Folksinger and labor activist Bill Friedland was born in Staten Island, NY, in 1923. The son of Russian immigrants active in the Jewish labor organization the Workmen's Circle, he found himself attracted to Trotskyism while a student at Wagner College, and as a result of his growing proletarian leanings he accepted a factory job following graduation. In time, Friedland allied with the Trotskyite splinter group formed by Max Shachtman, who viewed Soviet-styled Communism as the catalyst behind yet another class-ruled society. Seeking to establish a "third camp," the Shachtmanites dispersed their members to other U.S. industrial regions in the name of "colonizing," and Friedland ended up in Detroit, where took a job with the Hudson factory and joined the Walter Reuther-led United Auto Workers association. After a Communist faction assumed control of the UAW, Friedland lost his job and went to work at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park plant; around this time, he immersed himself in the folk music movement, learning guitar and collecting labor songs.
In 1950 he accepted a job as assistant to Bill Kemsley, education director of the Michigan State Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Through Kemsley, Friedland met Joe Glazer, a self-styled labor troubadour working as the education director of the Akron, OH-based United Rubber Workers-CIO. Like Friedland, Glazer was a walking encyclopedia of labor songs, and together they recorded an album entitled Ballads for Sectarians, released in 1952 on Kemsley's fledgling Labor Arts label. Because Glazer lived in Akron and Friedland in Detroit, the duo enjoyed few opportunities to perform or rehearse, but in early 1953 they reunited for a second Labor Arts effort, Songs of the Wobblies. But Friedland soon found himself disenchanted with the labor movement and Trotskyism in general, and after spending the better part of 1953 traveling Europe, he enrolled in Wayne State University, completing his doctoral studies at the University of California in Berkeley and later teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Glazer, meanwhile, continued as a solo performer.