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Wisconsin High School Marching Band Plays 'Union Maid' at the Rose Bowl? | The Nation

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Wisconsin High School Marching Band Plays 'Union Maid' at the Rose Bowl?

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Editor's Note: Pulaski Schools Superintendent Mel Lightner has denied that the song played by the Pulaski High Schools "Red Raiders" was Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid." He says it was a regular piece of the band's repertoire called the "Red Wing Polka," which has the same tune as "Union Maid." "Red Wing Polka," according to Superintendent Lightnter, was a favorite of the band leader's grandmother. We apologize for jumping the gun.

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Alexander Billet
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He runs the website Rebel Frequencies and is a...
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports correspondent, is the author, most recently, of Game Over: How Politics Has...

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Next week will see two wrenching anniversaries one day apart. One will receive a great deal more coverage than the other.

The Rose Bowl has always been the oldest and most storied game of the entire college football bowl season. Its roots extend back to 1902, earning the nickname "the Granddaddy of Them All.” Even today, floating in the septic tank that is the Bowl Championship Series, plastered with corporate branding and officially renamed the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, it has retained much of its' stature and glory. This year, the Oregon Ducks beat the Wisconsin Badgers in the highest scoring Rose Bowl in history, winning 45-38. 

Despite the loss, the state of Wisconsin still made their mark in grand fashion. Per Rose Bowl (apologies: Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio) tradition high school marching bands from Wisconsin and Oregon performed as part of the festivities. One of the bands from Wisconsin, the Pulaski High School “Red Raiders,” abruptly interrupted their own performance of “On Wisconsin” and on live TV, and played a far different tune. It was the classic Woody Guthrie anthem for labor and women’s rights, “Union Maid.” (Go to the 1 minute 15 second part of the video for the song)

After a year when Wisconsin became ground zero in a reemergence of mass struggle in the United States, and during a time when the people of the state of Wisconsin are attempting to recall their anti-union governor Scott Walker, the choice of Union Maid spoke volumes.

This is a song dripping with working class radicalism. Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s fellow Almanac Singer, recalls in his autobiography that he “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.”

Guthrie had apparently been asked to write a union tune specifically taking up the women’s struggle. The song’s chorus leaves little room for ambiguity:

“Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union! I’m sticking to the union, ‘till the day I die!”

At the time of this writing, it’s not known whether Walker saw the telecast, let alone recognized the song. But for a small high school from a town of barely 3,000 people to break the mold at an event normally so tightly orchestrated as the Rose Bowl presented by Vizio, it was a remarkable moment.

Already there is a push by a right wing blog that calls itself Media Trackers stating that the band was actually playing “Red Wing,” an obscure polka from which the melody of “Union Maid” was taken. Their blog includes a quote not from the band leader or any of the students, but the district superintendent, insisting that there was no political message meant whatsoever, just a marching band straying from their prepared tune to play an obscure polka while the band members grinned with mischievous joy.

If thinking that this song was just a good ol’ fashioned polka helps Scott Walker's internet army sleep at night so be it. But they would be closing their eyes to just how deep the outrage continues to run in Wisconsin since Walker attempted to destroy collective bargaining rights last February. The surprise of the recall Walker campaign thus far is the support it's getting in small towns like Pulaski. If the marching band is any indication, Scott Walker is in some serious trouble. Walker attempted to scare the people of Wisconsin last February. Before there was even one protest against his anti-union legislation, Governor Walker put the National Guard on alert by saying that they were "prepared" for "whatever the governor, their commander-in-chief, might call for.”

Considering that the state of Wisconsin has not called in the National Guard since 1886, the response—thousands occupying and marching on the State Capitol for weeks—was all the more impressive. Walker’s threats didn’t make people scared. They just strengthened their resolve. It’s no wonder the band at Pulaski would be attracted to “Union Maid.” The song begins,

“There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks
and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.”

As for the Ayn Rand loving, union-busting, Paul Ryan fan-boy Scott Walker, he still doesn’t understand that his assault on workers' rights has had an effect quite opposite to what he intended, re-awakening what the late folksinger Utah Phillips once called the most dangerous idea in America: “the long memory.” Thanks to the Pulaski band for showing that Long Memory in action. 

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