To all who have worked on the Anne Izard Award:
I wish so much that I could be in White Plains to thank you in person for the honor you are giving “Which Side Are You On?” The Story of a Song. I once rented a car at your airport and drove across the state to Bath in search of a nineteenth-century schoolteacher. But that was for a different book. It was even in a different century! A person will do a lot once a story gets hold of her. But you know about that.
My obsession with this story began on a Saturday in another June nine years ago. I was doing a reading and music event at the downtown library in Lexington, Ky., with The Reel World String Band. One of the songs was Florence Reece’s iconic anthem to workers’ rights, “Which Side Are You On?” I’d known the song for a long time—one of my early ambitions was to be a folksinger—and I knew it was written in Harlan County, where I come from. I knew it grew out of the struggle of coal miners to form a union and bargain for safer working conditions, better housing, and better pay.
What I didn’t know until Bev Futrell, the Reel World’s mandolin player, shared it in her introduction, was that Florence Reece had written the song with her kids hiding under the bed while hired killers were shooting at her house. They were out to terrorize the Reeces because Sam Reece was a union organizer. He wasn’t even home that night, but as Omie, the book’s child narrator tells us, “If a bullet hits you, it don’t matter whose name is on it.”
I was mightily taken with this story. And it just so happened that I was driving to Harlan that afternoon to visit my mother. I was driving by the turn for Molus, where the Reece’s mining camp had been. I was headed for my homeplace where the story happened.
I told it to my son on the drive down, to my mother after we got there, and that night I condensed it into a paragraph in my journal. It wouldn’t stay there, though. I couldn’t stop wondering about it.
Sometime in the next week, I started writing. I don’t know if I thought it might be a book or if I was writing it in my effort to understand Florence and to quit worrying about those children. Writing happens that way sometimes.
Eventually I did a lot of reading and interviewed folks who knew Florence and Sam Reece, including their granddaughter, but everything I learned had to be tested in Omie’s voice. If the storyteller wouldn’t say it, I’d have to leave it out.
I write by ear. It’s partly because I grew up listening to parents and grandparents, neighbors and friends telling stories. They couldn’t give directions without going into local history. They didn’t want to. And it’s partly because, since I had double vision till I was thirteen and couldn’t always read directions on the board, I listened hard. This tuned my ear to the music in how people talk.
The music in “Which Side Are You On?” is being written while people talk. The Reece kids keep asking questions, trying to understand the crazy world they’re in, and their crazy mama who is writing in the midst of it.
Now that I have some distance on the story, I understand why it had such a hold on me. It wasn’t just the connection with the place and history I come from. It wasn’t just that Bev had known Florence and heard the story from her, so it was almost close enough to touch. It wasn’t that a miner’s wife in eastern Kentucky had written a song that’s still going around the world. It was that Florence Reece, unable to protect her children from bullets, nevertheless stood up for them with the one tool she had: writing. In making new words for an old tune, she bore witness to the exploitation of miners and their families. She might die, but she would not die silent. She would give herself and those kids a voice.
Reece would recognize the situation in our nation today where we see the 1% protecting their ferocious wealth while the 99% struggle to get by. She would want to stand with the Occupy movement, the Wisconsin teachers, and all who suffer in a society where profit matters more than people. But Florence doesn’t have to be at those protests in person. They are singing her song.
Thank you for honoring her story and for helping it find new readers.
For all our voices,
George Ella Lyon
And don't forget to listen to Ma Reece herself sing her song, written while the hired thugs were riddling her house with bullets.