WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON: THE STORY OF A SONG by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

Pete Morgan’s May Day cloth art at Radical Tea Towels reminds us of the importance of the arts, in our world, and more particularly in social justice movements. We take our May photo for the Litforkids homepage from A Garland for May Day 1895.  It’s a perfect reminder of the original role of May Day for international workers, not to mention the importance of artists and musicians in the social reform movement, both historically and currently. Walter Crane, the designer of the poster, includes wonderful slogans in his art.  They’re impossible to read on our reproduction, but here are a few: ‘the land for the people’, ‘no child toilers’, ‘production for use not for profit’, ‘the plough is a better backbone than the factory’, ‘shorten working day and lengthen life.’  Crane’s work inspired us to look at other arts that have been crucial to social justice movements, and it’s clear that music is a key element as well as the visual arts.

Which Side Are You On: The Story of a Song by George Ella Lyons

I love books that explore historical events that are timely in our present day.  Twenty-first-century readers will appreciate this old song that has renewed relevance. George Ella Lyon, herself a native Kentuckian and daughter of a coal miner, brings us back to Depression-era coal country and the birth of the song that became a rallying cry for labor organizers.  This incredible true story tells of Florence Reese and her 7 children literally dodging  bullets in their home while her coal miner husband, a union man, is hiding in the mountains.  On the back of a calendar, Florence jots down the words to the song, hoping to give courage to the miners striking for better pay and working conditions.

The lyrics of the famous song appear in script that unfurls in golden banners: “Come all you poor workers,/ Good news to you I’ll tell,/ Of how the good old union,/ Has come in here to dwell.” Again and again comes the haunting refrain, which parents and educators will want to invite children to sing: “Which side are you on,/ Which side are you on?” For a moving rendition, I suggest playing Pete Seeger on YouTube.


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