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Joe Glazer, 88; Composer and Collector of Songs for the U.S. Labor Movement

September 22, 2006|From the Washington Post

Joe Glazer, the troubadour of the U.S. labor movement who performed, composed and collected the songs of work and protest for 60 years, has died. He was 88.

Glazer died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma Tuesday at his home in Chevy Chase, Md.

Over a lifetime, Glazer performed at countless union rallies and conventions, civil rights marches and campaign rallies for Democratic Party candidates at all levels.

His songs were meant to rouse, and they did. With his booming baritone voice, a thumping guitar, an infectious smile and a natural exuberance, Glazer intended to light up the venue, and he did.

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. His recordings are now included in the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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 Kennedy. But these were his "day jobs," as he said.

His fame came from his life in music, which began on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The son of Jewish immigrants, Glazer 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, Glazer used his musical ability 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 songwriting. 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, 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 sang and we sang. We must have gone on for an hour or more on a picket line that seemed to stretch for miles around the plant."

Another hymn identified with Glazer in the 1950s was the union version of "We Shall Overcome," derived from Charles Tindley's 1900 hymn "I'll Overcome Some Day." By the 1960s it had become the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Over the next seven decades, Glazer's singing and his songs would become staples of the labor repertoire.

"Automation" reflected workers' 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.

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 Glazer, many of these activists grew up in working-class immigrant 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," 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."

Glazer graduated from Brooklyn College, the first of his family to finish college. He began working toward 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 public television retrospective, seemed exciting while his math texts seemed a bore, so he switched majors to labor economics.

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 Reagan ("Jellybean Blues").

After working for the Textile Workers and the United Rubber Workers, Glazer in 1961 joined the foreign service staff of the U.S. Information Agency, 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 advisor in 1965.

Glazer's survivors include his wife, two daughters and a son.

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