"Union Maid" was written by Woody Guthrie while he was a member of the Almanac Singers, along with Pete Seeger. The tune had its musical origins in a fiddle tune called "Red Wing," although, well, why not let Pete tell the story:
I'm proud to say I was present when 'Union Maid' was written in June, 1940, in the plain little office of the Oklahoma City Communist Party. Bob Wood, local organizer, had asked Woody Guthrie and me to sing there the night before for a small group of striking oil workers. Early next morning, Woody got to the typewriter and hammered out the first two verses of 'Union Maid' set to a European tune that Robert Schumann arranged for piano ('The Merry Farmer') back in the early 1800s. Of course, it's the chorus that really makes it - its tune, 'Red Wing,' was copyrighted early in the 1900s.
Here's Woody singing an excerpt:
The full third verse, describing a woman's place in the union is heard on this recording of a NFS rehearsal:
The lyrics were written by another Almanac Singer, Millard Lampell:
You gals that want to be free, just take this tip from me
Get you a man that's a union man and join the ladies' auxiliary
Married life ain't hard, when you're carryin' a union card
A married man has a happy life when he's got a union wife
This was not the most progressive verse -- getting a man and joining the ladies' auxiliary to make your man happy? -- (although keep in mind that unions had only been legalized in the US five years earlier, in 1935). Subsequently, as women's roles in the labor movement changed, new verses were written to reflect their importance. A verse credited to Nancy Katz:
A woman’s struggle is hard, even with a union card;
She’s got to stand on her own two feet and not be a servant of a male elite.
It’s time to take a stand, keep working hand in hand,
There is a job that’s got to be done, and a fight that’s got to be won.
From Carry It On! edited by Seeger and Bob Reiser (1985):
You women who want to be free
Just take a little tip from me
Break out of that mold we've all been sold
You got a fighting history
The fight for women's rights
With workers must unite
Like Mother Jones, bestir them bones
To the front of every fight
By the way, if you look carefully at the photos from the NFS rehearsal (click to embiggen), you can read historically accurate labor signs as researched by our own Jeannie R. There are more of them that aren't pictured, so come to our show on May 6 and see them all.
Here's a gallery of some of the photos Jeanie found from the Catherwood Library of Cornell University:
Finally, if you're in a hurry but want to hear the whole song, here's a speedy version by the Old Crow Medicine Show:
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Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.