Songs of the Labor Movement

Music has provided American workers an outlet to express their thoughts about the workplace. Members of the labor movement in the 1930s through the 1950s used songs effectively to share their opinions about corporate control, poor benefits, and unionization. In the 1950s, civil rights activists would learn several of these labor songs and use them in their fight for racial equality. Even today, labor and civil rights advocates continue to use chants, instruments, and songs to further their causes. 

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
Identify various organizations and their role in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Highlander Folk School.
Describe the relationships between historical events and contemporary issues.
Examine the roles of civil rights advocates, including the following:
Describe significant events in the struggle to secure civil rights for African Americans, including the following:
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Learning objectives: 

Students will learn how to critically think about music, analyze oral history interviews, and make connections between historical events and people.

Essential and guiding questions: 

How can music influence a movement? (Think outside the traditional meaning of music. Music can mean singing, playing an instrument, chanting, and call-andresponse.) 

Lesson Variations

Extension suggestions: 

Activity 1: YouTube the Movement

  • Project the following videos on the screen; each shows connections between labor and civil right activism:
  • Progress Illinois: Chicago Fast-Food Workers Go on Strike
  • “We Have to Stop This Inequality”: Fast-Food Worker Strike Spreads to Dozens of Cities
  • Chicago Teachers Strike Is Biggest in a Generation
  • Watch all three videos in class, with students taking notes on each. For homework, have each student choose one of the videos that interested him/her and write a short, page-length summary of the video’s content, his/her personal reaction, and the video’s connection to the lesson. Students should turn in their reflection the next day at the beginning of class.

Activity 2: Examining the Fast-Food Strikes

  • Take a look at the Web site, Fight for 15, designed by representatives of the recent fast-food strikes. Explore the news stories and tweets in the side-bar columns of the Web site: What are these stories and tweets about?
  • Are they positive? Why would the activists post these news stories? Who do you think tweets or follows this page and why? Take a look at the “About Us” page and look at the photographs of the strikers: What do you observe? Does anything surprise you? What kind of signs are people holding? Have you seen these signs before? Research the signs. You can choose to do this as a class activity or as a take-home activity.

Activity 3: Looking Back at Peekskill, 1997 and 2009 Students should analyze the following

  • New York Times articles: John Curran’s 1997 article “From Peekskill, View of Robeson Unrest” and Peter Applebome’s 2009 article “Giving Back Stature Stolen in Red Scare.”
  • After reading the articles each student should write a one-page essay answering the following questions:
  • How do locals remember the Peekskill Riots?
  • How is Paul Robeson remembered today?
  • What are your thoughts on whether anything has changed in Peekskill?

Helpful Hints


  • Info Sheets (4 pages):
    • Musicians, Songs, and Venues (pp. 1-2)
    • Lyrics (p. 3)
    • Vocabulary (p. 4)
  • PowerPoint (13 slides)
  • Worksheets & Answer Keys (8 pages)
    • Labor Songs Worksheet (pp. 1-3)
    • Another Perspective Worksheet (p. 4)
    • Labor Songs Answer Key (pp. 5-7)
    • Another Perspective Answer Key (p. 8)