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Oppenheim’s poem blooms in musical odes to labor

The first days of the textile strike in Lawrence, 1912.

The first days of the textile strike in Lawrence, 1912.

Monday, Sept. 1 — Labor Day — is the 30th annual Bread and Roses Heritage Festival in Lawrence, a day-long celebration of that city’s labor history and diversity. The name refers to the famous American labor song and the equally famous 1912 strike by Lawrence textile workers, a nine-week standoff that focused national attention on the harsh living and working conditions of the mills’ largely immigrant employees, resulting in substantial (if temporary) gains for workers and the labor movement.

It became known as the “Bread and Roses” strike thanks to Upton Sinclair, who, when including James Oppenheim’s poem in a 1915 anthology, connected it with the events in Lawrence. But not only was “Bread and Roses” not sung in Lawrence — the poem’s first musical setting, attributed variously to Martha Coleman or Caroline Kohlsaat (probably the same person), didn’t appear until years later — there’s no evidence the phrase played any part in the strike.

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The late historian Jim Zwick tried to untangle the legend, discovering that the poem predated the Lawrence strike; Oppenheim probably got the slogan from Chicago garment workers. Even by then, the phrase was already circulating — possibly via Russia. In 1907, Russian dissidents Alexis Aladin and Nikolai Tchaikovsky toured America, speaking out against Tsar Nicholas II. The “Harvard Advocate” recorded an after-dinner speech delivered by Aladin in Cambridge: “Our social and economic platform is very simple,” he announced, “just a little more bread — and roses, too!”

“Bread and Roses” was largely forgotten until the 1950s, when a new generation revived it, either with Kohlsaat’s tune or a new one by Mimi Fariña. It became associated with the burgeoning feminist movement; women, after all, had been crucial to the Lawrence strike, both picketing and facilitating the temporary evacuation of strikers’ children to stay with supporters in other cities, a tactic that solidified support for the strike. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a Boston-centered socialist women’s liberation organization adopted the name; Bread and Roses women mounted protests against hidebound institutions: Harvard University, the Playboy Club — and the Boston Globe.

Since 1979, the New York City local of the Service Employees International Union has had a cultural program called “Bread and Roses.” Esther Cohen, the program’s former director, explained its purpose in terms that might also describe the circuitous, enduring legend of the song itself: “Creation,” Cohen wrote, “has its own enormous power to add joy and sorrow and depth and meaning to experience in a thousand unfathomable ways.”

Matthew Guerrieri

The 30th Bread and Roses Heritage Festival takes place Monday, September 1, from noon until 5:00pm on the Lawrence Common. Admission is free (978-794-1655; breadandrosesheritage.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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