This beautiful, extraordinarily delicate little piece, voiced by the great Jennifer Warnes, played in its entirety over the opening credits of Norma Rae, which dramatized the struggles of labour amid the appalling working conditions in the old textile mills of the American South. It always sounded to me more like something composed by Stephen Foster than anything on the charts in 1979, and my first impression was that it had to be the work of Randy Newman – who but he could conjure something so mournfully evocative, echoing the musical traditions of another era? – but it was actually written by David Shire, a prominent film composer of the day, with an assist from lyricist Norman Gimbel. The song’s simple message, that there’s nothing special about the average person’s story, you’re born is all, then you work hard all your life until you grow old, wasn’t calculated to put a goofy smile on your face and a spring in your step, but then, neither was the movie, based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a textile worker who led union organizing efforts in one of the mills in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The famous scene that everybody remembers, in which Norma Rae defiantly makes her stand on a worktable in the middle of the shop, wasn’t Hollywood fiction. That’s exactly what Sutton did, and it went down just as portrayed in the film. These are Sutton’s own words:
I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet…
Then, just like in the movie, the cops came to drag her away in handcuffs.
The battle was won, the plant got its union, and things got better for a while, but then the jobs started to move off shore. The J.P. Stevens factory where Sutton worked closed in 2003, and so have hundreds of others, all over the Carolinas and throughout the United States. While the domestic manufacture of textiles has rebounded a bit in recent years, this hasn’t meant much for the labour force; these days the robots do the work, and at last count only about half a million people are employed in the entire industry. The jobs aren’t ever coming back.
It’s not entirely clear how we should feel about that. Those mill jobs were terrible, dehumanizing, and never paid all that much, unions or not. Yet people need to put food on the table, and hustling around while a computer cracks the whip in the Amazon warehouse – sorry, fulfillment center – isn’t a whole hell of a lot better. One way or another, seems like, the rich keep getting richer, and the ordinary folk keep working their lives away for wages that barely make ends meet, always one paycheque away from being out on the street, without even a couple of hundred bucks in the bank in case the tired old car blows a gasket, or, God forbid, somebody needs to go to the doctor. It goes like it goes, and people hang on by their fingernails, maybe believing, like the song says, that you never know, some things along the way might get a little bit better.
Maybe so, if somebody can get get that sumbitch Joe Manchin on board.
It Goes Like it Goes won the Oscar for best song, and Sally Field won for Best Actress.