Merlene Davis: Book teaches kids the power of a song

The author of a children's book about a famous protest song will be signing books at The Morris Book Shop.
The author of a children's book about a famous protest song will be signing books at The Morris Book Shop.

In 1931, as bullets tore through the walls and windows of the house she shared with her husband, a Harlan County coal miner, and their seven children, Florence Reece did what she could to protect her family. She wrote a song.

Not just any old song, but one that would serve to unite coal miners into an organized union to get better working conditions and pay.

If the story ended there, it would be enough for Reece to earn a few lines in history books.

But that song, Which Side Are You On?, is still an anthem for underdogs who are fighting the financially favored.

A few weeks ago, during the early days of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, protesters could be heard singing the refrain.

"They were singing it in Greece before the recent change of power," said award-winning Lexington writer George Ella Lyon. "I heard it on the radio. When Wisconsin teachers were on strike, the background music was that song."

Reece and her song has so stirred Lyon, she has written a children's picture book featuring the violence that led Reece to write the lyrics on the back of a calendar as her children huddled beneath a bed and her husband, forewarned, went into hiding.

Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song (Cinco Puntos Press, $17.95) relates the story that Reece once told Bev Futrell, a member of the Reel World String Band, on the celebration of Reece's 85th birthday.

There are other versions of how the song came to be, but Lyon interviewed some of Reece's friends and granddaughter, who agreed the book is accurate.

"I was so moved by the story," Lyon said. "Music brings people together, brings feelings and actions together."

Lyon has been writing songs since high school and witnessed the 1960s, when music was a part of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and racial oppression. "I love the power of song to unite us and help us move toward change," she said.

Lyon said she was also drawn to Reece's story because she was a mother trying to protect her children when there was little she could do.

"She could have been under the bed with them," Lyon said. "She could give up. Instead, she used the only thing she's got and fights back with words.

"She ends up with something that helped people around the world and is still doing that," Lyon said. "It is a story of survival."

Lyon said the song has been changed to serve different situations. Recently, one version was set to words about mountaintop removal coal mining.

'"You take what you've got and you make what you need,'" Lyon said, quoting poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. "That is the folk process. It is the power of the song to outlast the singer."

In 1931, the United Mine Workers of America union was on strike in Harlan County. One of the organizers was Sam Reece, Florence's husband, whom she'd met when she was 15 and living with her family in Fork Ridge, Tenn.

During the strike, the Harlan County sheriff, J.H. Blair, led the violence aimed at getting the miners back to work, and the miners used violence to become a bargaining unit. The period of strife earned the southeastern Kentucky county the name "Bloody Harlan."

Sam Reece died of black lung in 1978, and Florence Reece died in Knoxville in 1986.

"The first thing I wanted was to just tell her story and have the miners and their families be recognized for their struggles and their courage," Lyon said. "I don't want this struggle to be forgotten.

"It is wrong not to pay a living wage," she said. "It is wrong to deny workers basic rights, including the right to collective bargaining."

The passion Florence Reece displayed to right a wrong led Lyon to begin writing the book in 2004. Lyon had not planned for it to be published this year, on the 80th anniversary of the song's writing.

Her book is not a "lap-sitter," Lyon said. It is a picture book that can be read by adults to children so that the issues can be better explored.

"I hope kids see we have common struggles and we can take a stand and make a difference," she said. "Music is one of the ways we can do that."