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FAQs from Viewers

Why haven't I heard about Mother Jones before?

History texts often leave out people like Jones. Mother Jones’ experience and biography challenges our notions about many issues. At least that was my thoughts when I first learned of her story.
The film is designed to raise that question, and not to answer all questions, but to make the viewer think about the past critically. The film is designed to show how conflict and challenges were central to US history in this period. In 1907, one newspaper labelled Mother Jones the “world’s best known agitator.” Why has she not as well remembered as other women figures in U.S. history? How is memory about the past shaped to privilege some and forget others?

Can you explain Mother Jones comments at the end of the film further?

The quote you are referring to is, “You know I am considered a Bolshevik, a “red” and an IWW, and a radical, and I admit to being all they’ve charged me with. I’m anything that would change moneyed civilization to a higher and grander civilization for the ages to come. And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destination of the nation in her own hands, and she will stand a united force and show the world what the workers can do.”

Bolshevik refers to the revolutionaries at the heart of the Russian revolution. By 1930 when Mother Jones was speaking, many still thought of this revolution as a positive step toward the global liberation of working people, and were not aware that in the name of progress Josef Stalin would brutally repress millions of people. In 1930, Mother Jones noted that Bolshevik simply meant the faction that is in the majority, and Mother Jones meant the term that way. The workers were the majority, and so why shouldn’t they have democratic input. Most emphatically, Jones would never have endorsed the brutal suppression that many endured in the name of revolutionary struggle.

The notion of being “red” goes much further back in time, but by 1930 it would have been a derogatory term used by those in power against people, often meaning un-American. This was in part due to the very effective “red-scare” in which many labor activists were labelled as “un-American.” Mother Jones argued, like many radicals of her day, that they were following in the
traditions of American revolutionaries and radicals like the abolitionists who were “red-blooded Americans.”

An IWW was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a group that argued that the power of workers needed to be found in their collective wisdom and in a general strike. Curiously, while Mother Jones helped to found the IWW in 1905, she quickly withdrew from association. Still, one finds her support for anarchists, socialists and other groups across the years even when she was unaffiliated with them. So while she was not a member of the IWW at the end of ther life, and had even supported Woodrow Wilson’s campaign for President against the socialist candidate and old friend Eugene Debs in 1912, she hoped to communicate that she supported radical ideas and thought that the ideas at the core of these terms should be worn as a badge of honor.

At the end of her life, she was trying to remind us that radical ideas depended on people being willing to act on their own convictions. There is an updated version of that quote from a great song popularized by Utah Phillips, “You ain’t done nothing if you ain’t been called a red.” For those who aren’t familiar with the history, this might need some explaining. During Mother
Jones lifetime, and especially after the May Day events of 1886 led to the hanging of anarchists for advocacy of protest on behalf of the 8 hour day, anyone who advocated significant change might be called dangerous threat to civilized society. They were also associated with immigrants who, especially after WWI, were considered culturally and socially dangerous. Mother Jones took that banner and wore it proudly, suggesting that those at the bottom of society had the power to remake that society, and shouldn’t fear  being called radical and subversive. Instead, she evoked the idea that there was a distinction between the values of “moneyed” civilization and “a higher and grander civilization” whose values had risen out of the ashes and she hoped would not be defeated. That she conceived of civilization in female terms, labeling labor in feminine terms.

Why isn’t the film longer? Doesn’t Mother Jones deserve a full-feature film?

This film started out as a 7 minute introduction to Mother Jones for the Mother Jones Foundation. It developed from the Remember Virden project, which seeks to redeem the memories of the struggles that led to the “Virden riot” and to a very confused memory about the role of unions in Illinois and the nation. This film grew in length because of the compelling
footage we obtained. We decided that Mother Jones’ story would overwhelm the Virden film and so it was better to take most of the portion of that film about Mother Jones and put it onto this. So 7 minutes developed longer and longer, into the current 24 minutes. We are glad that because the film is short, it is ideal for classrooms. We do not intend to tell the “full” story of Mother
Jones, but to acquaint people with ideas from the past to help them understand the history from her point of view, so they can go explore it further themselves.

How could Mother Jones be deported from Colorado? I didn’t think states could deport people.

Actually, Mother Jones was not deported from Colorado during 1913-1914; she was threatened with deportation, but she refused to leave. When she left in April 1914, it was to publicize the strike in Colorado. She had been deported in 1903 from another strike, and that is the newspaper article that made it into the film. As we have seen in recent times, individual states can seek to deport individuals and groups. For labor activists, martial law was invoked to imprison and set fear as the boundaries of action. Mother Jones was one who stood up and used her age and gender to bring attention when this occurred. The governor and the militia had executive power to deport in times of crisis, when martial law is declared. But beyond that, various laws, most recently the McCarron Act from the Cold War period, made the politics of immigrants ground for deportation. This begs the question of how the military and police powers have been used in the past, and whether these are designed for justice, or not.

Who were the Baldwin-Felts agents, and why were they allowed to carry guns in Colorado?

They were hired thugs who used a wide array of tactics, including legal ones, to repress civil liberties for workers. The most common way of harming the labor movement was to spy on workers, and to provide valuable information to employers. In addition, their strategies were designed to spur violence in order to bring about stronger legal injunctions against picketing and
mass actions, thus making strikes less effective. A concrete example might mean that if you target a union activist and provoke that person to commit violence, a judge would issue an injunction, and then public police forces would enforce the injunction. That is the Baldwin Felts connection to the present use of union avoidance and management strategies. It’s been tidied up a bit, but the same intent applies today to anti-union strategies. In recent years, there is a lot less need, because legal boundaries and fear have kept many workers from effective organization, and strikes have declined dramatically as a result. And wages have eroded while profits dramatically increased. There are some good books about this in the bibliography page.

Your film doesn’t mention that Mother Jones opposed feminism and suffrage for women. Doesn’t that make her more of a reactionary than a dangerous woman, someone not really advanced for her time. She was trying to put women back into a “family wage” situation, where men were the bread winners. But that was just as much at the root of working women’s problems as coal bosses.

There is so much that the film is not able to cover. It’s not true that she opposed suffrage, and in fact there are explicit statements quoting her in support of it from 1897-1926. In her autobiography she states,”I am not an anti to anything which will bring freedom to my class.” She doubted that suffrage would bring freedom, like many syndicalists of her era. There were times that she expressed the idea that suffrage could harm the cause of the working class, and the reason she gave is Colorado, where women suffrage had been used to harm the miners’ cause. There the head of the Democratic Party was a woman in 1914, and Mother Jones felt her inaction on behalf of men and women of the coal camps was an indication that women would choose their class interests over concern for working class women and therefore just reinforce corporate power. She was blasted by some trade union women for this viewpoint. And the United Mine Workers for  which she was an organizer endorsed women’s suffrage in 1910. But overall, the suffrage movement in this time was also going in a very conservative, racist direction.

One other point–the autobiography statement is an account from one newspaper, it is a verbatims statement from the New York times article from 1913. The autobiography is odd in that Mother Jones by that time had made the statement approving suffrage accomplishment.

She didn’t view working for wages or suffrage as the key to freedom for women, and she seemed to get stuck in a reactionary position toward wealthy women and middle class suffragists,  to suggest that middle and upper class women were too concerned with fashion and temperance to use the vote to remedy working women and men’s issues. It was a narrow-minded view, especially considering that she continued to advocate political action. Newspapers loved to go to her to get an anti-suffrage statement and she fell into this. But when suffrage passed in the US, she expressed approval and slight hope that women could change the political landscape of the country, but said she didn’t “expect the millennium” because of it.

See Dorothy Wake’s book in our bibliography for another interpretation of her as a working class feminist. Mother Jones helped many working class women launch strikes and fight for a living wage as trade unionists, and that counters the notion that she wanted to put women back in the home.  In Atlanta in 1916 for another statement in which she suggests that all labor of women has economic value, even prostitution. This is a working class women’s feminism that animated her values.


Was Mother Jones religious?

Not in the traditional sense. Jones’ family was the union and radical movement, and from 1890-1923 she was on the road, without a home, living in workers and comrades’ homes. She had followed a path that led to estrangement from her family, who followed a different path that led to reconciliation with the Catholic Church and traditional society.While she rejected organized religion, her younger brother William Richard Harris (left) became a prominent Toronto priest. “I long ago quit praying and took to swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything; but when I swear I get things here.”

Like many radicals of her era, Jones’ argued that Jesus was a revolutionary of his time and a model. Thinking of him should lead workers to see that they should fight back and take possession of the earth from the millionaire “parasites” who were no better than thieves.

She sometimes called certain clergy “sky pilots” who deflected workers attention to heavenly rewards and promoted class harmony while workers died from avarice. It’s no surprise that her brother Richard never mentioned his connection with the famous female agitator. Nevertheless, she was on very friendly terms with a number of clergy who shared her values, like her eulogist Father Maguire, a priest who fought in the 1919 steel strike with her. Maguire gave the eulogy to her which is available on this site in the primary source documents of the education page.

How have others responded to the film?

When I began this project, I was convinced that viewers would think that Mother Jones was larger than life, and such a distinct personality, that they wouldn’t see her story’s relevance in their life or in the present. I also felt that someone who fought mostly among miners would be considered less relevant to a post-industrial U.S.. But I have been very happy to find that many ordinary people  find sustenance from her, and come away from the film, as one presenter remarked, with the question, “where is the Mother Jones in us?” By that they don’t always mean where is our bravery, or our sacrifice. Rather, they mean that the film inspired them to actually think about what the meaning of the labor movement has been in the past, and to see that themselves in this figure from the past labor movement. That is the effect Jones had in her own time. Many commenters, given the current economic crisis, are prompted to think and dream in a way Mother Jones did, about “a higher and grander civilization” for the ages to come.

Discussion Questions about Making the DVD

Why did you make the film? Why is it only 24 minutes long?

Mother Jones deserves more than a 24 minute documentary, she is the material for a full length Hollywood feature film! The film we have here is only a bare introduction to her, an overview. But it’s important to also understand I didn’t set out to make this film. Originally, the material on Mother Jones for this film was intended to be a segment of another documentary, Remember Virden . That film is about the class and race conflict in Virden and other Illinois mining communities in 1898. Mother Jones sought to be buried with the people she believed had shaped a “rank-and-file” style of unionism and with the
“Virden martyrs” in Mt. Olive, Illinois’ Union Miners’ Cemetery, in an effort to remind us of the role of ordinary workers in the struggles for labor justice. We thought this would be a 7 minute segment for that film,  but as we shaped that section we thought that she deserved her own piece and it grew from 7, 9, 15, to finally 24 minutes. Especially after we got the live footage of her speaking from a retired miner, we were compelled to produce this separate piece. That also explains why there is only one historian in the film. We did not plan to make this project, this project took on a life of its own.

Gorn was interviewed as part of the Remember Virden project, and has been eager to participate from the beginning of that project. His interview was very compelling, and was a factor in shaping the project, and making it grow from a projected 7 minutes to 24. It is apparent that his feelings for Mother Jones come through in the interview, we think he comes across in the film very well.

Music on the DVD

Tell us more about how you choose the music? Who are the musicians and what's the story behind the songs? What's the function of the music in your film?

We chose music that would evoke the feelings and cadence of the struggles. The choices were considered with care, and the particular performance of the song was important. They were intended to bridge generations. Rosemary, as a labor scholar and historian activist, has a library of labor music in both original and later adaptations. She and Laura agreed it was not necessary to choose material that was all authentically from Mother Jones’ lifetime. Instead we chose music that would evoke her spirit and the struggles she went through in a way that would make modern audiences listen. Here are the specifics:

  1. Which Side Are You On? was written by a miner’s wife, Florence Reese, in the Harlan County Kentucky struggle in 1931, a year after Mother Jones had died. In Harlan County , after sheriff’s raided Mrs. Reese’s home (her husband was a union organizer) and ransacked it in the presence of Mrs. Reece and her children, she penned this song. There women were central to the struggle and their efforts were well in line with the example of Mother Jones, so we thought it appropriate. The old lady’s voice that starts the voice is the authentic version of Mrs. Reese, but that version of the entire song doesn’t resonate with modern audiences. But it was emblematic of the contributions Mother Jones had made, because miners’ wives were central to labor struggles. This is a story that is not well known, but one that one can trace to Mother Jones. The various versions of this song in the film are by those by Tom Juravich and Anne Feeney. Both of these musicians updated the older version by Reese into a sound that would resonate with younger audiences.
  2. Woody Guthrie penned the Ludlow Massacre from stories he heard about it when he was out west. He recorded it, and in fact the folk song was the main way that the Ludlow Massacre was remembered until Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States made it better known. Still, most people have never heard of these events. We used Tom Juravich’s version, recorded for the album Out of Darkness . Guthrie’s version is not nearly as compelling musically as is Juravich’s.
  3. The Death of Mother Jones was written by an anonymous miner, but was recorded after Mother Jones’ death by the young Gene Autry. Bucky Halker, who is a musician and encouraged the production of Remember Virden , allowed us to use his version, which has an updated feel to it.
  4. Ballad of Spring Hill is the one that was actually written about a Canadian mine accident in 1953. However, the haunting version as recorded by Tom Juravich made it a compelling choice for emphasizing the double threats that miners encountered. They faced death down below on a daily basis: ““Listen for the shouts of the bare faced miners, listen through the rubble for the rescue team. Six hundred feet of coal and slate. Open prison in a three foot seam, open prison in a three foot seam.” Unfortunately, it was a condition that Mother Jones’ activism did not remedy. “Bone and Blood is the Price of Coal” is the refrain of the song. Perhaps the audience will also think about the way that miners bodies were threatened when they sought free speech and association to organize to prevent these kinds of conditions. In fact, industrial capitalism, Mother Jones argued, was built over their dead bodies.

What are the lyrics to the songs on the DVD?

Which Side Are You On original by Florence Reese, in our documentary it’s sung wonderfully by Anne Feeney
Ludlow Massacre performed by Tom Juravich
Death of Mother Jones performed by Bucky Halker
Ballad of Springhill performed by Tom Juravich

Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reece

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize

Pete Seeger in an introduction to “Which Side Are You On?” on his record “Can’t You See This System’s Rotten Through And Through” says: “Maybe the most famous song it was ever my privilege to know was the one written by Mrs. Florence Reece. Her husband Sam was an organiser in that “bloody” strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1932.They got word that the company gun-thugs were out to kill him, and he got out of his house, I think out the back door, just before they arrived. And Mrs Reece said they stuck their guns into the closets, into the beds, even into the piles of dirty linen. One of her two little girls started crying and one of the men said “What are you crying for? We’re not after you we’re after your old man.”
After they had gone she felt so outraged she tore a calendar off the wall and on the back of it wrote the words and put them to the tune of an old hard-shelled Baptist hymn tune, although come to think of it the hymn tune used an old English ballad melody … And her two little girls used to go singing it in the union halls.”
Many thanks to Gwénaël Forestier for the French translation

Ludlow Massacre
Ludlow Massacre was written by Woodie Guthrie.The version used in the documentary is by
Tom Juravich. Woodie Guthrie’s original is below Juravich’s.

Ludlow Massacre

Tom Juravich Version, from Out of Darkness.

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union ,”
And then I hung my head and cried.

Ludlow Massacre by Woodie Guthrie

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn’t try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union,”
And then I hung my head and cried.

Available on:
Hard Travelin’: Asch Recordings, Volume 3, Woody Guthrie

Death of Mother Jones
This author of the song is unknown, but it was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1931. Lyrics from the book Only a Miner, by Archie Green, University of Illinois Press. The version we use in the film is by BuckyHalker, www.buckyhalker.com.

The world today’s in mourning
O’er the death of Mother Jones
Gloom and sorrow hover
Around the miners’ homes.
This grand old champion of labor
Was known in every land;
She fought for right and justice,
She took a noble stand.
O’er the hills and through the valley
In ev’ry mining town;
Mother Jones was ready to help them,
She never turned them down.
On front with the striking miners
She always could be found;
And received a hearty welcome
In ev’ry mining town.
She was fearless of every danger,
She hated that which was wrong;
She never gave up fighting
Until her breath was gone.
This noble leader of labor
Has gone to a better land;
While the hard-working miners,
They miss her guiding hand.
May the miners all work together
To carry out her plan;
And bring back better conditions
For every laboring man.

Ballad of Springhill performed by Tom Juravich

In the town of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia,
Down in the heart of the Cumberland Mine,
There’s blood on the coal and miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun or sky
Roads that never saw sun or sky.

Down at the coal face the miner’s workin’
Rattle of the belt and the cutter’s blade
Crumble of rock and the walls close round
Living and the dead men two miles down
Living and the dead men two miles down.

Twelve men lay two miles from the pitshaft
Listen for the drillin’ of a rescue team
Six hundred feet of coal and slag
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam.

Eight days passed and some were rescued
Leaving the dead to lie alone
All their lives they dug their graves
Two miles of earth for a markin’ stone
Two miles of earth for a markin’ stone.

In the town of Spring Hill you don’t sleep easy
Often the Earth will tremble and groan
When the Earth is restless, miners die
Bone and blood is the price of coal
Bone and blood is the price of coal.

Ballad of Springhill Lyrics

Answers provided by producer and director Rosemary Feurer. If you have a question you want answered, or want to know more, contact me at [email protected] Please be sure to see the bibliography and documents.