For the Union: Monstruwacan’s Mourn at the Grindstone
Without rest or relief.
Written by activist and union organizer Florence Reece in 1931, “Which Side Are You On?” is certainly one of the most well-known labour songs in U.S. history. Reece wrote the lyrics to the song on a calendar in her kitchen, inscribing onto that ubiquitous piece of chrono-technology the desire and demand to change how time and lives are ordered. Not coincidentally, Reece penned her protest on a calendar as unions and labour activists were fighting and winning battles to fundamentally change the workweek, culminating in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that would standardize the 40-hour workweek by the early 1940s. Concomitantly with these and other labour battles, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers immortalized Reece’s song in the early 1940s, and it remains a powerful cultural touchstone for protest musicians of all genres; variously covered and reimagined by artists as different as Billy Bragg, Dropkick Murphys, Natalie Merchant, Ani DiFranco, Panopticon, and Talib Kweli. It’s a beautiful melody that offers its listeners a simple choice: stand with the union (in Reece’s case, the United Mine Workers of Harlan County, Kentucky) or number yourself among J.H. Blair’s thugs. Perhaps the simplicity of that choice is the reason that the United States has worked so diligently to deregulate industry and all but stamp out union activity. Though, of course, some unions continue to be the prevailing force for positive labour changes in the United States.
Monstruwacan’s version—a collaboration with the working-class folk quartet the Windborne Singers and thoroughly appropriate to the title of the album it so ceremoniously opens—is more mournful tribute to lost time and lost lives than it is hopeful reinvigoration of a timeless classic. A slow clap of calloused hands keeps a somber beat while a guitar drones and feedbacks behind an ethereal chorus of haunted voices intoning the brutal history of labour oppression and the forced indignity of working so hard for so little. It is arresting and daring, and I have returned often to it since first hearing this record. It bears in its heart Marx and Engels’ prophetic declaration that “what the bourgeoisie… produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”
Mourn at the Grindstone is indeed a hymn to the endless proletarian obsequy. Mixing the power and force of SunnO))) with the dust-caked twang of Earth, Monstruwacan drones through 5 more songs about the grief of living, working, surviving, and dying in poverty. Caldon Glover’s guitar work does not quite approach the full gravity and oppressive weight of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson‘s, but they more than supplement it with tortured wails, gutting eulogies, and a flair for the pulsively industrial. Glover’s vocals provide both an affective anchor for the listener and a rhythmic counterbalance to the blank, suffocating expanse of their desert drone. Title track “Mourn at the Grindstone” and the darkly industrial “Feast in the Dark” flourish precisely because Glover can so eloquently capture both the weary plight of the desubjectivized worker and the ostentatious waste and excess of the bourgeoisie: “They care just that they own it. Lo. Lo.” A reckoning of accounts, to be sure, and blood-stained lies the ledger that sits crushingly on the heads of those churning the grindstone round and round.
There’s a simple, catchy meter to Glover’s vocals, particularly in the anguishing and Lethean “A Song for the Dead.” Both end rhyme and internal rhyme schemes make for a particularly enchanting listen. Of course, by the final time Glover , “It’s okay / it’s okay / it’s okay / it’s okay,” you are no longer enchanted but bereaved; the Lethe’s magic of forgetting evaporating in the shredded-throat pleas to accept the pain and tragedy of loss.
Glover’s background in electronic ambient and industrial music adds another layer to Mourn at the Grindstone, with the stultifying drone atmosphere of the album not solely relying on pure volume and sonic degradation. Album closer “What Keeps us in this Wretched Place” is a dark ambient nod to Glover’s other projects, and it concludes the album by providing a bit more space for the listener to breath and recover from what has been a harrowing journey.
In The Tragedy of the Worker: Towards the Proletarocene (2021), the Salvage Collective write, “Capitalism has, one hundred and fifty years after Marx predicted, finally produced enough diggers to complete the grave, but in doing so it ensured all that was left to inherit was the graveyard.” The grand work is finished. The meek wait with upturned hands. Shovels and mounds of dirt pile higher and higher. A funerary path populated by billions is the final wonder of the world. The Weltklasse, the global proletariat, is at last here and more numerous than could be imagined, but it has come at the very price of that wondrous world. “This,” laments the Salvage Collective, “is the tragedy of the worker.” This, Monstruwacan would echo, is what mourning that tragedy sounds like.