Ballad of a Wobbly

by David Rovics

When I came to this country, left Scotland far behind Evicted from the highlands, told to go and find A new life in America across the Atlantic Sea Where I joined the millions of other refugees Who ended up at Ellis Island as the century began The wretched of the Earth from every foreign land When I came to this country, broken and bereft I quickly saw I'd have been no worse off if I'd never left Such awful deprivations as I'd never had to face Borne by Swedes and Russians, Africans and every other race Millions of people trying not to end up dead From cholera or blacklung or getting clubbed on the head When I came to this country, to have something on my fork It was obvious the first thing was to get out of New York I learned to hop the freight trains, some other stiffs and I Caught a westbound rattler to give Oregon a try Signed up for the logging camps, became a timber beast If I'd stayed there any longer I'd have surely been deceased When I came to this country, I worked the copper mines in Butte I was a gandy dancer in Spokane in a gandy dancer suit I heard the Rebel Girl speak one night in a railway yard I joined the union right away and got my first red card I became a hobo organizer for the One Big Union grand Preaching the Wobbly gospel across this starving land When I came to this country, I soon enough lost track Of the number of times I felt a billy club upon my back Or how many times I saw the tents with freezing kids Working in the mines instead of living on the skids How many times I heard the horrid crying from below Of those trapped there in the dungeons with nowhere left to go When I came to this country, it was a hopeful time of desperation The red flags flew all across the nation But when the war began in Europe we refused to die and kill We refused to fight a bosses' war and serve the bosses' will That's when they got the Legion to burn down our union halls All across the land, where there used to be four walls When I came to this country, I had no great expectations But I didn't think I'd end up back here awaiting deportation On a steamship on the Hudson, I watch the sunset fade With 20,000 others swept up in the Palmer Raids Counting myself lucky that I'm still alive Remembering the moment that I first arrived When I came to this country...
There was a massacre in church that got certain forces moving Many towns are now at least superficially improving Such as in Virginia, where a statue of General Lee Stands as a reminder of the days of slavery In the city center, an indelible mark In the spot that's been renamed Emancipation Park Slated for removal, when a judge intervened Which might be the moment that most fully set the scene (For) 19 injured, one killed today in Charlottesville With their man in the White House, members of the Right Marched through the university, torches alight Chanting against immigrants, Africans and Jews But it's not the flying bottles that put them in the news So much as the bigot in the car, revving his engine loud Speeding forward and then back, running down the crowd Using the same tactic promoted by Islamic State Maybe he was even shouting “God is great” 19 injured, one killed today in Charlottesville More than half the city used to be in chains Now their descendants who still remain Are being forced to leave by gentrification Just like poor white folks all across the nation And with the presidential tweets and xenophobic rants It's just a matter of time before some pawn takes the chance To plow into a march with half a ton of steel This is not fake news -- it's real 19 injured, one killed today in Charlottesville
1831, the age of industry begun For the working folk of Wales, life was short With wages cut again it was only sensible that then Folks took over and shut down the debtors' court The gentry pulled the wire, told their men to open fire And restore the rule of their estate But as the night descended and the battle ended The soldiers had all fled behind a gate They chanted “cheese and bread” And “our children must be fed” In the days when Wales rose against the crown They chanted “cheese and bread” With a bloody loaf above their heads When the red flag flew in Merthyr Town The message went out east and west to put the gentry to the test The cavalry was ambushed and turned back After so long playing defense, the time had come now whence The workers were the ones on the attack Chorus The crown sent soldiers by the score until order was restored Then came Dic Penderyn's execution Another martyr for the cause, meant to give us pause The next time the people call for revolution Chorus
At 1 am on a Wednesday morning, no one knew what was in store A fire started and quickly spread until it covered every floor Stairwell blocked, no way out, smoke and fire all around Parents grabbed their little babies, dropped them ten floors to the ground People cried to no avail, 24 stories tall Engulfed in flames, the fire ladders were just like toys, no use at all There were no sprinklers, few smoke alarms, fire extinguisher out of date All repairs, if ever done, always too little, too late When they built Grenfell they believed housing was a human right But all that changed, now if you're not rich you should be kept out of sight Out of sight, out of town, or wrapped up neatly, plastic-clad The flats may all be falling apart, but at least they don't look too bad The residents had tried to warn the authorities for years and years But all their letters, all their blog posts, all their calls fell on deaf ears Council housing taking space, left to rot, for by and by It would someday be turned to dust in the forward march to gentrify And in the meantime if people perish with their children in their laps It's the price the market has to pay, to house the poor in fire traps If this were murder
When we look at history and how it's all unwound There are few people on the planet that have been more tightly bound With the liberation of our troubled human race Than the man from Santiago with the beard upon his face Dressed in green fatigues that he wore most of his years As he led his country longer than any of his peers And few men have been vilified more often in the news Than Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz Born into a country of Dengue and despair Ruled by foreign armies ever since Columbus got there He'd reject his privilege and join humanity  Forced to choose between his species and his family And when legal means had failed to stop the suffering he saw He decided it was high time to work outside the law He organized a revolution with the rifle and the fuse Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz When you win a revolution, you might stop when you're ahead But in the Havana Declaration the revolutionaries said Wherever people anywhere are found to be oppressed As long as we have hearts that beat within our chests It is our duty to support them – and Cuba sent their troops And Cuba sent their doctors, in ever-larger groups And their leader was the one in the track suit and running shoes Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz It could have been someone else, and he might be the first to say The movement makes the leader, not the other way But around the world right now, sitting at their dinner plates There are people praising this man who stood up to the United States And lived life as a beacon for a new society With housing, healthcare, education and the human right to dignity Central to the vision for which he stood accused Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz I can't predict the future, but if the past is any indication Many more will follow the trail of the little Cuban nation And soon in Havana, I hope that we may see A statue of the man, to go beside Jose Marti But wherefore goes Havana, or Angola, Mozambique I'll always remember the big man's rosy cheeks If the world could vote for a leader, how many just might choose Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
You've been a politician for forty years Schmoozing with your landlord peers Governing for the millionaires Pretending that you really care About the regular folks who elected you About the renters that you screw You can call yourself a Democrat But you're just one more fatcat Landlord Senator Rod Monroe The landlords love you, don't you know But we all say it's time to go Landlord Senator Rod Monroe Your tenants complain of moldy walls Leaking roofs, waterfalls You rent out at the market rate Which is something you create By passing bills that you surmise Will allow the rent to rise Conflict of interest – no doubt That's what this is all about Chorus Money from landlord lobbyists Given to you hand over fist Corruption that's so easy to see Just like the GOP Against rent control, against restrictions On anything like no-cause evictions A servant of the elite Who's going to lose his Senate seat Chorus
When Leila met Majnun it was at a traffic light He handed her his number at first sight It all happened very quickly, soon both of them were aware That life can be so good when it's shared When Leila met Majnun it was convenient, it would seem That both of them were living in the city of their dreams They had no plan to leave and lots of plans to stay But one day that all changed and they had to go away So Leila and Majnun together left the country They got on a crowded boat, sailed the Pacific Sea They were headed to Australia, a place they thought they knew Then the Australian Navy took them to Nauru Where Leila and Majnun were kept there in detention On a tiny little island run just like a prison Where they were told by Immigration, dream all that you can But your only pathway off this island is on a boat back to Iran Leila and Majnun, amid the heat and damp Tried to make the best of life in a prison camp But the strongest of foundations eventually will shake And the strongest of hearts eventually will break Leila and Majnun were on the island when One day there came some visitors from the UN The next thing Leila knew, she was witness to the scene Of her beloved doused in gasoline Leila saw Majnun in a state no one should be in Bright flames rising, burning off his skin Sometimes you can reach a point – so beaten down, so tired The only option that seems left is to set yourself on fire
Rojava 02:40
Listen to me, friends, from New York to California Consider for a moment Sulaymaniyah The last city volunteers would often see before They hiked over the mountain and joined the war For the freedom of the people of Rojava The enclave defended by RPG's and guns Wielded by Rojava's daughters and sons Along with scores of those who have come from far and near Who learned to fire mortars so they could fight right here For the freedom of the people of Rojava What makes a person go from Occupy Wall Street To marching through the desert with blisters on their feet To risk life and liberty to face Islamic State Knowing that martyrdom would likely be their fate For the freedom of the people of Rojava Something worth defending isn't hard to find But not many will go off and leave their homes behind To go train on the mountain with the YPG To go join somebody's struggle out of solidarity For the freedom of the people of Rojava The blood of many folk has been spilled along the way Including several anarchists from the USA So remember Robert Grodt and Michael Israel Paolo Todd, Jordan MacTaggart – how they lived and how they fell For the freedom of the people of Rojava
On the Train 03:35
It was another Friday afternoon, just after 4 o'clock The train trundled through the city, block by block The MAX was full of people of most every class and creed Shoppers, workers, travelers, graduates of Reed Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Jews and Muslims, too All aboard the Green Line to 42nd Avenue But now many will remember that 26th of May At least anyone who took the train that day Some were coming from the airport, visiting the state Some were getting off from work and heading for a date Some were going to a party for the start of Ramadan Some were heading to a meetup for fans of Comic Con Some were looking for a strip club, some for a Big Mac One racist thug was looking for someone to attack He chose two teenage girls to hear the things he had to say As he shouted at them on the train that day The Nazi spewed his hatred, the veins bulging in his face Yelling at two girls of a different race No one knew beforehand, today would be a test Or what might next have happened, but for Meche, Fletcher, Best We can ask where he came from when all is done and said Why he was so inspired by the ideas inside his head But what we know for sure is two men lost their lives this way That's what happened on the train that day
I got a text from Tampa as the hurricane approaches The biggest ever seen We're seeking higher ground here, how are you out west In the land of the evergreens? I got a cloth upon my face, hibernating in place As the ash falls all around But at least I'm in the northwest, breathing smoke from all the fires Instead of the in the southeast being drowned The President is speaking in North Dakota Where all the crops have just failed He said isn't it great, the pipeline is finished We can keep mining and burning all the shale He said we'll be OK as he sweltered in the heat Standing on the parched and arid ground While I'm in the northwest, breathing smoke from all the fires Instead of the in the southeast being drowned How's the apocalypse treating you That's how you greet your neighbors these days Has your home been flooded, have your forests burned up Can you see as you drive through the haze? Come visit if you can, Jill – might be nicer here than Tampa We can take a walk and listen to the crackling sound Here in the northwest, breathing smoke from all the fires Instead of the in the southeast being drowned
An old woman approached me just the other day “I lived in Washington, DC,” she began to say “They all sang 'We Shall Overcome' back in 1964 Where did that all go now that it's needed even more?” I thought I should have an answer – I think I should now, too But when I look around me now, I'm afraid I haven't a clue With the country and the world sinking ever deeper in the mire In this age of famine, flood and fire Walking on the ashes, through the toxic, hazy air Past the chimneys – the only things still standing there Now if we think ahead seven generations What little might remain of what we call civilization It was maybe damned to start with, but what a thing to comprehend That you and I and our grandchildren may be the ones who watch it end Now that it is past the time when it was only down to the wire In this age of famine, flood and fire I used to marvel at the people going out and having fun I'd wonder if they thought of all that which must be done Now it's too late to join them in the ignorance and bliss I'll just wonder as I watch them, might their children live like this? All the pot in California cannot numb the pain And sometimes I try to figure out, in the time that still remains How would I spend the rest of it just fulfilling my desire In this age of famine, flood and fire Perhaps a scientific breakthrough will allow us all to live Now that industry has robbed the Earth of all it had to give Maybe from the ashes, new life will arise That will not be burdened by what I've witnessed with these eyes Perhaps some global spring will be born out of the flood A great forest will grow up from somewhere beneath the mud But if I said I was an optimist then I would be a liar In this age of famine, flood and fire
The treaty was rejected in 1992 Most Danish voters were afraid they already knew That it would not be a good thing to give away control To the likes of neoliberals like Mitterand and Kohl It was voted down, but then in 1993 The vote was held again for the Maastricht Treaty This time the ruling parties got what they were looking for And that very night the city sounded like a place at war On the streets of Copenhagen The air was full of anger, the reasons for it clear It had been voted down only just last year And now we're just supposed to give our sovereignty away To institutions that don't care what people have to say On the streets of Copenhagen Stones flew, windows broke, more than many folks could bear As the riot cops fired tear gas in the air Before the night was over, the cops stood right there in that spot Fired pistols at the crowd – eleven people were shot On the streets of Copenhagen When hard-won rights are lost, when ruling parties throw them out They may pretend to wonder what the riots are about But anywhere near Norrebro you'd find few who'd disagree About exactly what happened on that night in 1993 On the streets of Copenhagen
Failed State 03:02
When you're working two jobs and living in a tent When a house costs a million bucks and you can't pay the rent When politicians say they'll help but it keeps getting worse Each time the landlord lobby pulls the strings of the purse When the human right to housing isn't even part of the debate You know you're living in a failed state When millions of citizens are spending half their lives Locked up in a prison for trying to survive When laws must be broken just to have a place to stay When the prisons pay the senators to look the other way If you have to be a criminal to put food on your plate You know you're living in a failed state When you're facing climate breakdown, when the trees are all on fire When half the country's underwater, when a climate change denier Runs the nation and the opposition party Votes for oil rigs and pipelines, this is not so much a country As it is a corporation, buckling under its weight You know you're living in a failed state When your nation is an empire facing daily blowback And the only thing your leaders can think to do is attack Bipartisan consensus that we need to spend 700 billion before the year's end On a military budget to make America great You know you're living in a failed state When almost every day some psycho with a gun Has to open fire on a crowd before it's done When a music festival becomes a free fire zone And all they can say is it's OK now, he was acting alone Buy some armor, pray to God and hide behind a gate You know you're living in a failed state
We could tackle the economy first – get rid of all the billionaires Set the system up so that instead of hoarding, people share Make housing, food, and health care basic human rights Around the world, for everyone is how we'd set our sights If we could get to that point I could say that then We could make the planet Earth great again With human rights around the world, there'd be no refugees No safeguarding your homeland from terrorists overseas No need for a border wall, no jobs to protect With a global basic income established, it's pretty simple and direct Free trade, fair trade, same damn thing – we get to that point, then We can make the planet Earth great again We could take on other issues, like the survival of our race By which I mean the bipeds on this floating rock in space The most invasive species anywhere around The one that keeps on burning everything that can be found The one that will get it together in the nick of time and then Make the planet Earth great again We can stop spending money on antiquated technology Such as tanks and missiles and most other things military We can use those vast resources to make us all safe and sound Windmills in the air, coal and oil in the ground We can be the envy of the rest of the galaxy when We make the planet Earth great again


If you'd like to download the whole album without donating $7, no problem -- just email me at with "album request" in the subject line and you shall receive... All I ask for in return is that you tell folks about the album in some kind of public space.

The title track on this album is "Ballad of a Wobbly." The Wobblies, or the IWW, is a union that was formed in 1906, which still exists today in many different countries (in a much smaller but still vibrant form). Although the only song that's directly about the story of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is the title track, the rest of the album is, I think, very consistent with the interests of the Wobs -- like anything related to the well-being of what has in recent years become commonly known as The 99%.

The songs on the album were almost all written in 2017, and they cover a range of subjects from a working class rebellion in Wales in 1831 to the FBI's Palmer Raids of 1919 to the Grenfell Tower fire in the summer of 2017.


released December 11, 2017

The album was recorded, mixed and mastered over the course of five days at the end of November and beginning of December, 2017, at Big Red Studio in Corbett, Oregon.

Billy Oskay: producer, engineer, violin, percussion
David Rovics: vocals, 6-string guitar, 12-string guitar, bouzouki
Elona Planman: harmonica, guitar, percussion, piano
Pete Wells: assistant engineer, piano, keyboards, percussion
Arcellus Sykes: upright bass

Carlo Frisch: album graphics

Special thanks to all of you CSA members and you who donated to the crowdfunding campaign that made this album possible -- and to Elona and the Swedish government for the grant that made it possible for her to join me in the studio in Oregon, so far away from her home in Scandinavia.




David Rovics Portland, Oregon

Singer/songwriter, writer, podcaster (on Spotify, Substack & Patreon), anarchist, dad, lover of life.


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