Earlier this year I performed in Madison, Wisconsin at the massive demonstrations against anti-union legislation put forward by that state’s right wing governor. While I’ve played hundreds of demonstrations, I’ve never seen anything quite like Madison. Bratwurst chomping Packer fans and Molotov tossing anarchists standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for justice everywhere you looked. (To read my dispatches from the front check out: Frostbite and Freedom: Tom Morello on the Battle of Madison)
I was inspired by the 100,000 people marching in the street on a freezing cold Saturday afternoon. I was inspired by the solidarity of students, steel workers and firefighters of all ages, colors and creeds who had occupied the Capitol building. And I was inspired by the fact that there was something in the air that made nurses, teachers, farmers, and musicians realize that it was time to get off the sidelines and make history.
The day I got back I wrote the song “Union Town”. The next day I decided I was going to record an album of unapologetically pro-labor, pro-working class, pro-UNION songs and donate 100% of the proceeds to the union struggles across the nation. The Freedom Fighter Orchestra (Wayne Kramer, Carl Restivo, Eric Gardner, Chris Joyner and Anne Preven) lent a hand and I recorded the album in four days because I wanted to capture the energy I felt in the streets of Madison before my frostbitten fingers had thawed.
Some of the songs are mine. Some are class war classics. Here’s a breakdown of the tracks:
UNION TOWN (by Tom Morello): I just wrote down what I did, what I saw and what I felt during that whirlwind 36 hours in Madison. Then I added a badass guitar solo. Check out the union made video here.
SOLIDARITY FOREVER (by Ralph Chaplain): This song was written by IWW member Ralph Chaplain in 1915 in the midst of a West Virginia coal miners strike and stakes out that groundbreaking union’s radical manifesto. As a card carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World myself this labor classic was a must include. I just put an Irish fighting song beat to it and hit the gas.
WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON? (by Florence Reece): This song was written in 1931 by a twelve year old Kentucky coal miner’s daughter when her father was out on strike with the United Mine Workers. I tried to capture the vibe of a whispered invitation to a secret outlawed meeting.
A WALL AGAINST THE WIND (by Tom Morello): May Day, May 1st, is celebrated around the world as International Workers Day and commemorates the struggles, sacrifices, victories and achievements of the labor movement. Although commemoration of May Day was inspired by events in the United States (The Haymarket Affair), our “worker’s holiday”, Labor Day, was moved to September during the Cold War era to disassociate it from global demonstrations of international solidarity. With “A Wall Against The Wind” The Nightwatchman is bringing May Day back home.
16 TONS (by Merle Travis): The 1955 recording of this song by Tennessee Ernie Ford reached number one on the US charts and went on to sell more than 2 million copies, which is incredible given the grim subject matter. My family were coal miners in the small town of Marseilles, Illinois and I remember hearing stories as a child of the Morello men going down into the mine before dawn and not coming back up until after sundown, their entire lives lived in the dark. I first heard about this song via The Clash who did a “16 Tons Tour” of England. Like coal miners, bands sometime find themselves “another day older/and deeper in debt.”
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND (by Woody Guthrie): This song was written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie as an angry class war anthem. It was written specifically in answer to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” which Woody thought missed the whole point, and left out a lot of people. When you learned this song in the third grade they censored out the more “controversial” verses. I put ‘em back in. As a bonus you get three generations of Morellos singing the chorus on this one.
I DREAMED I SAW JOE HILL LAST NIGHT (by Alfred Hayes/arrangement by Tom Morello): I first became aware of this song when reading a biography of the great IWW songwriter/martyr Joe Hill. I was leveled by the lyrics but I’d never heard a recording of it so I just made up my own music, melody and arrangement. It’s actually the very first piece of music I ever sang around the house as The Nightwatchman was rounding into form. In the studio we turned down all the lights and tried to capture a conversation with a ghost.
UNION SONG-LIVE-CAPITOL SQUARE, MADISON, WISCONSIN FEB. 21, 2011 (by Tom Morello): This song first appeared on my ‘One Man Revolution’ album. I wrote it in the aftermath of the FTAA protests and riots in Miami in 2003. That day our peaceful demonstration of tens of thousands of workers got tear-gassed. Afterwards I performed at a union rally and realized that I didn’t have any of my own songs to play on days like that. So I wrote this one. Problem solved. In this live version from the steps of the Capitol building you can feel the frost in the air and the power in the streets.
I’d like to express my support and thanks to all the unions that are standing up and standing strong in this ongoing struggle and those that have pushed this music forward, some of which are listed here:
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Sheet Metal Workers' International Association (SMWIA), Change to Win, Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), National Education Association (NEA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Transport Workers Union (TWU), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), American Rights at Work (ARAW), Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Union Label and Service Trades Department, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)
Later this summer a brand new full length Nightwatchman album, ‘World Wide Rebel Songs’ and tour will be fanning the flames of discontent in a Union Town near you. Until then, take it easy…but take it.
Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman