CD REVIEW Twenty-first century labor music

“Dump the Bosses Off Your Back”
By Anne Feeney

“New Hard Times”
By Bill Collins and The Rabble Rousers

Labor music inevitably reflects broader social trends. The ongoing interplay with church hymns and military marching songs are clear. But labor’s musical traditions grow and change as they interact with other genres as well.

Bill Collins, a veteran rocker with international roots, demonstrates these shifts in “New Hard Times.” Bill turned to labor issues in 2005 and began recording this CD two years ago. (He acknowledges the influence of his union organizer wife!) As lead singer and guitarist for The Rabble Rousers, Collins rocks labor music into a whole new format.

4043.jpgThe 17 tunes on the CD fall into two categories. Fourteen, mostly written by Bill and including two versions of “Dirty Tricks,” are new. They address contemporary issues and situations.

For example: The title song, along with “Card Count,” are literally from today’s headlines. “Too Poor to Retire” speaks to an eternal problem of low-income workers – in the first decade of a new century. And music such as “Union Town” and “Out on Strike” — well, the words say it all.

The remaining three cuts are totally unique; they are classics updated with a rock beat. For example, in “Union Maid” the group goes back to the original 1940 Woody Guthrie wording – which identifies the American Legion as a threat to labor!

Finally, some of the new tunes represent updates of past issues. “God Told Me To” is Collins’ contemporary commentary on religious exploitation of the working class, first explored a century ago by Joe Hill in “Preacher and the Slave.”

Citing Hill’s legendary song leads to the second CD highlighted in this joint review: Anne Feeney’s “Dump the Bosses off Your Back!” Feeney is labor’s best-known musical voice, and the 15 songs on her latest release run the gamut of both new and classic – as updated for the new century.

For example, Feeney’s cut of “Preacher and the Slave” (sung with Commander Cody) is 21st century in both musical style and social references. And the title song, an IWW classic clearly derived from gospel music, is presented in a contemporary jazzed-up version.

The core of the new disk is Feeney’s six new songs. They include modern Social Gospel “Sago,” as well as current calls for struggle, “Goonies” and “Ya Basta!” A tribute to a new labor martyr “… Santiago Cruz …” accompanies a call to continue in the face of discouragement, “How Long?” And Feeney, like Collins, has international ties. “We Fought Back” is her tribute to Canadian workers who won a recent legal victory via collective action.

Other themes appear as well. The past and present come together in “Business News/Hallelujah I’m a Bum.” And “Brave New Christmas” – well, it defies easy classification! As always, Feeney is contemporary and jazz-oriented as well as classical.

Labor unity was built on music sung at union meetings. This reviewer recently witnessed over one hundred union members, together with their families and supporters, marching down a street in Jacksonville, Fla., singing – what else? – “Solidarity Forever!”

We must reestablish and strengthen the ties to our musical roots. Let’s start with “New Hard Times” and “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back.”

Stan Swart,, hosts a radio talk show, Brother Stan the Union Man, on