Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performs solo under the name The Nightwatchman, was inspired by the huge struggle in Wisconsin against a savage anti-union law to release a benefit EP of songs dedicated to workers' struggles. The Nightwatchman's Union Town EP has been released by New West Records and can be bought at iTunes. All proceeds go to the America Votes Labor Unity Fund. Below, Morello talks about the EP and its inspiration. The article is abridged from www.socialistworker.org .
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Earlier this year, I performed in Madison, Wisconsin at the huge demonstrations against anti-union legislation put forward by that state's right-wing governor. I've played hundreds of demonstrations, but I've never seen anything quite like Madison.
Bratwurst-chomping Green Bay Packers fans and Molotov-tossing anarchists standing shoulder to shoulder, fighting for justice everywhere you looked.
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, steelworkers and firefighters of all ages, colours 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 realise 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.
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:
1. “Union Town” by Tom Morello: I just wrote what I experienced during that whirlwind 36 hours in Madison. Then I added a badass guitar solo. Check out the union-made video (below).
2. “Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chaplain: This song was written by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member Ralph Chaplain in 1915 in the midst of a West Virginia coalminers’ strike, and stakes out that groundbreaking union’s radical manifesto.
As a card-carrying IWW member, this labour classic was a must-include. I just put an Irish fighting song beat to it and hit the gas.
3. “Which Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece: This song was written in 1931 by a 12-year-old Kentucky coalminer’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.
4. “A Wall Against the Wind” by Tom Morello: May 1, May Day, is celebrated around the world as International Workers Day and commemorates the struggles, sacrifices, victories and achievements of the labor movement.
Although the commemoration of May Day was inspired by events in the United States (the “Haymarket Affair”), our “workers’ holiday”, Labour 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.
5. “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 coalminers 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 sometimes find themselves “another day older/and deeper in debt”.
6. “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 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.
7. “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 and 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.
In the studio, we turned down all the lights and tried to capture a conversation with a ghost.
8. “Union Song” performed live at the Capitol, Madison, on February 21, by Tom Morello: This song first appeared on my One Man Revolution album. I wrote it in the aftermath of the anti-Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami in 2003.
Our peaceful demonstration of tens of thousands of workers got tear-gassed. I performed at a union rally and realised that I didn't have any of my own songs to play on days like that.
So I wrote this one. 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.
In August, 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.
The union-made video for The Nightwatchman's "Union Town".