Union Songs

Union is Strength CD

Review by Mark Gregory
listen to tracks online

It's intriguing how the folk movement and the union movement have every few years managed to do something together.

I remember when Chris Kempster and I and other members of Sydney University Folk Music Society put together "Songs of our Times" a roneoed songbook of the early 1960's. We took our collection of songs old and new, some in books and magazines, and some hand written, to a dozen or so union offices in Sydney to get them retyped onto roneo or gestetner stencils. For most pages we then hand drew the music and took the finished stencils back to the unions to run off the several hundred copies. These we later collected and collated over a weekend to produce the book.

Unions have sometimes put out records as part of a campaign. John Baker of the white collar unions ACSPA (Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations) produced two in the early 1960's. One was called "Oh Pay Me" and the second took it's name from Don Henderson's "Basic Wage Dream" which was on it. John Baker played a big part in the Pete Seeger visit too, and the "Four Capitals Folk Song" tour of singers including Marion Henderson, Gary Shearston, and Duke Tritton. This concert tour was part of a Youth and Unions campaign. In the souvenir program the General Secretary of ACSPA, Rees Williams, writes "Today, the artist needs more and better patrons and people and their trade unions need more and better artists".

Earlier, of course, unions were involved in the visit of Paul Robeson, and a 10 inch record was produced of his Sydney Town Hall concert, including him singing "Joe Hill".

The Trades Hall in Brisbane sent Geoff Wills and Don Henderson off to Mount Isa during the historic miners strike there, to sing and to write songs. The first record dedicated to Don Henderson's songs, "One Out", was produced in Brisbane by the "Union Singers", a group of unionists who specialised in union songs.

The Metal Workers were the backers of a tour by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger and put out a cassette to commemorate the event. They were also involved in the LP "Rebel Chorus". The Victorian branch of the BLF published "The Builders Labourers Songbook". In 1981 The Seamen's Union in Brisbane funded an LP "Flames of Discontent" as part of their long struggle with Utah.

Therese Radic's "Songs of Australian Working Life" is another example of union support for folk book research and publication. The forward by the then ACTU president Simon Crean states: "The ACTU is pleased to have been associated with the project".

Unions were involved in Brian Dunnett's great travelling exhibition of railway history and the 2 cassettes that were part of it, "Trains of Treasure" and "Railway Voices". Much of Brian's discovery of songs and poems came from his research into rank and file union magazines and publications.

So maybe it's no surprise to discover that the Miners Division of the CMFEU are behind a new CD "Union is Strength". Produced by Peter Hicks and Geoff Francis, this CD carries on a long tradition and, in my view, adds another fine chapter.

This CD offers a broad selection of union songs as well as performance styles. Relatively ancient songs mingle with some freshly made ones, while there are choirs, bands and individual voices that do the singing. My favourite is Judy Pinder's haunting rendition of the ballad "James Connolly", the Irish revolutionary and trade union leader. (Connolly, incidentally, wrote songs and had been active in the IWW or Wobblies when he worked in the USA). Rather than comment on all the 16 songs on the CD let me simply list them.

Freedom's On The Wallaby: Chris Kempster and friends
If It Weren't For The Union: Peter Hicks
James Connolly: Judy Pinder
Rise Again: Gary McCarthy
From Barcaldine To Weipa: The Sydney Trade Union Choir
How 'Bout You: Mark Gregory
The Apprentice Song: The Fagans
The Green Ban Fusiliers: Denis Kevans
The Economic Rationalist: John Dengate
If Jesus Was A Christian: Kev Carmody
La Lega Crescera: The Solidarity Choir
Coal Tattoo: Stephanie Osfield
My Life She Go This Way: Walters and Warner
The Shipyard Apprentice: Alistair Hulett
The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away: Kerfuffle
Hold That Line: Peter Hicks

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"Union is Strength" marks the anniversary of the Weipa struggle against mining giant RTZ-CRA. 75 unionists in Weipa in North Queensland took on the company an insisted on the right of workers to belong to a union. John Maitland, General President of the CMFEU Miners Division, writes "it is through music and folk lore that these struggles for collective rights, sometimes against enormous odds, will never be forgotten"

With the coalition government's policy of bankrolling employers who feel like attacking unions, the CD could not have been launched at a more appropriate time.

Get your copy from
PO Box 163
NSW 2050
$15.00 + $2.50 p&p
Make cheques payable to Mark Allen Memorial Fund

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