James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses”

“Bread and Roses” is about the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mill strike of 1912, right? Everybody knows that.
Well, as it turns out, the association is a bit more complicated. Don’t you just love history?

The “Bread and Roses” Strike

The 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” in Lawrence, Massachusetts united mostly women textile workers from more than 40 different nationalities. Led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), it spread rapidly through the town, growing to include more than twenty thousand workers and nearly every mill in Lawrence. The strike lasted more than two months, through a brutal winter.

In late January, when a bystander was killed during a protest, IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested on charges of being accessories to the murder.
So IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to lead the strike. Together they organized a unique type of strike relief, evacuating hundreds of the strikers’ hungry children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The move drew widespread sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, leading to violence at the Lawrence train station.

Congressional hearings followed, resulting in exposure of shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills and calls for investigation of the “wool trust.” Mill owners soon decided to settle the strike, giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent.

Rose Schneiderman (a brief digression)

The phrase “bread and roses” itself originated from a line in a speech given by the labor organizer, socialist and suffragette Rose Schneiderman (who already knew way too much of shocking working conditions in the textile industry); “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It’s part of a good speech, but personally I like this story:

A state legislator warned in 1912: “Get women into the arena of politics with its alliances and distressing contests – the delicacy is gone, the charm is gone, and you emasculize women.” Schneiderman replied:

“We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the Senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy and work in foundries. Of course, you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread, let me tell you that.”

Back to the Story

To return to the subject at hand, the “bread and roses” line inspired James Oppenheim to write the poem “Bread and Roses”, published circa 1912 with the attribution line “‘Bread for all, and Roses, too’—a slogan of the women in the West,” The poem has been translated into several languages and has been set to music by at least three different composers. The most widely used tune was composed in 1974 by Mimi Farina, Joan Baez’s younger sister. [fn- Bread & Roses foundation] Farina wrote a tune designed for solidarity singing, and trade union choirs the world over love it. The video below, a clip from the movie “Pride”, shows this beautifully:

The poem is commonly associated with the successful textile strike in Lawrence because Upton Sinclair attributed the origins of the phrase to it in a 1916 book, and the association stuck. Writers do that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, the theme of the slogan/poem/song, the workers right to “sun and life and art”, as Schneiderman put it, is one that recurs throughout labour history, and it does originate with the worker protagonists of Lawrence, who carried banners and placards with the slogan. To my mind, it will always beautifully express why we need a revolution. Judge for yourself.

Bread and Roses, by James Oppenheim

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

For a French translation and some other cool information, see this link: http://unionsong.com/u159.html, or this one: http://www.iww.org/content/bread-and-roses-hundred-years

Peter LaFarge, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

In 1964, Johnny Cash recorded one of his best and most under-rated works, called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was a concept album, focusing entirely on the history and civil rights abuses of the indigenous population in the United States. The songs that that Cash did not write himself were all written by the New York-based singer-songwriter Peter LaFarge, including the only song released as a single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes“.
Cash dedicated a great deal of his time in the 1960s and 70s to the cause of Native American civil rights, including a visit to and a concert for the people of the Lakota reservation in 1968, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

Richard Elfstrom’s documentary, released in 1969, features Cash’s tour of the historic site, conducted by descendants of the victims. Elfstrom basically followed Cash around, with a camera, during 1968, when Cash was at a creative peak. He captured some wonderful behind the scenes footage as well as some significant concerts. In this clip, Cash is performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for his Lakota audience:

Cash’s “leftie credentials” are a subject of much debate, and rightly so.* My own feeling, on admittedly fairly superficial research, is that Cash’s dedication to particular issues of social reform were, as with many artists, spurred by his direct experience. In this case, Peter LaFarge himself was a personal inspiration.

LaFarge was associated with the Greenwich Village 1960s heyday of folk music, and was what might be called a single issue songwriter, devoting his musical career to the cause of Native American civil rights.

On May 10 1962, Cash’s long sought-after concert at Carnegie Hall flopped, badly. Deeply depressed, he sought escape in music, and went downtown to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, where LaFarge happened to be performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. It changed his life. In a style that seems typical, he threw himself into the social issue that was the central preoccupation of LaFarge’s life. Cash debuted Bitter Tears at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964; he went down a treat and gained an audience in the protest folk scene, a rare crossover for a country music star.+

In the way that good folk music does, the Ballad keeps returning. In 2011, the Mohican singer and flute player Bill Miller was invited to join the inaugural Johnny Cash Festival in Arkansas. He decided to play “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.

“It came about because John Carter Cash and I are working on a project with [Roy’s son] Wesley Orbison,” said Miller [in 2011]. “John Carter told me about the festival and asked if I wanted to do it. I’ve been singing [Cash’s 1958 classic] ‘I Still Miss Someone’ since I was 10-years-old, but Rosanne [Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter] was singing it in the show. So he asked me if I’d do ‘Ira Hayes’- which I’d never done, but always wanted to do.”But the lengthy ballad had so many lyrics that Miller had shied away from it.

“Then its impact on me hit me just the other day when I was getting ready to perform it,” he said. “It’s such a sad story and powerful image. I remember asking my mom, ‘Who’s hand is reaching for the flag on top of the hill?’ And she said it was a native man. And what happened to Ira Hayes in his life related to me: My dad [like LaFarge himself] was a Korean war veteran, and he died a drunk. And here’s a song about the same thing, and it’s tragic.”

50 years after Bitter Tears was recorded, a collective of artists came together to reimagine the album. Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, was produced by Joe Henry and features Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Norman and Nancy Blake, as well as up-and-comers The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens, interpreting the music of Bitter Tears for a new generation.

“Prior to Bitter Tears, the conversation about Native American rights had not really been had,” says Henry, “and at a very significant moment in his trajectory, Johnny Cash was willing to draw a line and insist that this be considered a human rights issue, alongside the civil rights issue that was coming to fruition in 1964. But he also felt that the record had never been heard, so there’s a real sense that we’re being asked to carry it forward.”

About Ira Hayes

Ira Hamilton Hayes was a member of the Pima tribe, based at the Gila reservation in Phoenix, Arizona, and a United States Marine. A veteran of the Pacific campaign, Hayes was one of the soldiers made famous by the classic John Rosenthal photograph of the American flag being raised on top of the hill at Iwo Jima. Despite his own efforts to remain incognito, he was thrust into the War Department media circus known as a “war bonds drive”, which did not work out well. He was eventually returned to his combat unit, but by then he had already learned to cope by drinking and was a confirmed alcoholic. In January 1955 he was found dead of exposure and alcohol poisoning on his Arizona lands.


*Cash’s children, particularly his daughter Roseanne, have done an admirable job of preserving the story of Cash’s iconoclasm and complexity, and arguing against his being claimed by either the left or the right.

+There is a story that Cash Played “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for Nixon at a meeting on prison reform in 1972, but I have found some evidence that this is one of conflations of half-truth and myth. Further investigation requires listening to the Nixon tapes, and I really don’t have time for that right now. The article that argues this point of view is here.