Even Joe Glazer winces at the title he has been stuck with - "labor's troubador" - but the label accurately describes what he has been doing. For more than 30 years Glazer has been trying to get the worker's story told in song.
He still is. The Chevy Chase resident, who during the work day puts in his hours for a division of the United States Information Agency that proselytizes abroad about American social and political processes, can be found frequently before, during and after hours, singing songs for a variety of causes.
Recently, for instance, he has sung New Deal songs at a reunion of Roosevelt administration almuni, "Deportee" at a premiere of a movie about Woody Guthrie for the benefit of the farmworkers union, a song he composed for a local group of preservationists called "Don't Tear It Down," and textile workers' songs for a meeting of the Virginia Folklore Society in Danville, Va.
"A lot of people have one program they do for everybody, and that's it," said Glazer, who doesn't. "I don't consider my stuff entertainment, although I hope people are entertained. I consider what I do an integral part of the program. I consider myself another speaker with a guitar."
Glazier is a product of Manhattan, the son of a garment worker. "So it was in the blood," he said. He didn't learn the labor songs at his father's knee. In Manhattan, incongruously, he sang cowboy songs. He got caught up in the labor movement at the University of Wisconsin, where he and his wife both studied labor economics.
In 1944, he went to work for the textile workers union in New York, traveling around the country as an assistant education director. He started singing union songs then. He said he was the first person to record "We Shall Overcome" (an old labor song) in 1949.
He sang at the final meeting of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, leading a chorus of "Solidarity Forever" from the podium with Walter Reuther, the late president of the United Auto Workers, beside him. He also sang at the AFL-CIO merger convention and at Reuther's funeral.
In 1950, he joined the rubber workers union in Akron, Ohio, as education director. He went to work for the USIA in 1961, serving first as the labor information officer in Mexico and then as a labor advisor until 1975, when he went to work for the social and political processes division of the propaganda agency.
He wrote what he thinks is his best-known song while he was with the textile workers, during a nine-month strike in Rockingham, N.C. During the strike someone wrote a poem, and Glazer developed it into a song.
"The Mill was made of marble,
the machines were made of gold;
nobody ever got tired,
and nobody ever got old."
- copyright, Joe Glazer
He has written others, including "Automation" and "Too Old to Work." There are also the non-labor-related songs, including "Don't Tear It Down" and a recent one called "Goodbye Uganda, Israel Shalom!"
His main focus remains labor, which he thinks is only now getting proper recognition on two scores. One is that labor songs are now being accepted as legitimate folk songs. "The traditional view has been that folks songs had to be rural," he said, citing a folklorist who put together a collection of West Virginia songs without including any songs about the coal mines.
The other area is history. "The labor movement gets ignored and sloughed off, a little like women and blacks have been treated by history books," said Glazer.
That is changing some now, he said.
He would still like to see more telling about the day-in, day-out working life of Americans and a more balanced view of trade unions, he said. "Many people don't have a clue what it is to work in a factory," said Glazer.
Nor do they know much about the normal workings of unions, he said. "Have you ever seen a movie about a business (union) representative or an organizer?" he said. Glazer said he would like to see the story of an organizer, "getting up at 5 a.m. to hand out leaflets, knocking on doors, spending one or two hours in a guy's home talking about why he needs the union, drinking beer into the night with a couple of guys telling them what they can do to improve their working conditions" and then, in a situation where a strike is unavoidable, "Going up to talk to them and convince them that they've got to put everything on the line."
"It would make a hell of a movie," said Glazer. "I know a lot of guys and women who are dedicated idealists, who actually devote their lives to what they consider a holy cause."