Tom Morello’s new song is anthem of solidarity with union workers
Tom Morello | Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Musician Tom Morello has added new music to his catalogue that carries on the longstanding pro-labor tradition of protest songs, this time in collaboration with Canadian rock artist Grandson. Called “Hold the Line,” the song dropped Oct. 15, and a special version called the Union Strong Edit debuted Nov. 12, replete with photos of striking union workers from all over the U.S. who are fighting for fair wages.

The video’s release follows many weeks of national protest against unfair working conditions, with ‘Striketober’ seeing 10,000 John Deere workers and 1,400 Kellogg workers on strike, plus so many more. Such actions are continuing, and in inceasing numbers, with what is now being called ‘Strikesgiving.’ In a time when seemingly more workers than ever are rising up and demanding humane pay and treatment, Morello’s new music may serve as the soundtrack to a labor mobilization the likes of which the U.S. has never seen.

“Hold the Line” video snapshot via YouTube

The original video from October is itself a visceral black and white cut to the chase, with Morello’s signature caterwauling guitarwork and lyrics like, “If you’re looking for a sign, remember everybody that stood up before you, oh they hold the line,” and “they wanna tell you you’re already free, put these chains on and rob you blind.” The lyrics serve to pay homage to the struggles that came before – the memory of which is frequently forgotten by new generations, the embattled history of countless workers too often scrubbed from U.S. education.

“The world is changed by average, everyday, ordinary people who have had enough and are willing to step up to do something about it,” Morello remarked in an article he wrote for the New York Times. “At my best, I back up the voices of rank and file fighters for social justice and boost morale of those demanding a better world. Because at this juncture, friends and comrades, we need all hands on deck.”

The song is the latest single off Morello’s new solo album, The Atlas Underground Fire, which in addition to Grandson features guest appearances from Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and British alt-metallers Bring Me The Horizon (this writer recently saw that band perform at this year’s Knotfest, a mega-show held in LA by metal band Slipknot). While Morello’s latest record has myriad subject matter in its lyrical content, chief among it is pro-labor demonstration and political activism.

“I wrote ‘Hold the Line’ with my new friend Grandson, for every single person kicking ass and holding the line,” said Morello. “For those of you out there risking it all for a better future, we are with you! I encourage everyone else to join a strike near you and give these workers the support they deserve.”

Morello’s new album The Atlas Underground Fire

The song drew attention on a national level when Morello and Grandson performed it on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. The spotlight ought to be seen as an important one by music fans who are union workers, whose anthems – once on the tips of struggling workers’ tongues – have long since been driven under the radar over the decades, collecting dust in favor of polished, corporatized radio music, where once they found listeners far beyond the reach of the labor movement alone.

It’s a tradition stretching as far back as the Industrial Workers of the World, where songs like “Solidarity Forever” demonstrated the sheer power and reach music had to unite people in the face of oppression. Morello himself reflected on this, noting how so many of these songs were written by “the homeless, itinerant workers, and immigrants. They looked an unjust world square in the eye, sliced it apart with satire, dismantled it with rage, and then, with mighty singalong choruses, raised the roofs of union halls and holding cells, from San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill.”

As far as dismantling injustice with rage is concerned, it’s a practice Morello is quite familiar with; he Raged Against the Machine for nearly two decades on guitar, where songs that challenged oppression and advocated equality and peace led to critical acclaim. He followed that by playing in the equally famous band Audioslave, then continued on with further projects before finally debuting his solo work.

Music has the ability to inspire, to motivate, to mobilize, and with his skill and artistic vision, Morello certainly makes use of the strongest tool in his arsenal to do just that. “Aim for the world you really want without compromise or apology,” he said in the New York Times. “The people who have changed the world in progressive, radical, or even revolutionary ways did not have any more money, power, courage, intelligence, influence, or creativity than anyone reading this. The world is changed by average, everyday, ordinary people who have had enough and are willing to step up to do something about it. My guitar and I will be there with them.”

Morello’s music is but one part of a much larger tapestry of rock and metal that is pro-labor and pro-peace. For further listening, check out the following recommendations.

Panopticon, Kentucky

A one-man atmospheric blackened folk metal project, Panopticon is the brainchild of Austin L. Lunn. While much of his discography deals with themes of social and environmental justice, nature, history, and philosophy, Kentucky in particular is a record full of songs centered around the labor movement and the struggle of workers to fight for their rights, as well as the history of workers fighting to form a union. Key songs include “Black Soot and Red Blood,” as well as “Come All Ye Coal Miners” and “Which Side Are You On?” – covers of the originals by Sarah Ogan Gunning and Florence Reece, respectively.

System of a Down, Mezmerize

Famous nu metallers System of a Down have recently debuted two new songs that raised awareness and crowdfunding for Armenia amidst the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. But still among their most iconic efforts is Mezmerize, an album full of songs that speak out against injustice and inequality, as well as war itself, as challenged by the song “BYOB” (short for ‘Bring Your Own Bombs’), which criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The band’s frontman Serj Tankian went on to join Tom Morello in the activist band Axis of Justice.

Revocation, Revocation

For their fourth self-titled album, technical death metal band Revocation had powerful justice-seeking anthems including “Fracked” – a sharp, caustic criticism of the environmentally damaging act of the same name. Then there’s “Entombed by Wealth,” a relentlessly heavy song filled with lyrics deriding the inequality and destruction wrought under capitalism and the wealth of a greedy few at the expense of the many. Finally, “Numbing Agents” is a diatribe against the ripple effect of capitalism, criticizing conspicuous consumption and the commodification of laziness and complacency.

With these and many more (the albums mentioned are merely the tip of a colossal iceberg), it’s clear that songs have the power to assemble and invigorate people to fight for fairness and better treatment. Tom Morello’s new song is the latest entry in the storied legacy of protest music, and it seems that just like unions, that won’t be going away any time soon.


CONTRIBUTOR

Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Pennsylvania with his cat. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a novel.

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