Joe Glazer; Music Set Tone for Labor Movement

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. . . ."

Another hymn identified with Mr. Glazer in the 1950s was the union version of "We Shall Overcome," derived from Charles Tindley's 1900 hymn, "I'll Overcome Some Day," which, by the 1960s, became the anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Over the next seven decades, Mr. Glazer's singing and his songs would become staples of the labor repertoire. His compositions reflected labor issues of the '50s and '60s that went beyond union recognition and basic organizing.

"Automation" reflected worker fears of being supplanted by machines. "The Mill Was Made of Marble" was a commentary on the dreams of textile workers for a cleaner, safer mill.

"Too Old to Work" came out of the early and ultimately successful efforts by unions to secure pension benefits.

"You work in the factory all of your life," Mr. Glazer wrote in "Too Old to Work."

"Try to provide for your kids and your wife. When you get too old to produce anymore, they hand you your hat and they show you the door. Too old to work, too old to work, when you're too old to work and you're too young to die.

"Who will take care of you, how'll you get by when you're too old to work and you're too young to die?"

Mr. Glazer was among a generation of intellectuals attracted to the mid-20th-century industrial unionism exemplified by the Congress of Industrial Organizations as the most promising hope for social justice for working men and women in the United States. Like Mr. Glazer, many of these activists grew up in immigrant working-class families committed to socialism and unionism in a way that many other Americans regarded as radical and even dangerous.

"We didn't talk much about politics or trade unions," Mr. Glazer wrote of his upbringing in New York, where his father was a garment worker. "It didn't seem necessary. It was an act of faith that unions were a good thing for working men and women."

Mr. Glazer graduated from Brooklyn College, the first of his family to finish college. (His brother, Nathan Glazer, co-author of the classic book "The Lonely Crowd," is a renowned sociologist.) Joe Glazer began working towards an advanced degree in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where his wife, Mildred, was pursuing a degree in labor economics in the university's program of labor and industrial relations. Her assigned books, he recalled in a WETA retrospective, seemed exciting while his math texts seemed a bore, so he switched majors to labor economics.

He had met Mildred when both were counselors at a camp in Upstate New York. "I led a strike of counselors," he recalled in a recent interview. "They had us plucking chickens. I said, 'Hey, that's not part of the job. What kind of deal is this?' and led a walkout."

A lifelong liberal Democrat, Glazer ultimately branched out into political satire, with a collection of songs at the expense of various Republicans, from Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy through President Ronald Reagan ("Jellybean Blues").

After working for the Textile Workers and the United Rubber Workers, Mr. Glazer, in 1961, joined the Foreign Service staff of the USIA, then headed by Edward R. Murrow, and was sent to Mexico as labor information officer. He transferred to the State Department in Washington as a labor adviser in 1965.

Survivors include his wife, of Chevy Chase; three children, Emily Glazer of Silver Spring, Patti Glazer of Asheville, N.C., and Daniel Glazer of Northbrook, Ill.; and four grandchildren.

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