The Nightwatchman / Tom Morello

Union Town

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Tom Morello (as the Nightwatchman) released the song "Union Town" digitally in May as a rallying cry and benefit for The America Votes Labor Unity Fund, which supported union workers in Wisconsin who were (and are) fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin; a dispute has been continuously challenged in court and, more than likely, will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The full Union Town EP is also a benefit recording; all profits go to the same organization. Featuring a full-on electric rock band and several guest backing vocalists, it opens and closes with two versions of the excellent title track, the second one recorded live at Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin on February 21, 2011, during the massive protests. Five of the remaining six songs offer Morello's unique, rocked-up takes on classic pro-union songs. There is a metallic rock & roll take on Florence Reece's classic "Which Side Are You On," with screaming electric guitar. A jazzy, fingerpopping read of Merle Travis' stellar "16 Tons," and a haunted solo acoustic and harmonica version of Alfred Hayes' ubiquitous "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night." Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is performed as a stomping, rollicking, rock & roll honky tonk number that includes the "censored" verse: In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple/Near the relief office, I see my people/And some are grumblin', and some are wonderin'/If this land is still made for you and me...." It's as anthemic as any version that exists, but it's for a new generation. It builds on Guthrie's version, which only surfaced as a demo in the '90s when the complete Folkways recordings were issued. This one is full of anger and an unflinchiing indignation that underscores dark truth in its author's statement. The set's finest moment is Morello's own "A Wall Against the Wind." It's inspiring, upright, and a declaration of a continuing historic struggle by the people for the people, that denies politicians, governments, and corporations the right to repress workers. Those of centrist or conservative political persuasions may decide this is a socialist document. Let them. For Morello and others, this recording claims songs from organized labor history, which are more relevant now than ever; he includes his own contributions to it as well. They insist on the basic rights of workers to fair compensation for a fair day's work, because this is an era that's politically and socially hostile to unions. Union Town is a revolutionary's statement. Hopefully, those who subscribe to its views will use it as a rallying cry.

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