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Arise, the workers of all nations! — Voices from the Past on International Workers’ Day

Today is International Workers’ Day.  I always celebrate it, even though it isn’t a big holiday in the United States.  I wish it were.

Joan’s father was a socialist.  The son of a farmer and an immigrant from Sweden, Werner Wehlen came to Canada and then the United States to make a better life from himself.

Joan's father, Werner Wehlen, at age 87 after his first ride in an airplane to San Diego, California.

Joan’s father, Werner Wehlen, at age 87 after his first ride in an airplane to San Diego, California.

He didn’t want to remain beholden to the lord who owned the land his father worked on.  “I remember my grandfather, and even my father, having to [work for a feudal baron] every year on the private domain where the lord of our land lived.” [1]

Werner certainly exposed Joan to his socialist leanings which were especially pronounced during the hard times of the Depression.  One Saturday, he took her to Bughouse Square. [2]

Tuesday, June 7, 1938, Age 15

. . . Sunday night Daddy and I went to Bughouse Square. Not many talkers there and those not as good as they could have been. One of them was talking anti-everything and while he talked, I saw Venus shining over his shoulder. They say she is blue, but that night she was quite golden. And the man talked, sharply silhouetted against the street lamp, standing on his soapbox, the crowd like some dark elemental mass crowded below him and the great golden orb of Venus over his shoulder. The church spire in the East pierced the sky like a black rapier and the Newberry Library was a gloomy disapproving bulb in the night. It was a picture to take with you, unreal with the insects buzzing in the light and the trees moving like shadows in the warm night. Rain fell for a minute like a canvas over an unreal picture. Grant that I may know more unreal nights like that, when one can half-close one’s eyes and seem not to exist at all save as a watcher. Home and the sky was purple.

Joan even jokes about being mistaken for a radical.

Monday, April 19, 1937, Age 14

Mr. Lucas thinks I’m a communist. Today in Study, you see, Ruth and I were—well—you know—doing Latin together. Which isn’t approved of. Then Alice asked me what onomatopoeia is and, while I was explaining, Mr. L. came over and said, “Can’t you work by yourself?” to me. “Are you helping these girls or are they helping you?” And I said, “Well, it’s sort of community work, you see.” And he said, “Well, you know we can’t have a lot of little communities in study hall.” And I said, thinking of Latin, “No, but why not one big community.” I guess he must have thought I was a communist then, ’cause he looked sort of frightened and said we’d better work alone. And I said, “Uh-huh.” And that was that. Once before he made me (and Ruth) stand in the corner for community work—me the socialist! And I had my red sweater on, too!

Maybe Mr. Lucas thought she was going to break out into singing the “Internationale,” the unofficial hymn of workers the world over.

The lyrics are:

Arise, the workers of all nations!
Arise, oppressed of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,
Arise, you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth will rise on new foundations:
We, who were nothing, shall be all!
Forward, brothers and sisters,
And the last fight let us face;
The Internationale
Unites the human race!
Forward, brothers and sisters,
And the last fight let us face;
The Internationale
Unites the human race!

Here is Arturo Toscanini conducting a banned version of the “Internationale.”

Joan later enacted her socialist beliefs by becoming an oral historian who records the voices of real, everyday people.  I’ll write about that more on Mother’s Day this year.

The tradition of oral history lives on.  My son, John, had a project in school involving oral history.  They had to read, edit, and perform an interview undertaken by Studs Terkel, the great oral historian. He was a trailblazer in the field and a great inspiration to Joan in her work.

John chose to perform the story of Florence Reese, an old, tough-talking grandma.

Florence Reese

Florence Reese

She was also a trailblazer for workers’ rights.

She was an amazing woman whose family of miners suffered from the cruelties inflicted by the mining companies and the U.S. government in the 1930s.  But she is famous for having written a song, “Which Side are you on?”, that became a rallying cry for oppressed workers everywhere.  Here it is sung by Pete Seeger.

And here is Florence herself singing the song.

We should all reflect on this in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and great economic disparity that exists today.


[1] Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  American Mosaic:  The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It.  Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1980/1993, 3.

[2] A nickname for Washington Square Park. Anyone could speak to crowds there, generally on soap boxes.

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