Joe Glazer; Music Set Tone for Labor Movement

Joe Glazer performed at numerous rallies, marches and conventions and wrote songs including
Joe Glazer performed at numerous rallies, marches and conventions and wrote songs including "Automation" and "Too Old to Work." (Family Photo)
By Fred Barbash
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Joe Glazer, the troubadour of the U.S. labor movement who performed, composed and collected the songs of work and protest for 60 years around the globe, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma Sept. 19 at his home in Chevy Chase. He was 88.

Mr. Glazer performed over a lifetime at countless union rallies and conventions, at civil rights marches, at campaign rallies for Democratic Party candidates at all levels and at hundreds of civic events in the Washington area, where he lived most of his adult life.

His songs were meant to rouse, and they did. With his booming baritone voice, a thumping guitar, a broad infectious smile and a natural exuberance, Mr. Glazer intended to light up the hall, and he did. He was in constant demand well into his eighties and found it hard to turn down an invitation, whether for a crowd of thousands or a gathering of friends, for anniversaries or, in later years, for memorial services.

Mr. Glazer wrote three songs that became labor classics: "Automation," "The Mill Was Made of Marble" and "Too Old to Work." He recorded more than 30 albums and became a leading collector, publisher and historian of labor and protest songs, helping establish the Labor Heritage Foundation in Washington.

His recordings, along with those of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and the Almanac Singers, among others, are now included in the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Mr. Glazer made his living as a labor educator for two trade unions and the U.S. Information Agency, which dispatched him to Mexico during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. But these were his "day jobs," as he said. His fame came from his life in music, which began incongruously on Manhattan's Lower East Side when the son of Jewish immigrants developed a love for the cowboy music he heard on 1940s radio, which inspired him to order a $5 guitar from a Sears catalog and learn to play and sing.

He would become an accomplished guitarist, performing with jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, among others.

After graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Glazer used his ability to sing and play to help land a job with the Textile Workers Union of America, which was looking for someone to boost the morale of striking millworkers on picket lines across the South and New England.

The workers, in turn, inspired his song writing. On the lines and at union rallies, particularly in the Bible Belt, he heard the tunes of traditional Christian hymns converted into labor anthems just by substituting a few lyrics. "We are climbing Jacob's ladder" became "We are building a strong union," for example. "Jesus is my captain, I shall not be moved" became "The union is behind us, we shall not be moved."

In his memoir, Mr. Glazer described leading the strikers around a giant Pepperell textile mill singing those songs. They were "basically one-line verses that could be quickly changed" to suit any situation, he said.

"I led nearly a thousand strikers in verse after verse," he wrote of one strike. "We're fighting for a contract. We shall not be moved. . . . We're fighting for our future. . . . We're fighting for our freedom. . . . We shall not be moved.

"We sang and we sang," he wrote in his autobiography. "We must have gone on for an hour or more on a picket line that seemed to stretch for miles around the plant. I would sing out each new verse, and the strikers closest to me would pick it up. The new verse would roll like a wave through hundreds of others further down the line. . . ."

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