoing similar changes such as Canada (Newfoundland), Holland and Finland.

In the UK, in the eighteenth century, much of northern England places like Lancashire and Durham were sparsely populated, somewhat remote & forested. The Industrial Revolution changed this forever. The North of England and South of Scotland came into their own. These areas became 'the workshop of the world' and the source of Britain's global pre-eminence.

Industrial England was to a great extent Northern England. The government may still have sat in Whitehall…, but much of the nation's wealth was being created in the factories and mills, coal mines and steel works, chemical plants and shipyards of Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds.

A strong Northern culture developed, both in Lancashire and Yorkshire, with a flourishing local press, vigorous party political organizations, a rich dialect literature, a distinct musical tradition centred on brass bands and choirs, and a growing interest in regional history and archaeology3
As might be expected, European settlers in Australia tended to import and adapt the changes from European colonisers.

The influx of Welsh migrants into the Hunter Valley helped to develop particular working class cultural expression. In addition to the Welsh participation in the singing, dancing, and recitations, Eisteddfods and choirs were popular, even up until the 1950s.

The existence of workers choirs in the Hunter Valley in one form or another goes back well over 100 years. In the 1860s and 1870s the men and women of the mining communities used to gather at the mine gates and sing to the non union workers brought in by the coal companies as strike breakers. What the miners sang to the scabs was not 'nice' at all but certainly fitting for the occasion. Later on this folk tradition of singing about particular strikes or events became formalised (and toned down somewhat) and entered into the written and oral history of unionism. At times, for example in the 1880s, the unions sought respectability in relationship to, and promoted the culture of the owning class among their members. This tended to force the folk tradition underground, only to have it surface again during times of great conflict or economic upheaval.

The Welsh massed male choirs are a parallel development and a more acceptable cultural activity which was transported to Australia by migration. In fact much more is known about the Welsh choirs for that very reason – its cross class acceptability. Claire Roberts4 has recorded that an Eisteddfod involving singing groups was held at Wallsend (now a suburb of Newcastle) in 1863 and a choir was formed in Lambton (another Newcastle Suburb) in May 1865 under the auspices of the Lambton Choral Society. The titles of many of the songs performed by bands and choirs, at past Eisteddfods, bear testimony to the classical link. Songs included 'Cum Rhonda', 'Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah' and 'The Heavens are Telling'. However on some occasions these bands and choirs did connect with trade union issues. Jim Comerford5 tells of the financial support from the miners that was essential in keeping some bands viable. He relates the role of the music during the 1929 lockout at Rothbury in the Hunter Valley when the Greta Miners Band played a song called 'A Sad Day on the Coal Field' about the death of Norman Brown who was shot by police. The same band also played 'The Dead March From Saul' (aimed at strike-breakers) on other occasions.

During World War I a radicalism developed in the Australian working class generated by the anti-conscription campaign and the Russian Revolution. It was this period that produced songs like 'Bump Me Into Parliament' and 'Solidarity'. Some of these were borrowed from overseas others generated locally. This radicalism was fostered by the political movement and saw expression for many decades in the use of agit prop theatre and song, the production of union/political song books, as well as the advent of the workers choirs in the 1930s and 1940s.

Comerford6 has related that a 'Marxist Choir' was formed in Kurri Kurri in 1931 led by a cockney tailor with the surname Fetts. This choir of some 20 people sang songs such as The Red Flag' and 'Bump Me into Parliament' at miners' gatherings, but was active for less than six months. In 1936, a meeting of trade unionists at Newcastle Town Hall called for the formation of a workers' choir. The reason for this request was a particularly bad rendition of 'The Internationale'. There is no record of the call being heeded – until 1988 when a new generation workers choir was formed in the city.

This new choir was able to access a number of songs written about the Hunter Region such as the marvellous poem, 'Weevils in the Flour'. This poem is about the 1930s depression in Newcastle and was written by the poet Dorothy Hewett. It has become a popular working class song, as has 'Norman Brown', a song about a miner shot dead by police during the Rothbury Lockout in 1929. One of the Hunter Valley's best known poets, Jock Graham, has had a number of his works put to song including the poem 'Man of the Earth'.

Specific workers' choirs have existed for at least 70 years. It is on record that a 'Peoples Chorus' existed in Sydney in the early 1940s. This choir performed at various union and political functions and it was both agitational and a translator of the folk tradition. In the 1950s a revival of folk music occurred and the linking of it with theatre in the play 'Reedy River' is perhaps one of the better known examples. Versions of this play were performed in the Hunter Valley. In the mid-1970s the WCAC organised song groups to entertain and relate to workers and their struggles. One such group that included members of the 'Maitland Bush Band' played from a barge in the harbour to dockyard workers on the jetty after dockyard management had refused the band entry to the workplace.

In the mid-1980s an acappella working class song group from Britain called 'The Flying Pickets' toured Australia. In 1986 Paul Simon released his 'Gracelands' album that featured massed (African) choir singing. These influences and later (in 1987 and 1988) the formation in Sydney of the Solidarity Choir, in Brisbane of the Combined Unions Choir and in Newcastle of the Newcastle People's Chorus, marked the beginning of a new generation of workers choirs. The underlying reasons for such an upsurge can be traced to the generations of labour movement activists who experienced the Anti-Vietnam War Movement and the radicalism in the period of the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. By the mid-1980s many of these people were concerned that the commitment to unionism and radicalism was waning under the influence of the conservative mass media and a labor party that was turning rapidly to the right. One way to keep alive a spirit of radicalism and imbue the working class with the traditions of struggle and a sense of history was to turn to the oral tradition, including workers choirs. It was to some extent these labour movement activists who led the upsurge and with few exceptions they were people from the rank and file of the unions, though they often worked with the full support of the trade union hierarchy.

An example: the Newcastle Peoples Chorus

The idea of a workers' choir in Newcastle was discussed from September 1987 and the 'Peoples Chorus' was formed in July 1988 by the combining of a few Newcastle Trades Hall Council delegates, other unionists and fellow travellers (about eight people in all). In addition to the reasons noted above, the formation of this choir had as much to do with the perceived pathetic 'off key' singing of workers anthems at traditional May Day events and the identified need for a group of singers to lead the others in song.

Early repertoire included the convict ballad 'Moreton Bay', contemporary folk songs such as 'Bare Legged Kate' by John Dengate as well as the militant union songs which have been absorbed into the tradition, such as: 'Bump Me Into Parliament', 'Red Flag', 'Internationale' and 'Solidarity Forever'. This Chorus now has about 25 members and has been functioning for 17 years. As well as singing at union events like May Day, the Chorus performs at Folk Festivals, Peace events and more recently at funerals where often politically progressive people wish to dispense with religious services and have songs more relevant to the life of the person concerned.


  1. Charles Seeger, quoted in Pete Seeger, Where Have all the Flowers Gone: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies, Sing Out Corporation, Bethlehem, 1993, p. 84.
  2. Wikipedia – the free web based encyclopaedia, accessed 29 April 2005.
  3. Jeffrey Richards, 'Cinemagoing in Worktown: regional film audiences in 1930s Britain', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 14, no. 2, June, 1994, p. 147.
  4. Unpublished manuscript, 1987.
  5. Interview with author, 1988.
  6. Ibid.

Many thanks to Rod Noble for permission to add this artlcle to the Union Songs collection

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