Song and sing-along was a major element of suffrage history, reflected by these historical suffrage era song books by and Charlotte Gilman and another by Henry Roby. The inaugural event at Riverside Art Museum is centered on a sing-along of a historic Suffragist-era song. Suffragists wrote the song while in prison. It tells the story of their experience and marks this historic turning point in the nearly century-long struggle to secure women’s right to vote, which directly led to the 19th amendment guaranteeing that right.
The song for the sing-along is called “We Worried Woody Wood.” It was written in 1917 while the suffragists were in prison for assembling in front of the white house and quoting from President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches. They were sent to jail but refused bail stating they had done nothing wrong and accepting bail would be accepting the legitimacy of their arrest. The suffragists also began a hunger strike, reflecting their non violence or passive resistance methods. During this time, the prisoners wrote a song. At night they would add another stanza highlighting an event from that day. They would sing the song to the accompaniment of a hair comb.
“Locked in separate cells, as in the District Jail, the suffragists could still communicate by song. The following lively doggerel to the tune of “Captain Kidd” was sung in chorus to the accompaniment of a hair comb. It became a saga. Each day a new verse was added, relating the day’s particular controversy with the prison authorities.” Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, 1920, P.151
The song details the narrative of their trials. Embedded in the lyrics are their strategies of humor, wit and non-violence. For example, they were denied proper clothing at night and in the song they respond by saying “so we froze,” rather than an aggressive or futilistic response, which literally speaks to their non-violence strategy in practice.
Another example is the phrase “Woody wood,” which refers to Woodrow Wilson. The meaning of “wood/would” has changed since 1917. “Wood” used to mean violently insane but that meaning is obsolete and the word as a sexual reference has become common. “We worried Woody Wood,” meant they worried him crazy or that he already was insane because of his treatment of them. The double meaning of wood (i.e. we worried woody, would he do something?) existed then as it does now.
When news got out that they were being mistreated, the white house was eventually pressured to release the prisoners. The song is one of the great American songs that should be known by every child in America along with its related history. It is, in short, a national treasure.