Fanning the Flames of Discontent

The Little Red Box of Protest Songs
The Little Red Box of Protest Songs
The Little Red Box of Protest Songs (Proper Box 805520021470)

The Little Red Box of Protest Songs, pays tribute to the Wobblie’s publication, The Little Red Song Book, twenty four poems set to hymns in order to spread the message of the International Workers of the World Union, now in its centennial year and continuing to inspire.

In the folk tradition, the box set borrows the subtitle – To Fan the Flames of Discontent but this is where the similarity ends and the legacy is picked up. There’s no Internationale, no Red Flag and no Solidarity Forever. Compiler Russell Beecher acknowledges the path beaten by Joe Hill but instead turns his focus to both the blues men of Chicago and the New York folk scene of the 1940’s and those who gravitated there, most notably, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. People who were amongst, folk singers and left wing intellectuals and who recognized the subversive power of the song and were themselves personally inspired by the IWW’s Little Red Book.


Whereas the latter concentrated on union and labor songs, The New York scene broadened the catalogue of protest songs to reflect the changing times and politics. Bank crashes, miscarriages of justices, the rise of fascism, threat of atomic bombs, strikes, destitute farmers and hungry workers are all here against a backdrop of blues, country, hillbilly yodeling, banjo picking and hootenannies.

Sixty songs are, subdivided into three CD’s, The House I Live In, Patriotic Diggers and We Shall Be Free. If not rarities, they are all treasures that paint a picture of this particular time in American history. Highlights of the first collection of songs have to include the Alfred Hayes poem set to music by Earl Robinson recounting the work of Joe Hill and the miscarriage of justice that resulted in his execution by firing squad as he refused to admit the real reason he suffered a shotgun wound.

Then there’s Bob Miller’s “Bank Failures”, written in the 1930’s …

By skipping we saved a few dollars
Put ‘em in a big bank vault
Something is wrong
Cause the money is gone
And it certainly isn’t our fault
We gotta break our backs and continue paying tax
Good people we’re a bloat upset
Just why our money went bye bye no one seems to explain.

Play this back to back with Brownie McGhee’s, piano driven boogie, “ High Price Blues” from the second c.d. and we could easily be in 2009.

The Proper Box fired my interest in this era of American history and the legacy of Joe Hill leaving me “googling” for more about the Little Red Song Book that started it all.

The third CD opens with another New York connection, the home city of Jewish high school teacher, Abel Meeropol, who wrote Strange Fruit. A personal expression of his horror over the lynching of two black men in Indiana. Although his wife, Laura Duncan, sung it many times, the version on this compilation is sung by Josh White. An advocate for civil rights, Josh’s work with the Carolinians, the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson and Leadbelly placed him firmly amongst the group of protest artists making waves.

The accompanying booklet has thirty two pages devoted to artist biographies, photographs and a background to “the scene”. Potted histories of the Joe Hill legacy and the music of the Wobblies, precede a documentation of key events in Pete Seeger’s career. His time with the Almanac Singers then The Weavers culminating with the activities of the “House Un-American Activities Committee” who accused him of corrupting American youth and attempting to spread communism through folk songs. Indeed the DVD in the box set contains archive footage from the committee with a woman wearing horn rimmed jewel encrusted spectacles that would make Dame Edna Everage, green with envy. Alan Lomax also gets a mention along with the People’s Songs.

A notable lack of women singers creates the only disappointment Laura Duncan and Aunt Molly Jackson, the only ones to have got a look in on this compilation, we should have had more. Other than that, a thoroughly engaging weekend of music. The Proper Box fired my interest in this era of American history and the legacy of Joe Hill leaving me “googling” for more about the Little Red Song Book that started it all. Three CD’s, a DVD and a comprehensive history of the era all for less than the price of a regular CD, this has got to be a winner.

Buy the boxed set:

Author: Jill Turner

Jill Turner contributes to Songlines Magazine, World Music Central and is on the fRoots critics albums of the year panel. Her radio show GondwanaSound broadcasts on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM to the fourth largest city in the UK and is carried on both Radio Groovalizacion and African Internet Radio.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *