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The Henry Foner Catalogue:

At 90 years of age, Henry Foner is the ultimate hyphenate: labor leader – historian – newspaper editor – teacher – lecturer – humorist – social activist and songwriter.

Whether for a Rebellion, Revolution and Reform conference, or a birthday gathering, Henry has been on hand to perform an original parody that illustrates the political landscape being addressed. He’s never without musical commentary whether it’s for an audience of one or 100. It was therefore appropriate that on Henry’s 85th birthday, his friend Pete Seeger was on hand to sing to him.

Henry Foner
Henry Foner

Here, Henry’s lyrics tell the story of the plight of the substitute teacher. In the 1930s, the Board of Education virtually stopped assigning permanent appointments. Instead, for as long as a decade, permanent subs were exploited and had to endure, as Henry recalled, "being transferred from one school to another without receiving paid holidays, vacations or other benefits, and teaching out of license, while awaiting a so-called ‘regular’ appointment."

Henry passed all the Board of Education tests for a teacher of stenography and typewriting, and, because he, along with his three brothers, were victims of a notorious witch-hunt, he was not appointed and became a substitute awaiting one of the permanent slots while serving in the Army. "The Teachers Union," he said, "had a Substitutes’ Committee that worked on getting appointments for prospective teachers, and I joined. It was in the late 1930s that I wrote the "Lament of a Substitute" to the music of Abel Meeropol’s hit song, "The House I Live In." The latter was sung by Frank Sinatra in a musical short that became the epitome of our country’s World War II war aims and that was played in theatres throughout the country. "The lyrics to Henry’s parody went:

Lament of a Substitute



What is a substitute to me?
A name – a job – a mockery.
A certain word: 
poverty! That is a substitute to me.


The school I teach in –
The children side by side –
Still going to the same school
Where their grandpas lived and died.
The little church I pray in for each maternity
And a new job each semester –
That's a substitute to me.

The class I teach at –
Forty students strong.–
Three kids sitting in each seat,
And the benches ain't too long.

The salary they pay me,
With no vacations free.
And the teaching out-of-license –
That's a substitute to me.

No pay for Lincoln's Birthday – 
For Washington's, the same –
For Armistice, Thanksgiving,
And the others I could name.
A Board that won't appoint me,
In spite of all my tears.
And a list that I have been on
For ten or fifteen years.

The Teachers' Union –
The best damned friend I've got –
Where teachers get together
And learn what the hell is what.
For jobs for all the teachers –
For schools that could be free –
For a people's education –
That's the Union – that's for me!

Henry also rediscovered one of the songs he had written for the American Student Union (ASU) revue, "Pens & Pencils" when it was first produced in the 1930s. The personnel of Pens and Pencils were mostly students, but it also used such performers as Pete Seeger and Irwin Corey and musical numbers like –The General and the Goats,– by Saul Arons and Mike Stratton.

Shakin' the Dies

(About you know who(m).  (For those of you who don’t …,_Jr.)


There's a guy from down in Texas –
Terrorizin' both the sexes –
Tryin' to go around and paint the whole town "red."
If you learn this brand now pastime,
You can make sure it's the last time
That anyone would rather be Dies than dead!


First you move in the groove with the proper inflection,
Then everybody starts to rise.
Your left foot tap and your fingers snap –
Then start shakin' the Dies.

You get hep and you step in a forward direction
And then you watch the folks get wise.
Then you all steer clear of that Texas steer –
That's how we're shakin' the Dies.

When the word gets 'roun' that he's comin' to town,
You don't have to head for Philly.
There's no need to hide or to swallow your pride –
Just step right up and make him look silly!

So let's slip him a tip in the '40 election
And put an end to all his lies.
When he hops a freight for the Lone Star State,
We'll have shaken the Dies (Come 'seven')
We'll have shaken the Dies!

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