Women's Songs

Sing Out!
January-February, 1971

When I became active in women's liberation, I started to make up songs, mostly setting new words to folk songs. I had always loved to sing and now had people to do it with. I even learned how to play the autoharp. I also started collecting various kinds of women's songs, with the idea that I would put together a songbook. I never got around to it, but I did write this analysis of the songs I had collected.

 WOMEN'S SONGS

 
BALLADS
 
Margie Davies, Fran Anslery and me singing at a Bread and Roses demonstration, 1970.  Photo by Ann Popkin.
 
 
Hard is the fortune of all womankind,
She's always controlled, she's always confined
Controlled by her parents until she's a wife,
Then a slave to her husband the rest of her life.
 
            Women's fortunes have always been hard. The history of most women, of ordinary women through the ages, is unwritten. The vast majority of women who have lived never learned to read or write, and nobody else bothered to record their opinions or deeds for them, because nobody thought them important enough.
 
            Women's culture, for that reason, has been largely oral—passed down from mother to daughter in the form of songs, "old wives' tales" (which you might call popular science), and proverbs. Songs are one of the few ways we have of finding out how our remote ancestresses felt about their lives.
 
            Ballads may begin by recording some version of actual events, but these events are soon mythologized as the song is passed around. The events find their most economical, memorable, and satisfying shape in the process of transmission. This shape is art—which is just a way of talking about the issues of real life in a form that gives you images to act as handles for your experience.
 
Queen Jane lay in labor for six weeks and some more;
Her women grew weary and the midwife gave o'er,
Oh, women, kind women, as I know you to be,
Pray cut my side open and save my baby.
 
            Now no woman—even one who needed a Caesarian—ever lay in labor for over 6 weeks. It'd kill her. But to women who had gone through many a difficult birth, this wasn't an exaggeration —it was real life taken to the extreme so that no one could miss the point.
 
Queen Jane she turned over and fell in a swound,
They cut her side open, the baby was found.
The baby was christened the very next day;
His mother's poor body lay mouldering away.
 
Women didn't live through Caesarians in the days before doctors sterilized their knives.
 
            A lot of the focus in songs about women's lives was death. Death for the mother, for the baby, for the lovers, for the runaway daughter, for the unfaithful wife, for the deserted maiden or the one who gets pregnant and becomes a problem to her lover. We live at a pretty high level of material comfort, health, and refinement; our oppression as women is measured in subtler ways. Death was the measure for centuries of women in harder circumstances; the power your father or husband had over you was the power to kill you, swiftly or by degrees. Pioneer husbands in America often wore out three or four wives, between childbirth and hard work. Nineteenth century women were lucky to see half their children live to grow up—look at the tiny graves in any old graveyard. Children still die like that in "underdeveloped" (and exploited) areas; Aunt Molly Jackson tells it:
 
The rich and mighty capitalists,
They dress in jewels and silk;
But my darling blue-eyed baby,
She starved to death for milk.
 
            Most ballads are not about such everyday kinds of murder. The lives of most women have been relatively uneventful—housework, husband, childbirth, poverty, loneliness, death—these aren't events. Maybe a war or two. It's not this pattern but the violent variations from it that ballads are about—the same things that drugstore romantic thrillers are about now. Ballads are the escape fiction of women who can't read. The characters in them act out, in simplified and bloody fashion, themes born in escape fantasy and wish fulfillment and guilt. Some are pure escape with no ending:
 
Bread and Roses members, including Jackie Ruff, second from right, singing at a demonstration, 1970.  Photo by Ann Popkin.
 
 
Yes I'll forsake my house and home,
My husband and my ladies;
I'll forsake my new born babe
To ride with the Black Jack Davy.
 
            More often the escape fantasy is overtaken by that of guilt; women are not supposed to even think about running away from their husband and kids:
 
They were not gone but about 3 weeks,
I'm sure it was not four,
When the ship sprang a leak and began to sink
And it sank to rise no more.
 
            Ballads are rituals of rejection; of recognition and reunion after long separation; of haunting, thwarted love and despairing suicide; of bloody revenge; of incest, infanticide, and murder. They satisfy the imagination while containing the terror of the events they describe in the regularity of their form: the repetitive tune, the rhyme, the conventional imagery that recurs in ballad after ballad. They are the songs of generations of women who accepted their hard lot and dreamed of wild poetry; who did not band together to struggle, and who died young.
 
 
COMPLAINTS
 
Another kind of women's song complains more directly about the oppression of daily life:
 
When I was single, marryin's all I craved,
Now that I'm married, Lord, I'm troubled to my grave,
Wish I was a single girl again.
 
The most complete of these is “The Housewife’s Lament,” found in the diary of a 19th century Illinois pioneer woman, who had 7 children and outlived them all. It is a complete catalogue of housework, ending with the housewife's total defeat by her environment:
 
There's too much of worriment goes to a bonnet,
There's too much of ironing goes to a shirt,
There's nothing that pays for the time you waste on it,
There's nothing that lasts us but trouble and dirt.
 
CHORUS:
Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble,
Beauty will fade and riches will flee,
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double,
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.
 
In March it is mud, it is slush in December,
The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust,
In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September
The wallpaper rots and the candlesticks rust ...
 
With grease and with grime from corner to center,
Forever at war and forever alert,
No rest for the day lest the enemy enter,
I spend my whole life in struggle with dirt.
 
Last night in my dreams I was stationed forever
On a far little rock in the midst of the sea,
My one chance of life was a ceaseless endeavor
To sweep off the waves as they swept over me.
 
Alas! 'Twas no dream; ahead I behold it,
I see I am helpless my fate to avert.
She lay down her broom, her apron she folded,
She lay down and died and was buried in dirt.
 
            Other songs pit husband against wife in a contest over who can do the most work, or do the other's work best. The wife always wins hands down.
 
            Some women's songs complain about other forms of work. Like the housewife's song, "The Lowell Factory Girl" presents an excruciatingly detailed picture of the woman worker's total experience—the technical details of her work; her uneasy relationship with her overseer (foreman), filled with sexual tension about how she looks; her fantasies of escape; her resentment at the way the upstairs girls highhat her:
 
Come all you weary factory girls,
I'll have you understand,
I'm going to leave the factory
And return to my native land....
 
No more I'll lay my bobbins up,
No more I'll take them down,
No more I'll clean my dirty work,
For I'm going out of town.
 
No more I'll take my pieces of soap,
No more I'll go to wash,
No more the overseer will say,
Your frames are stopped to 'doff'.                 
 
Come all you little doffers
That work in the spinning room,
Go wash your face and comb your hair,
Prepare to leave the room….
 
No more I’ll draw those threads
All through the harness eye;
No more I'll say to my overseer
Ohl dear me, I shall die.
 
No more I'll get my overseer
To come and fix my loom,
No more I'll say to my overseer
Can't I stay out till noon?
 
Then since they've cut my wages down
To nine shillings per week
If I cannot better wages make,
Some other place I'll seek.
 
No more he'll find me reading
No more he'll see me sew
No more he'll come to me and say
"Such work I can't allow."
 
I do not like my overseer,
I do not mean to stay,
I mean to hire a Depot-boy
To carry me away.
 
The Dress-room girls, they needn't think
Because they higher stand;
That they are better than the girls
That work at their command….
 
            Other complaints, too numerous to count, deal with woman as a sexual object or as a possession of her family: a woman is made pregnant and deserted, or made to marry a man she doesn't love, or prevented from marrying one she does. Often she dies as a result.
 
SONGS OF STRUGGLE
 
            Not all women's songs are descriptions of oppression or romantic fantasies. Some are songs of struggle. There have been two or three major movements of women already in this century. One was the women's rights movement, which lasted from around the Civil War to World War I, and had lots of different movements within it, like the suffrage movement and the movement to unionize women, and the birth control movement, and the Women's Christian Temperance League, and the peace movement. Most of them produced some songs. A lot of women, some organ izers, were involved in the union struggles of the Depression and the CIO, and some of them wrote terrific songs, right out of that experience. And now we have our women's liberation movement, which has also begun to produce its own music.
 
            The songs that came out of the suffrage movement are mostly pretty unsingable, though a couple are pretty good, like "Let Us All Speak Our Minds." (You can hear some of them on Song, of the Suffragette., sung by Elizabeth Knight on Folkways FH 5281.) Most suffrage songs are pretty abstract and rhetorical in language and are set to a few standard tunes—most of the ones I've seen are set either to the "Marseillaise" or to "Marching Through Georgia." This must have something to do with the class base of the women in the suffrage movement, which was made up predominantly of educated middle-class or ruling-class women. They weren't in touch with any very living musical roots. The politics of some of their songs are a problem to us now, too. The suffrage movement, after the tum of the century, got into campaigning for the vote on the basis of really conservative politics - the vote was going to enable them to "save the home," or to stop workingmen from drinking, or to preserve the privileges of the WASP ruling class against the votes of immigrants, Chinese, and Blacks.
 
            The part of the women's rights movement that reached working-class women tended to produce much better songs; such as this one by Gertrude Barnum, who worked with the Women's Trade Union League. The tune is "Yankee Doodle."
 
A MODERN YANKEE DOODLE
 
Yankee men, they had their way,
And thought it fine and dandy;
Locked the women in all day
And stopped their cries with candy.
Yankee Doodle, Doodle Doo,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Said to women, "Who are you?
Be glad to get the candy.”
 
Yankee women caught right on
And thought it quite unhandy
To have no say and get no pay;
They threw a hate on candy.
Yankee Doodle, Doodle Doo,
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
You'd be sorry if you knew
How sick they grew of candy.
 
"Yankee man," said Yankee maid,
"With you no words we'll bandy,
Hand to us the front door key,
And we’ll send back your candy.
Yankee Dude, what can you do?
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
We like freedom same as you,
And won't be hushed with candy."
 
"We mean to roam the great wide world,
We mean to ride a pony,
Stick a feather in our caps,
And dine on macaroni.
Yankee Dude, what can you do?
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
We mean to live on solid food,
And you can keep your candy."
 
Yankee Dude now helps the maid
To mount upon his pony.
Likes the feather in her cap,
And shares the macaroni.  
Yankee Doodle, Doodle Doo,
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
Glad to have his girl along;
They both enjoy the candy.
 
Another song written for the Women's Trade Union League was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "We Stand As One," to the tune of "Kathleen Aroon. "
 
Long have we lived apart,
            Women alone;
Each with an empty heart,
            Women alone;
Now we begin to see
How to live safe and free,
No more on earth shall be,
            Women alone.
 
Now we have learned the truth,
            Union is power;
Weak and strong, age and youth,
            Union is power;
On to the end we go,
Stronger our League must grow,
We can win justice so,
            Union is power.
 
            The songs of the union women of the 30's were very different from these. The most famous came out of the South and were rooted in the folk tradition; they were written by women like Aunt Mollie Jackson, Florence Reese, Sarah Ogan, and Ella May Wiggins. Ella May Wiggins spun yarn in the mills in Gastonia, North Carolina, for ten years at less than $9 a week. She became active in the union when a strike was called in 1929; in her own words:
 
            I never made more than nine dollars a week, and you can't do for a family on such money. I'm the mother of nine children. Four died with the whooping cough. I was working nights and I asked the super to put me on days so's I could tend 'em when they had their bad spells. But he wouldn't. He's the sorriest man alive, I reckon. So I had to quit, and then there wasn't no money for medicine, and they just died. I couldn't do for my children any more then you women on the money we git. That's why I come out for the union, and why we all got to stand for the union, so's we can do better for our children, and they won't have lives like we got.
 
            One of Ella May Wiggins's songs tells about it in different words; it's the one they sang over her grave after she was shot by company gun thugs on her way to a meeting. Some people thought they shot her because her songs were making a difference, helping people fight. (You can find them and the songs of other women organizers of the period in Hard Hitting Songs f or Hard-Hit People, compiled by Alan Lomax, with music edited by Pete Seeger, and notes by Woody Guthrie; Oak Publications, 1967.)
 
THE MILL MOTHER'S LAMENT
 
We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children good bye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.
 
And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.
 
And on that very evening
Our little son will say:
"I need some shoes, mother,
And so does sister May."
 
How it grieves the heart of a mother,
You everyone must know,
But we can't buy for our children,
Our wages are too low.
 
It is for our little children,
That seems to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.
 
But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear.
Let's stand together, workers,
And have a union here.
 
            Songs seem to be a traditional way women organizers have found for raising hell. In the movie, Salt of the Earth, the miners' wives who have been arrested make life so unbearable for the warden with their singing and chanting that he finally lets them out Mother Jones, the famous labor agitator, tells in her autobiography how she and her army of miners' wives used music as a weapon in the fight to unionize the anthracite miners at the turn of the century:
 
            In Coaldale, in the Hazelton district, the miners were not permitted to assemble in any hall. It was necessary to win the strike in that district that the Coaldale men be organized. I went to a nearby mining town that was thoroughly organized and asked the women if they would help me get the Coaldale men out. This was in McAdoo. I told them to leave their men at home to take care of the family. I asked them to put on their kitchen clothes and bring mops and brooms with them and a couple of tin pans. We marched over the mountains fifteen miles, beating on the tin pans as if they were cymbals. At three o'clock in the morning we met the Crack Thirteen of the militia, patrolling the roads to Coaldale. The colonel of the regiment said, "Halt! Move back!"
 
            I said, "Colonel, the working men of America will not halt nor will they ever go back. The working man is going forward."
 
            "I'll charge bayonets," said he.
 
            "On whom?"
 
            "On your people."
            "We are not enemies," said I. "We are just a band of working women whose brothers and husbands are in a battle for bread. We want our brothers in Coaldale to join us in our fight. We are here on the mountain road for our children's sake, for the nation's sake. We are not going to hurt anyone and surely you would not hurt us."
 
            They kept us there till daybreak and when they saw the army of women in kitchen aprons, with dishpans and mops, they laughed and let us pass. An army of strong mining women makes a wonderfully spectacular picture.
 
            Well, when the miners in the Coaldale camp started to go to work they were met by the McAdoo women who were beating on their pans and shouting, "Join the unionl Join the union!"
 
            They joined, every lest one of them, and we got so enthusiastic that we organized the street car men who promised to haul no scabs for the coal companies. As there were no other groups to organize we marched over the mountains home, beating on our tin pans and singing patriotic songs.
 
WOMEN'S LIBERATION SONGS
 
The women's liberation movement has been going strong for almost two years now. and from the beginning made building its own culture an essential part of its politics. That included writing songs. People say when I tell them about it, "Do you mean we're going to be a singing movement again?"; which bugs me because it makes it sound like something that's out of their control. It seems to me that what makes a singing movement is just for a lot of movement people to start singing, and that's something that's within their power to control.
           
            I guess people in the radical movement stopped singing some time ago. Maybe it was when whites got kicked out of SNCC. Maybe it has something to do with rock culture. There's a lot of rock music that's great, and some that's really political; and people can participate in it by dancing. But it's not music that most people can make for themselves. You need a together group, for one thing. Then you need a lot of equipment, all of which costs money and takes some expertise. It's not very mobile either—and the kind of demonstrations we have these days, you wouldn't want to bring anything more expensive or bigger than a kazoo along. AU these factors limit the usefulness of rock as a political weapon.
 
            It seems crucial to me that we build a culture which includes music that people can and do make for themselves. We're fighting a system in which everything is made for us—beginning with all our decisions. Our entertainers, our culture, our selves, all get turned into commodities by the system's media. We have to have our own ways of communicating which don't involve these media. The most reliable one is still word of mouth, person to person. It's the one least likely to get distorted in transmission. So I think that everybody who feels the need of political music should start learning how to make and sing it.
 
            Of course that's not the whole story. Unless you are part of a political movement that is alive, your songs might still turn out private or academic or irrelevant. One reason that so many songs are beginning to come out of the women's liberation movement now is that it's the most alive white movement going. Its politics come right out of the experience of each of us. That makes for good songs, too— ones that aren't just head trips. Women's liberation makes everyday life political.
 
            Maybe another reason songs are coming out of the women's liberation movement has to do with the fact that, in white urban American culture, being expressive has always been the province of women. It's a compensation for our lack of power—we are allowed to sing, dance, giggle, cry, and wear bright clothes. We're even encouraged to do these things as part of our role in society— what good is a bird in a gilded cage if it doesn't sing? So when we get together to struggle for equal power and for liberation, it comes naturally to express this struggle in song.
 
            We need songs—all political movements do. Songs catch our political understanding of our everyday experiences and make it memorable; songs put experience into a form that sums it all up and that everybody can share. They provide images that we can use as we continue to struggle. In doing that they become weapons with which we can arm the people. Power to the sisters and their music!
 
 
Marcia Buttman and Wendy Towner, Bread and Roses demonstration, 1970.  Photo by Ann Popkin.
 
 
 
Songs Quoted
 
“The Wagoner's Lad,” Sing Out, Vol. 1
“Queen Jane,” Peggy Seeger Song Book, Oak Publications
“I Hate The Capitalist System,” Hardhitting Songs for Hardhit People, Oak Publications
“Black Jack Davy,” Peggy Seeger Song Book
“The House Carpenter,” Peggy Seeger Song Book
“Single Girl,” Hedy West, Vanguard Records VRS-9124
“Housewife's Lament,” Sing Out, Vol. 3
“The Lowell Factory Girl,” Hardhitting Songs for Hardhit People
“Yankee Doodle Parody,” Leonora O'Reilly papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe
“Women Alone,” Leonora O'Reilly papers
Quote from Ella May Wiggins: New Masses, Nov. 1929
“The Mill Mother's Lament,” Hardhitting Songs for Hardhit People
 
 
And here, just for fun, is the 1971 bio that was printed with the article:
 
Meredith Tax is a writer and political activist. She has been involved with the Women's Liberation Movement for several years as a member of "Bread and Roses". She's a contributor to the feminist newspaper in Boston, "The Old Mole", and is currently working on a history of the left wing of the women's movement between 1890 and 1920. She's written a pamphlet called "Woman and Her Mind; The Story of Everyday Life”, which you can get for twenty cents from the New England Free Press. 791 Tremont St., Boston, Mass.  
 

 
 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.