Harlan County coal labor strife spawned songs

August 16, 2011 

Florence Reece was the wife of a Harlan County union coal miner during violent labor unrest in the early 1930s.

After deputies paid by the coal operators, who were trying to quash organizing efforts, ransacked Reece's home searching for her husband or "radical" literature, the outraged Reece wrote a song, Which Side Are You On.

Reece later recounted that she had no paper, so she wrote the song down on a page she ripped from the calendar on the wall.

The song became one of the most enduring labor songs from the era and was later recorded by a number of other artists.

The version here, featuring Reece, was recorded at her home in Knoxville, Tenn., by Guy and Candie Carawan. Reece died in Knoxville in 1986.

The other recording, "Come All Ye Coal Miners," by Sarah Ogen Gunning was recorded by Reel World String Band.

Gunning was born in Knox County in 1910 into a singing family that included Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland.

Her life and music was influenced by the spirituals handed down to her by her mother and her father, Oliver Perry Garland, a miner and labor activist.

She married a miner and union organizer at age 16 and they lived in Harlan County during the 1930's.

Sarah passed away in 1983 at a family gathering and songfest in Kentucky.

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