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Protest Lyrics at Work: Labor Resistance Poetry of Depression-Era Autoworkers

This dissertation argues that scholarly inquiry into American poetry of the Great Depression is incomplete without a critical understanding of poems produced within the labor movement. Through archival research and methodologies drawn from American studies, gender studies, cultural studies, and labor history, this dissertation demonstrates that autoworkers from 1935-1941 developed a rich poetic discourse that championed their cause. Autoworker poets—including autoworker song lyricists—used humor and borrowed extensively from popular, religious, and “folk” cultures to craft their own poetic styles and trope sets. They wrote about a diverse range of topics from their hopes for the unionization movement, to scab conversions, to comic exaggerations of capitalist figures such as Henry Ford and GM’s William S. Knudsen. Their poems and songs also capture aspects of quotidian life on the shop floor, such as the difficulty of assembly line work, gripes about managers and fellow workers, and frustrations with union factionalization. Women autoworkers and union auxiliary members, similarly, fashioned a discourse that spoke to their own particular set of goals, separate from—yet related to—those of unionizing men. This dissertation, further, shows how parodies of songs and poems, so often written in the labor movement, were frequently written and rewritten time and time again. Tracing the histories of two parodies, in particular, this study demonstrates 1) how older versions can influence the subtext of newer versions and 2) how mapping geographical appearances of parodies can reveal both evolutions in class consciousness and intersections between aspects of society typically thought to be unrelated. More broadly, discovering the connections between autoworker-authored poems and songs and their wider artistic underpinnings helps us to more deeply understand the array of cultural touchstones that working-class Americans drew upon during a dynamic moment in history.
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