Against the Current
Half a century ago, in 1931, coal miners went out on strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. Florence Reece, then a 30-year-old mother of eight and a miner's wife, did as much as anyone to nurture the strikers’ spirits by writing a much-loved and now-famous song called “Which Side Are You On?” (Her song and its story were featured in a special 35-page report on Harlan County in Southern Exposure, Spring/Summer 1976, available for $4.50 from the Institute for Southern Studies.)
But Florence Reece did not retire her pen with that one song. Poetry, stories and journals have always been an everyday thing with her, and now she has published a collection called Against the Current, including some personal notes about how putting words down on paper has enriched her life. This all goes back, she says, to a recitation she had to do in the first grade: “I loved poetry. It always did something to me. When I was very young, if one of our chickens or kittens died, my sisters would say, ‘Come, Florence, we are going to have a funeral and you have to preach.’ I loved to make up stories and poems. ”
She also speaks of standing “against the current”: “A current isn’t just a river or a heavy stream of water. It can be death, sickness, war, strikes, hunger. I know them all. You have to stand tall and strong to overcome them. Sometimes the current will wash you overboard. ” She and her beloved husband, Sam Reece, managed with love, she says. “Sam and I lived against the current all our lives, but we loved each other more than all the gold and silver in the world. At his death, we were married 64 years; not half long enough.”
Here are a few of her poems, filled with her anger, defiance, love and humor. You can order the book for $8 by writing her at 410 Ocala Drive, Knoxville, TN 37918.
I am just a windblown ragweed
Blown from night to day
When my family comes in at night
I begin to swish and sway.
My husband he’s the big bad chief,
My children second best,
Ragweed do this, Ragweed do that,
I never get no rest.
Sometimes I go to town awhile,
Just to kill a little time,
Ragweed, what are you doing here?
You never have a dime.
If my children move to Canada
Or far across the sea,
I would get a letter every day,
Ragweed come wait on me.
The time is soon a-coming
I feel it in the air.
They will call on old Ragweed.
Old Ragweed won’t be there.
The strike was on at the Justus mine.
Scabs takin our jobs, we felt like cryin,
The guards came on with guns in hand
These low-down guards could
We’re peaceful, you know, we don’t
want to fight,
But we’ll beat you up if you
They took us to jail, what a disgrace,
But our wives and our sons
they took our place.
They took us to jail, oh what a disgrace,
But our wives and our sons,
they took our place.
I’m telling you now we had
a hell of a fight.
And we’ll keep on fighting til
we win our strike.
CASTLE IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS
If I had a millionaire’s money
I’ll tell you what I would do.
I’d build me a castle in the Smokies
And live there forever with you.
We would sit on our patio at midnight
listen to the wild varmint croaks,
And sing our love song together
And dance by the light of the moon.
I’d gather wild flowers in springtime
And make a wreath for your hair
You would be mine only, mine forever
So young, so beautiful, so fair.
CAN’T LIVE ON JELLYBEANS
I went up to Washington
To see the President.
He came out on the lawn —
I said, “Sir, I cannot pay my rent.”
He said, “Go home, son,
There’s nothing I can do.”
I said, “This house is too big for one.
I’m moving in with you.”
He said, “I know things are bad.
The worst I’ve ever seen.
But I’m going to make them better.
Here, have a jellybean.”
“I can’t go home, sir.
I’d surely go insane.
You said yourself the unemployed
Would reach from California to Maine.
Now, if you take away
the food stamps
And all their other means,
What’re you going to feed them on?
They can’t live on jellybeans.
Now we know you’re the big boss
And you will have your say
But if you don’t do something
Hell is going to be to pay.”