Folksinger and labor activist Joe Glazer was born in New York City in 1918. As a child he often sang in synagogues, and inspired by Hollywood's singing cowboys he bought a guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalog, taking his first lesson through the Works Progress Administration program. Though his Polish-born father was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, politics were never a subject at home, and Glazer was not directly exposed to labor activism until he arrived at Brooklyn College in 1936.
Though friendly with members of the radical groups on campus, he largely steered clear of their efforts, and upon graduating pursued a career in songwriting, placing only the novelty tune "Yogi, Yogi the Fakir Man" with singer Reggie Childs. After briefly aligning with the Theater Arts Committee, sponsors of the political revue Cabaret T.A.C., Glazer in 1944 accepted the assistant education director position for the New York City Textile Workers Union, an experience that launched his interest in labor songs and lore. While visiting Southern textile communities to conduct educational meetings, he was introduced to countless labor hymns, and in 1950 recorded the LP Eight New Songs for Labor for a private label operated by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Later that same year Glazer relocated to Akron, OH, when he was named education director of the United Rubber Workers-CIO. At this time he met Bill Friedland, a self-taught singer and guitarist then serving as the assistant to Bill Kemsley, education director of the Michigan State CIO. Like Glazer, Friedland was a walking encyclopedia of labor songs, most of his of the anti-Communist persuasion. Together they recorded an album entitled Ballads for Sectarians, released in 1952 on Kemsley's fledgling Labor Arts label.
Because Glazer lived in Akron and Friedland in Detroit, the duo enjoyed few opportunities to perform or rehearse, but in early 1953 they reunited for a second Labor Arts effort, Songs of the Wobblies. But Friedland soon found himself disenchanted with the labor movement, and after spending the better part of 1953 traveling Europe, he enrolled in Wayne State University; Glazer, meanwhile, closed out the year with a solo 78 that proved Labor Arts' final release. In 1960 he toured the Midwest in support of Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign, and that same year co-authored the book Songs of Work and Freedom with Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke.
In 1961 Glazer exited the United Rubber Workers to accept a position as labor specialist with the U.S. Information Agency, where he remained for 19 years. The job required that he frequently travel overseas, and he seized the opportunity to employ music to transmit the message of the American labor movement to its foreign counterparts. In 1968 Glazer founded his own label, Collector, to release his own material (including the LPs Joe Glazer Sings Labor Songs, Glazer Sings Glazer, American Dream, and the 12" single "The Ballad of Bobby Fischer") as well as recordings from a new generation of singers/labor activists.
In 1979 Glazer invited 14 of those labor musicians to a three-day gathering at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, MD. The event was so successful that it yielded the annual Great Labor Arts Exchange and, in 1984, the formation of the Labor Heritage Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the musical history of the labor movement. In 1997 Glazer received the foundation's Joe Hill Award, and in 2001 he published his autobiography, Labor's Troubadour. In 2005, he donated the holdings and archives of Collector Records to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives. ~ Jason Ankeny