Today in labor history: Songwriter, activist Florence Reece is born

On this day in 1900, Florence Patton Reece was born in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee. She was a social activist and writer of poetry and folk songs. As the daughter and wife of coal miners, she spent her life speaking out on labor union and sociopolitical struggles.

She is best known for having written the folk song “Which Side Are You On?,” which she wrote at the age of twelve while her father was out on strike with other coal miners, according to American Folk Song Book by Alan Lomax.

In 1931, during the Harlan County War strike by the United Mine Workers of America and the National Miners Union (in which her husband was an organizer), Reece updated her song to the version known today. “Which Side Are You On?” has since been covered by various artists, including folk singer Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers, celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys, and black metal/bluegrass artist Panopticon.

Lomax wrote in his book, “Florence Reece, a shy, towheaded Kentucky miner’s daughter, composed this song at the age of twelve when her father was out on strike. She sang it to me standing in front of the primitive hearth of a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky in 1937, and it has since become a national union song.”

Reece continued to sing her anthem to rally striking miners, and lived an active life until she died of a heart attack at the age of 86 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Photo: Florence Reece (center) during her 85th birthday celebration in Monteagle, Tenn., 1985. Research and Education Center



Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have also appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the 2010 BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Illinois and frequently visits Europe. He likes cats, wine, books, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music reaction channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel.