White Slave, The
DESCRIPTION: A pretty girl, who works in a laundry and sleeps in the street because she is so poor, is recruited to be a prostitute with promises of wealth. Five years later, she has lost her looks and is diseased. Who is to blame? "The boss who pays starvation wages"
AUTHOR: Words: Joe Hill (Music by Leo Friedman?)
EARLIEST DATE: 1913 (_The Industrial Worker_, April 10, 1913, according to William M. Adler, _The Main Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon_, p. 206)
KEYWORDS: IWW whore money disease
REFERENCES (3 citations):
ADDITIONAL: (Barrie Stavis and Frank Harmon, editors), _The Songs of Joe Hill_, 1960, now reprinted in the Oak Archives series, pp. 30-31, "The White Slave" (1 text, 1 tune -- not the tune Hill used, which was copyrighted)
Gibbs M. Smith, _Joe Hill_, 1969 (I use the 1984 Peregrine Smith Books edition), p. 250, "The White Slave" (1 text)
cf. "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland" (tune)
NOTES: For the life of Joe Hill, see "Joe Hill."
According to Gibbs M. Smith, Joe Hill, 1969 (I use the 1984 Peregrine Smith Books edition), pp. 32-33, this was one of two songs (the other being "The Girl Question") which Hill wrote to encourage women's participation in the I.W.W. At a time when the union was still largely masculine, it appears Hill felt that it needed to reach out and include all people.
Although not the best-known of Hill's songs, I'd have to say that I regard it as the best of those I know. It is also quite true-to-life.
I thought of this piece while reading Steve Oney's And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (2003; use the 2004 Vintage Books edition), especially pp. 56-60, describing conditions in Atlanta in the years leading up to 1913 (when Mary Phagan was murdered and this song was written). Child labor was the standard in the town -- the factory in which 13-year-old Mary worked employed primarily teenage girls, paying them no more than ten to fifteen cents an hour and working them 56 hours a week -- and there was a vast prostitution industry. Had Mary not been murdered, this might have been her story: She was very pretty, and the only choices life held for her (unless she managed to find a rich man to marry her) were life in the factory or prostitution.
At the time she died, the Atlanta papers were carrying advertisements calling for the ending of the White Slave trade (Oney, p. 57). I gather that, for a while after Mary was murdered, there was speculation that she had been attacked because she refused to join the prostitution industry. I don't know what Joe Hill knew about this -- but I wonder if it didn't somehow inspire his song.
Hill's description also fits what we know about how women fell into prostitution in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors' Women, Random House, 2001 (I use the undated, but later, paperback edition), pp. 19-20, cites the work of Dr. William Sanger, whose work was published in 1858, Sanger took case histories of some 2000 prostitutes. And "of the 2,000 women... 933 had been servants before becoming prostitutes, 499 had lived with parents or friends, and most of the rest were dressmakers, tailoresses, or seamstresses," The single most common reason for becoming a whore was, of course, poverty.
Cordingly on pp. 20-22 cites a London chaplain, G. P. Merrick, who interviewed many imprisoned women and compiled similar statistics about British prostitutes. Again, the picture is one of women driven to ruin by poverty
It appears that the five year working life cited in this song is if anything high, since "the great majority of adult prostitutes were between the ages of eighteen and 23" (Cordingly, p. 20, quoting Sanger). Sanger found that the typical prostitute lasted only four years; Merrick computed the average time in the profession as just barely more than three years (Cordingly, p. 21). - RBW
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