Biography of Florence Reese
Florence Reece (née Patton; born April 12, 1900, died August 3, 1986) was an American social activist, poet, and folksong writer. Born in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, the daughter and wife of coal miners, she is best known for the song, "Which Side Are You On?" which, according to folklorist Alan Lomax who collected it from her in 1937, she wrote at age 12 when her father was out on strike. In 1931, during the Harlan County War strike by the United Mine Workers of America and the National Miners Union in which her husband, Sam Reece, was an organizer. she wrote it out on a calendar, possibly updating it, and that's the version known today.
Pete Seeger, collecting labor union songs, learned "Which Side Are You On" in 1940. The following year, it was recorded by the Almanac Singers in a version that gained a wide audience. More recently, Billy Bragg, Dropkick Murphys, and Natalie Merchant each recorded their own interpretations of the song.
Alan Lomax, writing in the American Folk Song Book (1968), says "Florence Reece, a shy, towheaded Kentucky miner's daughter, composed this song at the age of 12 when her father was out on strike. She sang it me standing in front of the primitive hearth of a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky in 1937 and it has since become a national union song. The tune is an American variant of the English Jack Munro, "which side are you on" having been substituted for "lay the lily-o".
Reece appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary film, Harlan County, USA, singing her anthem to rally the striking miners.
Florence and Sam Reece were married for 64 years, until his death from pneumoconiosis (black lung) in 1978. After a lifetime of speaking out on behalf of unions and social welfare issues, Florence Reece died of a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 86 in Knoxville, Tennessee.