Which Side Are You On?

Last year we watched Barbara Kopple’s landmark documentary Harlan County, USA from 1976 and ever since “Which Side Are You On?” has been stuck in my head.

A pro-union folk song written by Florence Reece in 1931, “Which Side Are You On?” has been covered by everyone from Dropkick Murphys to Ani DiFranco (and beyond). Pete Seeger released a version of it in 1940 but it wasn’t until 1941 that it gained a larger audience with the version by The Almanac Singers.

Florence wrote “Which Side Are You On?” as a kid when her coal mining dad was out on strike. Later, Florence was the wife of a union organizer during the Harlan County War in the coal mines in Southeastern Kentucky. (Her husband of 64 years (!!) died of black lung in 1978, two years after Harlan County, USA was released.) The documentary is compelling and unnerving. The black dust in the air reads like proof in the pudding for just how evil coal is as a long-term resource. Had anyone with any actual power paid attention to what it was doing to the workers, maybe some changes could’ve been made? Different future plans? There’s not a mask in sight, just men coughing till they turn black. Harlan County, USA won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Feature) that year.

Before February is up I want to watch its sister documentary, Kopple’s American Dream from 1990 about a union organization in Austin, Minnesota. (As of this writing it’s streaming on the Criterion Channel.) February is Documentary Month in our house and it’s our sixth year. It’s been an educational routine that’s taught me about the world, about people, about cinema, and all the different kinds of documentaries there are (lots!). Documentaries sit different with me, and longer, than scripted & fictional films. I think about them all the time. Every time I use a lint roller I think about Michael Moore’s 1989 debut Roger & Me (the lint roller was invented in Flint). The other highlights top my personal EOY Art That Changed My World View list every year and find a way to come up in every day life: Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke (2006); Honeyland (2019); The War Room (1993) about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign: it is a different political planet than today and when Hillary pops up, modern life flashes before you; OJ: Made In America (2016); Hoop Dreams (1994); Obit (2016); F For Fake (1973); I think of Dark Days (2000) every time I ride the subway, so, every day; Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990); and the list goes on. But at the top of it is Harlan County, USA. It taught me about unions, union organizing, and is an important ecological & societal documentation of what will happen when you dig for coal: bad, bad things.

I find myself walking around humming the chorus, getting it stuck in my head like it’s “Lucky Star.” Every few days, for days at a time, it appears. As I like to say: an ear worm is an ear worm is an ear worm. No matter the genre or content, a good song gets stuck. So. Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on??