April 20, 1914 – Standing in their tent colony in Ludlow, Colorado, the miners and their families, 1,200 souls in all, could see the Colorado National Guardsman setting up their machine gun position in the hills. Tensions had been building for over a year, ever since the miners had decided to strike. Now, after months of harassment and skirmishes with the local mining company’s hired muscle, things were finally about to come to a head.
The miners gathered their weapons and moved into the hills to outflank the militiamen, leaving behind the women and children to take shelter in holes that they’d dug beneath their tents. To this day, no one is certain who ultimately fired the first shot; the result, however, still stands out in American history.
The countryside surrounding Ludlow reverberated with the cracks of gunfire and the screams of the wounded and the dying. The miners had greater numbers than their enemy, but their advantages ended there. The militiamen, along with the mine guards that bolstered their ranks, had superior tactical positioning, better combat training, and superior equipment, including an armored car dubbed “The Death Special.”
Midway through that that bloody day, several miners and their families attempted to flee to the nearby Black Hills. A passing freight train noticed their plight and stopped to shield them from the militiamen’s bullets. Many of the strikers thus escaped, but not everyone was so lucky.
By the end of the day, at least 19 colonists were dead. Among the fallen were two women and eleven children that suffocated after being trapped in a subterranean burrow while the tents aboveground were set ablaze.
The incident was quickly dubbed “The Ludlow Massacre,” and is regarded today as one of the bloodiest events in the long-fought American conflict between business owners and workers.
Mining was a notoriously dangerous and low-paying occupation. No place in America was worse than in Colorado. In 1913 alone, the year preceding the Massacre, at least 104 men died while working the mines. Like so many other workers across the nation at that time, the Ludlow miners simply could not take it anymore, and striking was the only real weapon they could bring to bear.
The Ludlow miners did not win their battle that day. After the Massacre was over, it was the miners, not the militiamen or the strikebreakers, that were arrested and blackmailed. Of the Guardsman, only Lt. Linderfelt received formal punishment, being lightly reprimanded for the murder of Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant that led the Ludlow strikers.
However, in the long run, the Ludlow Massacre did win a resounding victory for worker’s rights. It became a rallying cry for unions and workmen, a symbol of the brutal way that American blue-collar people were often treated. The Massacre was instrumental in the eventual implementation of stricter child labor laws, and the enforcement of an 8-hour workday.
Thirty years later, in 1944, the famed “Dustbowl Troubadour” Woody Guthrie penned and sang “The Ludlow Massacre.” Guthrie was a fiercely individualistic musician, novelist, and artist, who often performed with a guitar bearing a label reading: “This here machine kills fascists.”
Guthrie’s most remembered tune is undoubtedly “This Land is Your Land,” which can be heard from kindergarten singing classes across the country. But dozens of the man’s songs were recorded and kept at the Library of Congress, preserved for their cultural significance, and are still available for purchase today.
The list of singers that have cited Guthrie as a direct influence is a long one, and includes such notable figures as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy.
“The Ludlow Massacre” was not written to be entertaining, fun, or danceable. The lyrics are not elegant, nor are they clever. The music, the voice, and the words are blunt, sincere, direct, meant to keep alive the story of the struggle that American workers endured in their fight for humane conditions. The song is a reminder that the social advances we enjoy today were won with sweat, blood, and death, and should not be taken lightly.
Today, Ludlow is a ghost town in Las Animas County, Colorado, still accessible by 2WD vehicles. The Ludlow Monument stands to memorialize the Massacre, but the site is mostly characterized by a bunch of sagging, crumbling houses scattered like tombstones over the dry plains.
It has been nearly 100 years since The Ludlow Massacre, and nearly 70 years since Woody Guthrie first sang about it. Yet, when we listen to The Dustbowl Troubadour sing that tragic story, it all still feels very much alive. In the same way that a long-unthought-of memory can suddenly rush back into our minds with vivid life, “The Ludlow Massacre” stirs something in the psyche that has always been there, even if we’ve forgotten it. It’s a voice from our cultural history telling a story that is critically important to understanding our political history. Perhaps because of that, the song possesses a kind of timelessness, seeming to be simultaneously more ancient and more new than it actually is, a song of remembering, as well as a reminder that there are some things that we should never forget. ~ Jeff Suwak