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Florence Reece

Which Side Are You On

by Ketchel Carey

        IlRies probably know what I'm referencing in the title. "Which Side Are You On?" is a protest song created by Florence Reece in Harlan County, KY, in 1931. Her father died in the coal mines and her husband was a union organizer. Harlan is called "Bloody Harlan" because of the extreme violence perpetrated by the company and law enforcement against union organizers. This labor struggle is also referred as "the Harlan County War." There were bombings, shootings, and national troops occupied the county six times. Florence has this to say in an interview:

        "Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam – that's my husband – he was one of the union leaders. I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn't come home that night. Afterward I tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall and wrote the words to Which Side Are You On to an old Baptist hymn, 'Lay the Lily Low'. My songs always goes to the underdog – to the worker. I'm one of them and I feel like I've got to be with them. There's no such thing as neutral. You have to be on one side or the other. Some people say, 'I don't take sides – I'm  neutral.' There's no such thing. In your mind you're on one side or the other. In Harlan County there wasn't no neutral. If you wasn't a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be." (

 As the song puts it:

         They say in Harlan County

         There are no neutrals there.

         You'll either be a union man

          Or a thug for J. H. Blair.  


          Which side are you on boys?

          Which side are you on?

          Which side are you on boys?

          Which side are you on?


Reece adds 40 years after writing the song, speaking to a union convention:

       "You can ask the scabs and the gun thugs which they're on because they're workers too."*


         Which side are you on? You can't say you're not on one because then you side with power, whatever it is. So you have a choice: am I on the side of what I believe in or on the side of the status quo (or worse)? And Florence is right, it’s all of us. The scabs are shooting themselves in the foot. The company can hire more guards if the other guards get unruly. While I don’t think that it should be necessary to have a self-interest to support others’ struggles, I don’t think that’s what interdependence means. It means that we really cannot just attack one ideology or issue at a time, because they are all related. No one is really safe and if you think you are, I ask you to reconsider. Once we decide to say that some people are lesser, that they deserve to suffer, that they are unimportant, anyone can be unimportant. I believe that we are born to love and be known. I don’t think we can truly do that unless we attack all systems that put up walls between us. I think, as India Walton put it, “Everything roots in love”. If I’m not doing it because I love others and myself, why am I doing it? Why do we care about justice without connection? I think we care because we love others, we love the world, we love an idea, and we fight for it.


            I don’t know what movements I’m in or helping to create. It’s always a self-reflection- am I doing enough? What does it mean to be part of something? I just know that I wake up every day and I try to make something change. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true. With my work in the High Road, I feel like I’m trying to make housing inequality change. I try to educate myself and change that way. I donate and get out there when I can. I support those around me as best I can. But I always have to ask myself, “What movements am I a part of, really? What does it take?” I still think I’m figuring that out; I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure what I want to do with my life exactly. But I have a start: I know which side I’m on.  


*I need to clarify that I think this analysis is specific to her situation with the fight against the company and I wouldn’t necessarily apply it to saying, for example, that police are workers


If y’all would like to listen to here Which Side Are You On? Here are some links: the most famous version is probably Seeger’s rendition here Florence speaks at the convention and sings a bit at the end here the Freedom Singers sing a civil rights version of the song, with “freedom man” replacing “union man” and various white supremacist figures replacing J.H. Blair here Florence sings the hymn that the song is set to.


And just in case you’re needing a pick me up this week and you want more folk music, check out this totally unrelated performance: Rhiannon Giddens, NC native and classically trained opera singer does a stellar bluegrass performance. In it, she sings, plays the fiddles, scats, and sings while playing the fiddle. My favorite part though is the absolute joy on her face as soon as she starts playing. She's known as an advocate for racial justice in bluegrass and spoke at a Bluegrass Convention on the topic. 



Ketchel Carey