Four North American Ballads, II: Which Side are you on?


Program Note

Frederic Rzewski’s Which Side Are You On? (1979) is somewhere between an arrangement and a set of variations on the original 1931 song Which Side Are You On? by Florence Reece. Florence Reece was the wife of Sam Reece, a Harlan County coal miner who joined the National Miners Union during the early 1930s. Union miners were often harassed, and after repeated violent searches of their home by local sheriff John Henry Blair and his deputies, Florence Reece apparently ripped a sheet off her calendar and wrote her interpretation of the Harlan County struggle, which she set to the tune of “Lay the Lily Low.” Reece’s song is distinctive because it addresses the split between the miners, those for the union and those against it. So many of the songs from Harlan County focus on the class division between coal operators and miners, but Reece’s Which Side Are You On? exhorts vacillating miners to join the union and take responsibility for their futures:
“Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there;
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.
Oh, workers, can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?
Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.”

About Frederic Rzewski

Frederic Rzewski is an American composer, now resident in Belgium, of mostly chamber, vocal and piano works that have been performed throughout the world; he is also active as a…