Saturday, 24 March 2012

Why "Wobblies"?

The following article is taken from Wobblies! A Graphic History Of The Industrial Workers Of The World edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. We have copies of this book for sale.


One of the most interesting and never-to-be-resolved questions about the IWW is how they acquired their moniker. We know that it took hold popularly in 1914, with the first line of a song, "I knew he was a wobbly by the button that he wore." IWW members ever after repeated what little they had heard, or they invented new bits of folklore that might explain how a word that had meant to quiver or tremble became a term for a romantic rebel, male or female.

During the Wheatland, California strike of 6000 impoverished hop pickers in 1913, a strike leader (Herman "Hook Nose" Suhr, soon to be arrested and indicted) sent out a telegram saying "Send all speakers and wobblies possible". In the subsequent trial of Suhr and fellow organiser Richard "Blackie" Ford, a defense attorney asked an IWW publicist what it meant and was told that "Wobbly" was used "generally in the working class to designate IWW." Subsequent publicity prompted the song "Overalls and Snuff", by an anonymous lyricist, identifying the Wobbly as an old-time hop picker with "his blankets on his back." The 1914 edition of the Little Red Song Book carried the lyrics. During the next harvest season, in 1915, IWW poet-songster Richard Brazier used the word "Wob" to describe the old-timer,and in 1915, poet Ralph Chaplin announced in "Harvest Song": "The earth is on the button that we wobblies wear/We'll turn the sab cat loose or get our share," effectively combining various symbols.

But where did the word actually come from? Was it that "Eye-Double-You-Double-You," once coined, had a nice ring to it; or could it have derived from the wobbling walk of Wobbly hobos with too much to drink (or just workers on the job with too much to carry on their backs)? Or, more indirectly, from erotic references especially rich in African-American musical slang ("Wobble it a Little, Daddy." by Lillian Glinn, or another phrase, "You wiggle and you wobble, you move it around"), a possibility furthered by the conservatives' description of radical socialists as acting like uncivilized Africans? Or could it possibly have derived from international sources, travelling Australian workers (the IWW was especially popular in Australia) who were called "wallabies," thus translated to "wobbly"? Or is the answer perhaps in the all-time favourite anecdote, the tale of the Chinese cook in a railroad building camp in Oregon around 1912 who had trouble pronouncing "double you" and whose usage was taken up in friendly fashion rather than racist derision?

Whatever it's origin, it was forever destined to be a comical word reflecting the IWW outlook on life. Wobblies weren't ashamed of being "wobbly", whether it was used as complaint against them being vulgar (or somehow connected with African-American culture) or unmacho, or anything else. Wobblies most loved, after the Communist Manifesto, the booklet by Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue: The Right To Be Lazy. It notably insisted that the true happiness of pre-civilization had been in leisure, a leisure destined to return when capitalism and class society had vanished once again. There would be plenty of time to wobble then.

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