From Our Liner Notes
“Harry Bridges….one of the most extraordinary human beings that I’ve ever known in my entire long life” Pete Seeger
Step by Step
There is a long tradition of musicians adapting traditional folk songs to current events. As an example, a 19th century spiritual, “No More Auction Block for Me”, combined with lyrics written by the Reverend Charles Tindley in 1901, became “I’ll Overcome Someday” sung by racially integrated coal miners in the early 1900’s. By 1946 it had developed into “We Will Overcome”. In 1948, Pete Seeger, possibly working with Waldemar Hill, added verses and changed the title line to “We Shall Overcome”.
Pete and Waldemar also created “Step by Step” in 1948, taking the lyrics from the preamble to the constitution of the same American Mineworkers Association and adapting a traditional Irish tune, “The Praties (potatoes) They Grow Small”, as the melody.
Carrying on the tradition, Jackson Browne took this simple eight – line song and, through his use of rhythms, soaring instruments and a choir of voices, has created a song full of the passion of people coming together, when “the longest march can be won”.
Step by Step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
And by union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill
Singly none singly none
The Ballad of Harry Bridges (Alternative Title “Song for Bridges”)
By 1941, Harry Bridges’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), was already part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, formed in 1938 as a more militant group of unions than the American Federation of Labor. Unions in the AF of L tended to be racially segregated “craft” unions with limited membership to protect jobs. The CIO aimed to organize the workforces of entire industries, and welcomed workers of different races and ethnicities into its ranks.
By 1941 Harry Bridges himself was 7 years into the 21 years of trials and hearings aimed at deporting him as a communist. Fundraisers were held to help cover the legal costs. The Almanacs Singers – Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, were asked to write a song as a fundraiser. They adapted an old Irish/Canadian/bluegrass/North American plains folk song, “Little Old Sod Shanty”, arranged by Fred Katz. Six verses tell the story of Bridges: his arrival in San Francisco, the 1934 maritime strike and his on-going prosecutions. Woody Guthrie joined with The Almanacs as they traveled across America singing and raising money for Bridges and the CIO. They sang this song, much to Bridges’ embarrassment, at ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco.
Woody’s son Arlo recorded this version. In consultation with Pete he cleaned up some of the original grammatical mistakes (the song was written and recorded by the Almanacs in a couple hours) and learned the meaning of a “company union” ( a “union” run by the bosses) and of the significance of Harry Bridges.
“Well, we got an ovation, and the men liked it so much that we had to sing the song twice. And on our way out, they slapped Woody on the back so hard they nearly knocked him over. He was just a little shrimp of a fellow”. Pete Seeger
Let me tell you of a sailor, Harry Bridges is his name
An honest union leader that the bosses tried to frame
He left home in Australia to sail the seas around
He sailed across the ocean to come to ‘Frisco town
There was only a company union, the bosses had their way
Us workers had to stand in line for a lousy buck a day
When up spoke Harry Bridges, said “Us workers must get wise
Our wives and kids will starve to death if we don’t get organized”
We built a big bonfire ‘round the Matson Lines that night
We threw their fink books in it and we said ”We’re gonna fight
You’ve got to pay a livin wage or we’re gonna take a walk”
We told it to the bosses, but the bosses wouldn’t talk
We said “There’s only one way left to get that contract signed”
And all around the waterfront we threw our picket line
We called it Bloody Thursday, the fifth day of July
Four-hundred men were wounded and two were left to die
Now that was seven years ago, and in the time since then
Harry’s organized thousands more and made them union men
“We got to try to bribe him” the shipping bosses said
“And if he won’t accept a bribe, we’ll say that he’s a red”
The bosses brought a trial to deport him overseas
But the judge said “He’s an honest man, I got to set him free”
So they brought another trial and to frame him was the plan,
But along with Harry Bridges stands every working man
Chorus Oh, the FBI is worried and the bosses they are scared
They can’t deport six million men, they know
And we’re not gonna to let them send Harry over the seas
We’ll fight for Harry Bridges and we’ll build the C.I.O.
As a footnote, Harry’s trials lasted until 1955 (including two appearances in the Supreme Court) at which point the government finally gave up on trying to deport him. He remained an American citizen until his death in 1990.
Tengo Hambre Blues (I Am Hungry Blues)
By the early 1930’s America was a country in pain and turmoil. In the stock market crash of 1929, the Dow Jones plummeted from 400 to 60 points, 16 billion dollars of stock value was lost, and 10,000 banks failed, leading to the “Great Depression”. Millions of people lost their jobs and became part of a great homeless population. Tens of thousands walked the country, looking for work, shelter, and food. Soup lines were set up across America, but hunger was widespread, and there were massive marches of the unemployed demanding help. There was even talk of revolution. But sometimes, out of times of despair and desperation, people take a stand. By 1934 the American west coast dockworkers had reached their limit. They were no longer willing to accept the brutal working conditions and a system of kickbacks, bribes and favors they faced in order to get a days work. They were ready to fight.
Peruvian born musician Ciro Hurtado wrote and performs the piece, giving an electric and urban feel to a classic blues structure that has been used by generations of Americans to express their struggles, longings and hungers.
The Scabs Crawl In
A scab takes the job of a worker who is on strike. Companies uses scabs to keep production going while hoping to break the will of the strikers. Using scabs often leads to violence on the picket line, a line that strikers set up outside their jobsite specifically to keep scabs out.
In the first half of the 20th century, when many unions were still racially segregated, companies often used African American workers as scabs.. Harry Bridges saw the world divided into two classes; the workers and the bosses. He saw prejudice and discrimination as both morally wrong and self-defeating, and wanted a labor movement based on the principle that the only qualification to get into a union would be the fact that you were a worker.
Pete Seeger took the children’s song, “The Worms Crawl In” and simply changed some of the lyrics, to create an ironic and amusing comment on what has often been a bitter element of labor relations. There is little love for scabs in the union movement…..
“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two – legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and Angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out.”
from a short diatribe attributed to Jack London
The scabs crawl in, the scabs crawl out
They crawl in under and all about
“Oh, Workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?”
from “Which Side Are You On? By Pete Seeger
As a footnote, in the 1934 maritime strike the UC Berkeley football team scabbed. The team’s coach thought, rightly, that it would be a good way to keep the players in shape – unloading ships was hard physical work.
Put the Gas Mask On
The events of July 5th, 1934, the day that became known as “Bloody Thursday”, turned San Francisco into something resembling a war zone. With the enforced unloading of cargo by scabs, thousands of striking dock workers armed with bricks, stones and barricades fought thousands of police. The police used riot guns, revolvers, and….tear gas.
Federal Laboratories and The Lake Erie Chemical Company made the finest tear gas in the business. When “public – minded citizens” offered to pay for 1000 riot guns and $6,000 worth of gas, the companies supplied the salesmen to “demonstrate” their fine products against a few thousand live targets – the striking longshoremen. It turned out that the money came from the Waterfront Employers Association – the bosses.
Hundreds of men were shot, beaten and jailed. Two men were killed, and the stench of the gas hung over the city. Thousands of police, and their horses, had their gas masks on.
Tim Reynold’s song captures the rage and raggedness of the situation. He suggests that brutal confrontations like these are often battles for power between workers and bosses, between the people and the authorities.
Put the Gas Mask On
I hear what they try to tell me
Make a way so they can rule me
We all know that they are lying
Children’s hopes and dreams are dying
Put the Gas Mask On
Put the Gas Mask On
Put the Gas Mask On
You aint got too long
They will help to show you nothing
They will teach you more rules but f*** them
We all know that they will come to surround you
Like the beast with rotten teeth they call you
Dying in the streets they’re smelling you
Everyone they meet they have to control
I can smell their spirits all dark inside
They are floating away in their doom.
West Coast ports close down every July 5th in remembrance of the events of Bloody Thursday.
Ballad of Harry Bridges (originally titled “Harry Bridges”)
By the late 1930’s Woody Guthrie found himself in Los Angeles with a radio show on station KFVD, performing commercial hillbilly and traditional folk music. Around this time he heard about labor leader Harry Bridges and the trials he was going through in San Francisco, both in court and on the waterfront.
Woody said –
“The trouble that Harry Bridges had on the west coast took place while I was making various noises on the radio and, well, I just sort of thought that there ought to be some kind of little song wrote up about old Harry and the tough old human race for which he stands”.
This is the first time that the song has been recorded, sung by Woody’s granddaughter (and Arlo’s daughter) Sarah Lee Guthrie and produced by her husband Johnny Irion. The legacy of the Guthrie family continues…
I’ll sing you the tale of Harry Bridges,
He left his family and his home,
He sailed across that rolling ocean,
And into Frisco he did roam.
Now Harry Bridges seen starvation
A creepin’ along that ocean shore
“Gonna get good wages for the longshoremen”
That’s what Harry Bridges swore.
Now the big ship owners they shook their timbers,
Moan and groaned and hang their head.
They flipped their fins and they said “We’ll get him”
‘Cause they figured he was a red.
Now Harry joined with the C.I.O, boys,
He told the sailors to unite,
And most of the seamen followed Harry,
‘Cause they figured that he was right.
They carried him away to Angel’s Island
It was there that he had his trial,
They wept and sighed and lied and cried,
But Harry licked them with a smile.
This is a song about Harry Bridges,
And the Union battle he did fight.
Said, “Unionism is Americanism”
And, I figured that he’s just about right.
Often called the “unofficial national anthem of Australia” and Harry’s favorite song, “Waltzing Matilda” also has a history of adaptation. The words were written in 1895 by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, the music adapted by Christina MacPherson, probably from a Scottish song “Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea” composed by James Barr in 1818, and probably adapted from “Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself” composed by John Field around 1812. Long thought to be the story of a violent strike by sheep shearers, one of whom committed suicide rather than surrender, there is now a theory that it was written as a love song.
Having completed the recording of “The Ballad of Harry Bridges”, Arlo, Abe and Gordon came up with a nine-minute instrumental version and this is an excerpt from the recording.
Harry played the mandolin, not very well, but claimed that he was saved from one of his three shipwrecks in his early days as a sailor, by floating….on his mandolin.
Harry Bridges Mambo
David Mora, leader of “David Mora and the Conga Lovers”, is a longshoreman working in southern California. He operates hammerhead cranes and also drives “top handlers”– huge forklift trucks used to pick up cargo containers – in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Much of his inspiration for writing comes from his work and the history of his union. David, of Mexican descent (his grandfather came from Chihuahua to work as a first generation longshoreman) is a member of ILWU longshore Local 13 in Wilmington, which has a large number of Latino longshoremen. The influences of Latin and Afro/Cuban music, driven by David’s congas, is clearly evident in “Harry Bridges Mambo”,.
One of Harry’s most important achievements was unifying the West Coast longshore workers into one union, thus taking away the ability of the shippers to move from a striking port to one still working. David’s song, particularly in the call-outs of the ports, celebrates that unity.
Verse 1: Trabajdores del puerto de la costa oeste que buena Wilmington, San Pedro, Seattle, Long Beach, San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, Oakland, Hawai’i, aloha, por eso.
Verse 2,Harry Bridges made a life for me,
he set the workers free free indeed
all races and creeds for all to work in unity.
Chorus: Harry Harry Harry Bridges Mambo"
Step by Step
The simplicity of this 1987 recording – a single acoustic guitar combined with three voices that come together for the final image of the power of drops of water to turn a mill – makes a clear statement about the importance of being united.
“This Machine Surronds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”
Words on Pete Seeger’s banjo
“The most important word in the language of the working class is ‘solidarity’.”
The Harry Bridges Project is a non-profit organization that presents the lifework of extraordinary labor leader and social visionary Harry Bridges and of the 20th century American worker. We present live performances and produce film and radio documentaries to tell these stories.
Music is central to our work as it was to Harry’s life. Working songs have been used for centuries to bring rhythm and coordination to physical work. They have also given voice to the suffering and hardships faced by workers. The rise of the American labor movement in the 1930’s produced new songs about unions. Led by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, American musicians wrote about the importance of unions and organizing and of the social challenges that workers faced.
This soundtrack, from our film “From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks” features musicians who are continuing this tradition of writing and performing songs about unions, the labor movement, and the importance of the American worker in building this country. Our thanks to Pete Seeger, Jackson Browne, the Guthrie family, Tim Reynolds Ciro Hurtado and David Mora for bringing their music and their families of musicians to this album.
Produced by Ian Ruskin and Suzanne Thompson
Mastered by Daniel P. Castillo and Keith Robinson
Cover design by Daniel P. Castillo
© The Harry Bridges Project 2008
This album was made possible by the generous support of:
ILWU Local 13
ILWU Local 63 Marine Clerks Memorial Association
Betty W. and Stanley K. Sheinbaum
All proceeds from the sale of this album benefit the Educational Programs of The Harry Bridges Project
For more information go to www.theharrybridgesproject.org