I’m Gonna Join That One Big Union
01. I’m Gonna Join That One Big Union
(You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union)
(Woody Guthrie/TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc., BMI)

Track 1 – I’m Gonna Join That One Big Union
(You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union) (MASTER MA 9)
Guthrie was not particularly union-conscious until he traipsed through California’s farm rich San JoaquinValley where the awkwardly named UCAPAWA, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, struggled to organize Kern County cotton field workers in the summer of 1938. These were his people, Okies and Arkies, Missourians and “Texicans,” often faced off against American Legion vigilantes picking fights with picketers while local police looked on benignly. Until then, Guthrie had been no more than an observer; now he had a cause.

No hand at picking cotton himself, Guthrie rallied the scattered strikers with his guitar, gathering groups of them around him on the edge of the highway as he sang through the evening. A strike organizer, Dorothy Healey, five decades later still vividly recalled the intensity of the moment, and the mutual understanding that flowed between Guthrie and his people.

Guthrie wrote “You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union” in 1941, while on a tour with the Almanac Singers on behalf of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, “the one big union.” The melody is lifted from the popular gospel song “You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley,” which in turn was adapted from a much older African-American spiritual. As printed in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 anthology, The American Songbag (p. 486), the first verse of the spiritual read:

You got to cross that River Jordan,
You got to cross it foh yohself;
O there cain’t nobody cross it foh you;
You got to cross it foh yohself,
Cain’t yoh brother cross it foh you,
You got to cross it foh yoself.
Sandburg’s tune is virtually the same as Guthrie and Houston sing here. Apparently, this is
the first time this track has been released.