The synchronicity of this song being today’s hymn, on the eve of the Women’s March, is not lost on me.
Thus, I was going to do a bit of digging to learn more about the background of the phrase “bread and roses” and the poem, knowing it all sprung up a little over 100 years ago during the time of labor and women’s movements – and became popular during the demonstrations after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and during the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers’ strikes. On the list of top hits was an article from, of all things, Epicurious, who is normally focused on food and entertaining. The entire article, by Sam Worley, is worth a read – it recounts the history, but also adds the perfect notes to connect it to today. This sentence in particular caught my eye:
But if the last few months have been a reminder of anything, it’s that the darker elements of our past are closer than they ought to be, and perennially in danger of catching up; that there are many dark things we have not, despite optimistic pieties, put behind us; and that vigilance against this darkness is constantly required.
Please read the entire article, because Worley draws some amazing connections between the movements that sparked the slogan (and the poem our lyrics today come from), food justice, economic and racial justice, women’s rights, and, of course, bread. And it’s hopeful – he ends with a line that reminds me of this verse from a powerful Judy Grahn poem:
the common woman is as common
as good bread
as common as when you couldnt go on
For all the world we didnt know we held in common
the common is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong–I swear it to you
I swear it to you on my own head
I swear it to you on my common
Now to the hymn: the tune we have here is not the tune we all grew up with, because we all grew up with Judy Collins singing it to the tune written by Mimi Farina. You can listen to that version, although I like Pat Humphries’ version better.
I’m not sure when the version we have, by Caroline Kohlsaat, was composed – there’s some research to suggest the poem itself faded away until the end of World War II, when working women were being pushed out of the factory to make room for soldiers returning from war.
And so here it is. On the eve of the Women’s March, with a lot of the same problems (including some of the same troubling views of women – see verse 2, line 2), fighting for some of the same things. We’ve made progress since then, but it has been and will continue to be a long, hard road.
And still we rise.
As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
a million darkened kitchens, a thousand workshops gray,
are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses:
for the people hear us singing, “Bread and roses, bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
for they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes:
hearts starve as well as bodies — give us bread, but give us roses!”
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
go crying, through our singing, their ancient song of bread!
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew:
yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days:
the rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
but a sharing of life’s glories — bread and roses, bread and roses!
(Image is from the Women’s Suffrage Procession, March 3, 1913.)