This is the record to buy and learn, as Bucky Halker says in the liner notes, “for rebels who ain’t so jaded as to think that what’s good for Bill Gates is gonna be good for the rest of us.”
Roughly 30 years in the making, Don’t Want Your Millions is a historic document of union songs, partially funded by the Illinois Arts Council and featuring Studs Terkel reading “The Scab’s Lament”. The record collects Halker’s favorite research subjects; he earned a Ph.D. and wrote a book on labor protest music. The liner notes are a fascinating, even bracing, lesson in the lives of the working-class heroes who inspired and wrote them.
Woody Guthrie entries include “Hard Travelin’”, “Ain’t Got No Home”, and “Do Re Mi”. The famous labor songwriter Joe Hill is represented by “Rebel Girl”, written in prison and best-known from a Smithsonian Folkways recording by Hazel Dickens. The title track, by coal miner and Communist Jim Garland, was recorded by the Almanac Singers in 1941. Orville Jencks’ “Dying Mine Brakerman”, with heartbreaking harmonies by Amy Matheny, was recorded in 1938 by the Carter Family as “Reckless Motorman”. The most vivid protest, though, was written by an English-born labor journalist from Toronto. His “Pennsylvania Miner” is a first-person account of the anguish of a striker before, during and after being beset by Pinkerton guards.
The one exception to the labor theme is the anti-racist “Bourgeois Blues”, a song Lead Belly wrote in response to being refused service in Washington, D.C. A verse of the song refers to the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall.
Halker’s voice is clear and sure, and every plainspoken syllable is free of any vanity of artistry that might get in the way of the message. The same can be said of his arrangements and the band’s ensemble playing. To be sure, Halker and his band have updated them as rock songs, country songs or beatnik jazz. But the songs themselves are the stories here, and by any other instrumentation, they’d still be rabble rousers.