Tom Morello

Guitarist Tom Morello brings his Justice Tour to the Barrymore Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Labor Day, Sept. 5. The event is a benefit for The Nation Institute.


Tom Morello, the Grammy Award-winning guitarist with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave who has earned an international following with his musically and politically charged performances as the Nightwatchman, followed the wave of protests that swept Egypt and other Mideast countries at the start of 2011.

A Woody Guthrie-inspired advocate of mass protests, rallies, marches and in-the-streets campaigning for economic and social justice, Morello loved the reports from Cairo. And he kept up with each new report from Tahrir Square.

Then, one night, he and his wife were watching the protests, and he saw something odd. Snow.

It doesn’t snow in Cairo.

But it does in Madison.

“I was watching the demonstrations in Cairo with my then-pregnant wife,” Morello says. “The report went from 100,000 people on the streets of Cairo to 100,000 people on the streets of Madison. And I remember saying: What the hell is going on? Where did this come from?”

When he heard it was a union struggle that had brought masses of Wisconsinites to the streets in winter, Morello wanted to grab his guitar and fly immediately from his home in Los Angeles to Madison.

He wasn’t at all sure his wife would approve. But, Morello recalls, she was two steps ahead of him. “She said: ‘Our sons are going to be union men. You’ve got to go.’ ”

Morello called some rocker friends and they headed for Madison, where, a week into the struggle to defend the working families of Wisconsin from the assault on their rights by Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies, they sang in solidarity with the tens of thousands of Wisconsinites who had gathered outside the Capitol. Tom Morello was joined by Wayne Kramer from the MC5, Tim McIlrath from Rise Against, Mike McColgan from the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs, and a band of young musicians packed the stage at the State Street entrance on a February day when it was so cold that they joked about trying to play guitars with frozen fingers.

Yet they played their way through a rousing array of labor and protest music.

The rockers finished with a song that everyone knew: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” And it was epic. Thousands of teachers, students, cops, firefighters, snowplow drivers, nurses, librarians, farmers, small-business owners and retirees were shouting the words of America’s radical national anthem.

For many in the crowd, it was a transformational experience.

And it was the same for Morello.

“I’ve played hundreds and hundreds of demonstrations but I’ve never been in the middle of anything like this,” Morello told me the other day, as we talked about his planned return to Madison for a Labor Day show at the Barrymore Theatre with McIlrath, Kramer and other musicians as part of a Justice Tour that will go on to the battleground states of Ohio and Michigan.

To a greater extent than any other national musician, Morello has taken inspiration from the labor struggle in Wisconsin.

After rallying the crowds in Madison, he wrote, “Union Town,” a song that recalled rallying with Dane County sheriff’s deputies, Madison firefighters, teachers and students who packed the Capitol to protest Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights:

Today the policeman a union man, brother firefighter’s my friend

And the kids locked in the Capitol are fighting till the end

And we’re not gonna break tonight and we’re not gonna bend

Some say the union’s down but I asked around and everybody said

This is a union town, a union town all down the line

This is a union town, a union town all down the line

And if they’ve come to strip our rights away we’ll give them hell every time

This is a union town, a union town all down the line

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The song concluded with a “one-day-longer” commitment to carry the Wisconsin struggle forward:

So come rain or sleet or dark of night — come wind or frigid snow

There’s a hundred thousand in the streets and that number’s gonna grow

And when we put the governor on trial — I’ll be in the front row

Just take a look around, we’re a union town 1, 2, 3, 4 let’s go!

Morello donated the proceeds from “Union Town” and other labor tunes he recorded in the spring to support unions in Wisconsin.

Since then, he has recorded a new album with songs inspired by the Wisconsin struggle and other labor fights in the U.S. and abroad: “World Wide Rebel Songs.” Proceeds from the Justice Tour he’ll launch in Madison will help The Nation Institute fund independent investigative reporting on economic justice and union struggles.

The money’s important. But rallying again with Wisconsinites is just as vital to Morello.

“The people of Wisconsin are forming one of the last lines of defense against complete corporate control,” says Morello. “There’s a vicious class war going on, but only one side was fighting it — the billionaires and the politicians they prop up. There wasn’t a fightback, at least not a sufficient fightback, until Wisconsin.”

The show at the Barrymore brings the Wisconsin movement full circle. On the first Labor Day of a new labor age, Morello will sing his union songs, with many of the same players on stage, and many of the same people in the crowd.

Winter has given way to summer. But some things stay the same.

Madison is a union town. And Tom Morello is standing, and singing, in solidarity with those who know that this fight isn’t over until we win.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.