Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1922-1940

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By the 1930s southerners in the United States were accustomed to a rich variety of musical styles. Phonograph records and the ubiquitous radio, movies, and traveling musicians and musical shows brought them pop songs, white and black gospel tunes, jazz, blues, and particularly old-time (hillbilly) music, in addition to labor and topical compositions. Labor unions and labor organizations had long used songs for numerous complex purposes: to attract members and supporters, explain workers’ issues and complaints, describe (usually onerous) work experiences, energize workers during strikes and labor discords, relate work disasters, express personal feelings, and much more. A rich body of labor songs had developed during the nineteenth century and was greatly expanded during the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly by Joe Hill and other Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) bards. New labor songs emerged in the 1920s, including in southern mill towns and on cotton plantations, where disgruntled workers, black and white, voiced their dreams and complaints. R. Serge Denisoff has proposed a helpful dichotomy for understanding songs of protest by differentiating between a magnetic song, which “appeals to the listener and attracts him to a specific movement or ideology,” and a rhetorical song, which “points to some social condition … but offers no ideological or organizational solution” (Denisoff 1971, 188).1
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