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City Council Honors Two of Brooklyn College's Best

Singer-Songwriter Joe Glazer, Class of '38, Dies at Age 88

Singer-Songwriter Joe Glazer

The singer-songwriter Joe Glazer, whose booming baritone voice took him from the classrooms of Brooklyn College to more than sixty countries around the globe and along the way earned him the title Labor's Troubador, died Tuesday at his home in Chevy Chase , Maryland . He was 88.

The cause of death was non-Hodgkins lymphoma, said his wife Mildred.

In 1950 Glazer and the Elm City Four became the first to record a version of the song that during the tumultuous Sixties would become the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” According to Mildred Glazer, the song had originally been a folk song and then a Baptist hymn before he helped popularize it as a labor union tune. In its earlier versions it began, “I Will Overcome,” she told the New York Times.

Besides belting out songs on picket lines, in union halls and even once on the White House lawn during the Carter administration, Glazer over the course of his long career recorded more than thirty albums, wrote a book on labor music, and helped give rise to a whole new generation of protest singers. Among his own compositions were the union classics “Automation” and “Too Old to Work.” Probably the best known of his pieces was “The Mill Was Made of Marble,” which he wrote in 1947.

Joe Glazer was born in Manhattan on June 19, 1918 , the son of immigrant parents whose father was a tailor in the International Garment Workers Union. He grew up listening to Gene Autry and other singing cowboys on 1930s radio. Buying a guitar for $5.98, he taught himself to play and sing their songs.

He went to James Madison High School , then attended Brooklyn College , graduating in 1938 with a bachelor of arts degree. He was the first in his family to finish college. Later he would continue his studies at the University of Wisconsin .

He was hired as a civilian radio instructor by the Army Air Corps after failing his draft physical. In 1942, he married the then Mildred Krauss, whom he had met at a summer camp in the Catskills where they were counselors. She said she was drawn to him after he led the camp counselors in a strike.

After the war and postgraduate studies Glazer joined the textile workers as an assistant education director. His boss suggested that he use music to sell the union's message to workers. The ploy worked. Glazer would continue to use it after he moved to the rubber workers union as education director.

In 1961 he joined the Kennedy administration as a labor information officer with the United States Information Agency, working under noted newscaster Edward R. Murrow. Later he moved to the State Department. Besides explaining America 's current events to foreigners, he made frequent trips overseas to sing protest songs.

In a 1981 interview, Glazer said that protest songs “use humor, they tell about terrible conditions, but you still have to be able to laugh and sing and tell a joke.”

Besides his widow, Glazer is survived by a brother, Nathan, professor of education and sociology, emeritus, at Harvard University ; a sister, Gail Klebanoss, of Verona , New Jersey ; a son, Daniel, of Northbrook , Illinois ; daughters Emily Glazer, of Silver Spring , Maryland , and Patti Glazer, of Asheville , North Carolina ; and four grandchildren.