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The 9:14?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2016 by johnpauloconnor

I’m on a train heading for NYC from Vermont. A while ago when we pulled into the station at Hartford, CT a thought suddenly occurred to me. I looked at my iPhone map. Sure enough. This is the same train line that passed my childhood home in Kensington, CT. I mean literally right past it. Across the street was a row of houses and the train went right by those back yards. When I was 6 or 7 the sound of that train heading for New York Town would lull me to sleep. I remember it as well as I remember my mother’s embrace. it had such an impression on me I wrote a song about that train called the 9:14 some 35 years ago. A few minutes past Hartford is the Berlin depot and shortly thereafter I’m looking at a row of back yards, and passing in a flash is the 200 year old house I once lived in, a ghost of my past.I wondered: Was there a child now in that house mesmerized by the sound of this train I was riding in?


Belated Farewell to Philip Levine

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2015 by johnpauloconnor

Philip Levine died last Valentine’s Day. He was 87, so we won’t call it an untimely death. But still, the news stung me. I was never willing to admit that I had a favorite poet for some reason. But I’ll be unabashed and just say that Phil was. And by a long shot for a few reasons, not all of which have to do with the skill of his writing. Being the working class crusader that I have been for so long, Phil’s work became obviously meaningful to me, the moment it fell into my lap in the 1990s. That was when I was looking, really looking, at poetry for the first time. I’d flirted with the enterprise of poetry since I was a teenager, but read very few of its’ practitioners and my attempts at writing poems were extremely naïve. Then, not long after I moved from Seattle to Western Massachusetts in a last ditch effort to save my folksinging career, I put the dipstick deep into the oil pan of poetry. I took some classes and started writing and learning the craft of free style verse.

In my younger days I had bumped into a few poets that had grabbed me. Carl Sandburg and his microscope of working class Chicago moved me when I was a teen and Kenneth Patchen got under my skin in my twenties. I don’t know how I came across Patchen, but I warmed to his tropes against the status quo and his affinity to the revolutionary voices and movements of his time. And his writing style seemed rebellious and revolutionary. He wasn’t a Beat, but he had something in him that had the same music as the Beats. But I didn’t go beyond that. I didn’t read Ginsburg or Ferlinghetti, for instance. I was too busy with my musical heroes, Woody Guthrie, Jack Elliott, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian Tyson, to have more than one poet at a time. By the time I had moved to Seattle and had settled into the cultural imprint in the northwest, I discovered Richard Hugo’s poems and the work of Tess Gallagher, poetry that wasn’t particularly political but pulled at my poetic sensibilities. I was writing straight up ballads about working people, laced with agitprop messages. But the little poetry that I was reading moved me in ways that songs didn’t.

When I got to Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1989, my musical career was in steep decline (not that it had ever hit any great heights) and I think I must have subconsciously been looking for a way to soften the blow of the great crash that was about to happen as far as my music and my disillusionment of the terrain I had been trying to navigate. I turned to poetry. First I took a night class at the University of Massachusetts and then I became part of the non-academic workshop scene in the Pioneer Valley north of Amherst and Northampton. I began reading a lot of poets; Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, Anna Akhmatova, Rainer Rilke and then closer to home and time, Galway Kinnell, Alan Dugan, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Ai, Stanley Kunitz, May Swenson, to name a few. When I came across Philip Levine’s poetry, a convergence of a sort took place in the creative workshop of my soul. I walked into a world that this great poet built out of factory filings and mystical alchemy.

You will be hard pressed to find the word, “union” in any of Phil’s work. (I’ll call him Phil because he spoke of himself in the familiar and made good use of the familiar in both his art and in his teaching.) So, why is someone who devotes his life to the labor movement drawn to a poet who writes about the Detroit working class without ever mentioning anything about the UAW? Phil’s poetry may not be concerned with the union struggle, although he is peripherally concerned with working class revolution, as evidenced in his poems that use the background of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. But his main concern is with the connections among working class Americans and how they reach for a sort of communism of the soul on the factory floor and in the bars and parking lots that are peripheral to the industrial web. Consider the woman in the poem Leviticus, who is making her way home from the swing shift at 2 AM: “Even before you washed up and changed your shirt/ Maryk invited you for a drink. You sat in the back,/ Maryk and his black pal Williams in the front/ as the bottle of Seven Crown passed slowly/ from hand to hand, even slow circuits/ until it was empty and Maryk opened/ the driver’s side door and placed the dead soldier/ carefully bottom-side down on the tarmac…”

Which poets are adept enough to put a woman in a car with two uneducated working class men and give her the dignity she deserves without sounding preachy or polemical? The scene of almost ritualistic communion comes off as natural as the night sky that Phil brings into the poem toward its end, the stars “Those tiny diamonds, though almost undone,/having been watching over your house and your kids”. Or to put into the poetic cast the fathers of fourth grade children in Among Children? Their backs “have thickened/how their small hands soiled by pig iron,/leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like/to sit down among them and read slowly/ from The Book of Job until the windows/pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea/of industrial scum, her gowns streaming/with light her foolish words transformed/ into song…”

I wouldn’t know what Phil’s politics were. I never had the chance to talk to him and he kept his remarks to poetics anytime I heard him speak about poetics. Once when meeting with the poet Mark Doty, he asked me if I’d ever had an opportunity to have a beer with Philip Levine, as if this were the proper way to meet with Phil. This was in Johnson, Vermont when I was attending my first writer’s residency. Mark was the visiting poet and all residents had an hour with the master poet. Mark saw some Levine in my poems. He also mentioned others, but he asked if I had read Philip Levine and I told him, jokingly, that I wanted to BE Philip Levine. But had I had a chance to have a beer with him, I might have been disappointed to find out what Phil’s politics were. Or maybe not. It’s not clear. Some poets and writers find it necessary to stand a certain distance from letting on what their politics are outright and Phil might have been one of them. I suspect he was an anarchist, as were some of his heroes of the Spanish Revolution, which was chiefly an anarchist revolution.

It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Politics are politics and poetry is poetry. The words that are strung together in the lines of poetry float above politics and I don’t mean to say that they are not political. I still believe what I believed decades ago, that all art is political. What rises up is the intensified language that goes beyond analytical essays or sloganeering, though poetry is probably much closer to sloganeering, as sloganeering is a sort of poetry. Think: Bread and Roses. Now there is a slogan that is powerful and enduring, but not as powerful as, say, lines from Phil’s They Feed They Lion: “Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,/Out of black bean and wet slate bread,/Out of acids of rage, the candor of tar,/Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,/ They Lion grow.” I’m told that the poem came from the aftermath of the Detroit riots of the late 60s. I’ve only heard that reference once, so I’m not sure, but the suggestion did bring the poem out in more relief to me when I first heard it. Previously I had been happy to have the language of the poem wash over me without knowing the context, though the anger and the injustice are apparent in the poem, as is the setting of industrial toil and frustration. I once heard Galway Kinnell read the poem (it must have been the occasion of Phil’s 80th birthday and a number of poets read). Galway was as good a reader as Phil was, but Galway gave a power to the poem that Phil’s self-effacing way of reading couldn’t have got. It was a tremendous moment.

I’m thankful to have heard Galway read that poem while both poets were still alive. And I am grateful to have heard Phil read a few times. He read two or three poems one summer day in Bryant Park along with some twenty of the nation’s best known poets as a part of the New Yorker Festival. In the middle of one of the poems, the crashing thunder of a passing semi-trailer with failing mufflers on 42nd street drowned out a line and Phil stopped and looked toward the truck and said, “That fucking shit” in a plain unapologetic complaint that could only have been voiced by someone who has made his poetry out of the railing against the industrial machine. And then he went back to his reading.

I’m thankful to have shared a moment on a subway in Manhattan with Phil sitting across the aisle from me and a work colleague. Recognizing him on the subway was for me equal to someone else’s experience of seeing, oh, Paul McCartney. I had to share the experience with my colleague, Lucille. I began to explain. Then, as so often happens in New York on the subway, a passenger made some noisy public display (the specifics of which I can’t remember) that makes everybody turn their attention briefly to the present eccentricity. When the moment was over, Phil’s and my eyes met. I took the opportunity to make verbal contact. I said, “I’m trying to explain to my friend here who you are.” He smiled, “Any luck?” One moment having the briefest encounter with a man whose art I admired as much as anyone’s was something unforgettable. Forget Paul McCartney or even Bob Dylan. This was Phil Levine riding the same subway car I was riding. With a poet, it’s possible. The poet is never celebrity to the masses in this country.

I’ve heard and read about how Phil was a great teacher and those that studied with him at Fresno came away from the experience a different person. Working class students were inspired by his subject, his approach and his way of turning on some to the world of poetry that perhaps no one else could have. Someone referred to him ironically as the “father of Chicano poetry” because of how many Mexican American students became poets under his spell. I would have liked to have been in the classroom. But classrooms and I don’t get along very well. That’s the way it’s always been for me. Phil’s books of poems have been my classroom (as were the books of so many others from his decade.) I’m lucky to have been able to find a voice that in my head is Levinesque, but that no poets I’ve worked with have found out without me telling them. That’s the trick. Mimicking until you no longer sound like the music you’ve stolen from. Like anyone trying to find a voice, I’ve stolen from many. But Phil’s the guy whose writing gets closest to being the teacher I never had. I’m often found counting my regrets and one of them has been not to have found and studied poetry when I was younger. Reading Phil Levine’s work has made up for a good deal of that regret.

(Others whom I miss of that great decade are Galway Kinnell, Hayden Carruth, Adrianne Rich, Jack Gilbert and Mark Strand. The likes of which we will never hear again. Read them. Your soul will be there better for it.)

Notes on the Endurance of the American Labor Song Movement for May Day 2015

Posted in Uncategorized on May 7, 2015 by johnpauloconnor

If you look up Solidarity Forever on Wikipedia, you will learn that the famous labor song, perhaps the most famous of labor songs anywhere in the world other than the Internationale, was written a hundred years ago by Ralph Chaplin, a writer, artist and union activist. Chaplin was a Wobbly; in other words, a member of the radical union of the early twentieth century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). His song has been sung for a hundred years everywhere that union people gather for the cause of the working class, whether it be a union meeting or a strike (or an anti-war rally) and is often the song that is sung to close a union function or labor rally. It’s the We Shall Overcome of the labor movement.

At the last AFM Convention in the summer of 2013, shortly after the delegates had spent more than an hour showing their support for the locked out Minnesota Orchestra members by pledging thousands of dollars to the Minneapolis/St. Paul local union, a handful of delegates were recognized by President Hair. In the middle of the convention floor, they led their sister and brother delegates in singing Solidarity, many raising their arms and linking hands together. It’s an irresistible fall-back song because of its extremely accessible chorus, which is sung simply by repeating the words, “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Joe Hill may have been the most famous of the Wobbly songwriters, but Ralph Chaplin’s song had more endurance than anything Joe Hill wrote. If you ask union activists who Joe Hill is, they will surely recognize the name, but it’s Ralph Chaplin’s song they know.

Chaplin said he began writing the song in 1914 during a miner’s strike and finished the song in 1915. According to some historians, the first time the song was sung broadly was during the great lumber workers’ strike of 1917. The strike started in the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest and spread through Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. It was fitting that the song caught on here, since the IWW provided leadership and finances for the strike. The lumber workers were striking mostly for better working conditions and the eighth hour day and, though the workers were intimidated and their leaders were jailed, they persevered and won most of their demands.

(The strike is captured in an uncredited song written at the time called Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks, whose chorus pronounced: “Such a bunch of devils, that’s what the papers say/ They’ve gone on strike for shorter hours and some increase in pay/ They’ve left the camps, those lazy tramps/They all marched out as one/ They say they’ll win the strike or put the bosses on the bum.)

Chaplin was known for his utopian language in the songs he wrote. Solidarity Forever captured this spirit in its lyrics, along with the IWW’s program for a no-compromise strategy to win power for the workers. Consider the lyrics to this verse: “All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone/ We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone/ It is ours not slave in, but to master and to own/ For the union makes us strong.” Out of the six verses of the song, this verse is not usually sung. Most singers include no more than four verses when performing the song. But one of the most frequently sung verses is the last (but not the least radical) and iterates Chaplin’s and the Wobblies’ revolutionary vision: “In our hands is placed the power greater than their horded gold/ greater than the might of armies multiplied a thousand fold/ We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old/ For the union makes us strong”.

The song has had an interesting journey, being sung throughout the organizing of the CIO, the movement that brought many blue collar workers into middle class. The Almanac Singers, which included singers like Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, recorded Solidarity on the 1955 re-issue of their seminal album called Talkin’ Union. Joe Glazer, known as Labor’s Troubadour, put the song on as many as half a dozen albums. There have been surprising recorded renditions as well. In 1970 Leonard Cohen sang the song at a rally against the Viet Nam war, giving it a slow rolling amble that is characteristic of Cohen’s music . And more recently, Emcee Lynx recorded a hip-hop version of the song, using all six verses.

The universal characteristic of songs like Solidarity Forever is their lyrical glimpse into the times of turmoil in which they were written. Most labor songs have been written by the participants of the movements, many having lived their entire lives in poverty. These were not professional musicians by any means. Many of the Wobblies were amateur poets and opinion makers, using the labor and left press of the era to proselytize their message about class conflict. For each song written, one can find the struggle that went side by side.

As an example, a hobo and day worker, T-Bone Slim, was one of the Wobblies’ most prolific poets. He wrote the irreverent song The Popular Wobbly during the widely publicized “free speech fights” of the nineteen-teens. The Wobblies took to the soapbox as a sort of street corner lecture circuit, particularly in the Pacific Northwest; in cities like Spokane, Seattle and Portland. The movement gained its widest notoriety when scores of activists were jailed for their public speech, most notably in Spokane, where over a hundred free speech participants were arrested, attracting unionists, anarchists and socialists from around the country to make speeches as civil disobedience. T-Bone Slim’s song was sung to the tune of They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me: “Oh, the jailer went wild over me/ And he locked me up and threw away the key/ Oh it seems to be rage/ They keep me in a cage/ They went wild, simply wild, over me.”

The tradition of the Wobbly parodies and social commentaries was handed down through the mass movements of the twentieth century. Civil rights activists in the South during the sixties sang a version of The Popular Wobbly in the jails of Mississippi and Alabama. Maurice Sugar, who became active in the labor movement as a socialist at the height of the IWW movement wrote his Soup Song to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. It could easily be mistaken as a song by Joe Hill or T-Bone Slim: “I’m spending my nights in a flop house/ I’m spending my days on the street/ I’m looking for work but can’t find none/ I wish I had something to eat/ Soo-oup, soo-oup, they gave me a bowl of soup.” But Sugar’s most effective activism was during the CIO movement, as one of the first labor attorneys working for the United Auto Workers. He wrote a song that became immensely popular about the sit-down strikes that spread through the auto industry in the Great Depression: “When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk/ Sit down, sit down/ When the boss sees that, he’ll want a little chat/ Sit down, sit down.”

Woody Guthrie’s and Pete Seeger’s occupation with union songs quite likely was spurred by their association with Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland and Sarah Ogan Gunning, a singing family from the coal fields of eastern Kentucky. During the rise of the National Miners Union and the United Mineworkers of America, they wrote scores of songs using melodies that were popular with Appalachian Mountain people. Jackson wrote I Am A Union Woman with lyrics as strong as anything in literature: “The bosses ride their big white horses while we tramp through the mud/ Their banner is the dollar sign and ours is dipped in blood.” Another CIO era poet was John Hancox, an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. Hancox wrote the ever-present picket line song, ” Roll the Union On”, another song recorded on the 1955 Talking Union re-issue.

These examples of songs that have come from the struggles of the labor movement in the United States are but a few of an immense body. Labor activists have continued to write songs about labor struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the current era of the unions’ fight for their right to exist. But interestingly, musicians of today, when coming to the aid of working class struggles, whether it be in Wisconsin or on Wall Street or in the recording studio, rely heavily on the library of songs that came from the workers movements of the early twentieth century. For many decades to come, I’ll wager, we’ll continue to sing songs like Solidarity Forever and Roll the Union for their eloquence and simplicity. Because as long as musicians sing for justice, they will continue rediscover the great lyrics, music and poetry handed down through the years, as in the prophetic yearning of James Oppenheim poem, Bread and Roses: “As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day/ A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray/ Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses/ For the people hear us singing Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2014 by johnpauloconnor

The Legacy of Pete Seeger

It’s hard to think of Pete Seeger as gone. A man who took up the landscape in a very large way for 7 decades cannot not easily slip away from the way we become accustomed to great living people. Pete was a loyal member of the union of which I am now an officer, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, since 1942, when he began to make his indelible mark on the musical and political character of this land.

Being the dyed-in-the-wool folky that I am, I was barraged with questions about how I felt about Pete’s passing in the days following his death. In fact, it was not an easy question to answer. Though he was 94, the image of those long gangly arms wielding a mall to split firewood at his Beacon homestead made you think he was going to live well beyond the age of 100. In most cases, people who live into their 90s do not surprise us when they die. Not true of Pete Seeger. His songs are so deeply carved into our consciousness, it’s as if they had always been with us. How can there not have been songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I had a Hammer or Turn, Turn, Turn?

What was amazing about Pete Seeger is that these were  not just compositions to him; they were made up of what was essential to his great character and integrity, which people came to know as much as his music. Pete’s great commitment and conscience accomplished feats that rang in the American zeitgeist many times over. Anyone one of them would have given him a place in history. Here are, in my mind, the six monumental achievements of Pete Seeger’s life.

Union Singer

A radio interviewer asked me the day after Seeger died, “How did Pete become such a supporter of unions?” The question may as well have been, “How did the zebra first get his stripes?” Pete’s musical endeavors began at the height of the CIO movement that created the modern day labor movement. The album that he and Woody Guthrie made as the Almanac Singers, Talkin’ Union, was a touchstone of the days of mass industrial organizing and is still used today by singers mining for material to sing for unions. Pete’s partnership with Woody Guthrie and the travels they made to the West Coast, supporting unions with music along the way, are legendary.

Influence on Popular Music

Out of his musical partnerships on the political left came the unlikely popularity of the Weavers, the singing group Pete was a fundamental part of. Following a steady gig at the Village Vanguard, the Weavers brought Goodnight Irene, Leadbelly’s song, to number one on the charts for an impressive 13 weeks. The Weavers’ success (along with Harry Belafonte’s very popular calypso albums) led to the folk movement of the 1960s. Pete was seen as an undeniable leader of the popularity that followed. Peter, Paul and Mary’s first album, for example, selling more than a million copies, contained 2 of Pete Seeger’s songs, Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I had a Hammer.

Free Speech Fighter

Pete Seeger, in a manner few could muster the courage to do, defied the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) by refusing to testify during the shameful days of what was known as the McCarthy era. Seeger refused to answer any questions about his association with others, invoking his rights under the first amendment. This led to a conviction of contempt of congress, which was later overturned. Pete found it increasingly difficult to find work, having been blacklisted, as so many were during this period. But Pete took it with grace that was exemplary. Many artists who found themselves on the blacklist despaired. But Pete, though admittedly angry, took it in stride and continued to make his music when and wherever he could. His spirit never flagged and throughout the fifties continued to do concerts with the Weavers and to sing for schools, children’s camps and audiences of all kinds.

Freedom Singer

We Shall Overcome became the anthem of the American civil rights movement due to Pete’s influence. Guy Carawan brought the song to civil rights leaders at the Highlander Center, where people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks discussed the strategy of non-violent resistance. But Pete, more than anyone else, used his fame and influence, as well as his unforgettable delivery of the song, to give it the mainstay power we think of today. I have never been to a demonstration or rally of any kind where people are not moved tremendously when the song is sung. Seeger, along with numerous other folksingers, sang at countless events, marches and rallies throughout the civil rights era. Music was emblematic of the struggle and Pete claimed his natural place in the ranks of musicians who were there.


Countering the conventional wisdom that the Hudson River could not be cleaned up, Pete almost single handedly began a regional environmental movement by launching the Sloop Clearwater. Remarkably, while the left was rightly pre-occupied with civil rights and the Viet Nam war, Pete had the foresight and energy to take on the degradation of the environment, becoming a hands-on leader. The Clearwater, sailing up and down the Hudson, was an ingenious way to organize and publicize the spoiling of the environment. And of course, whatever the event, it always involved music. Pete’s efforts helped lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, compelling the giant, General Electric, to dredge the PCBs it had deposited in the Hudson River.

Spiritual Leader

I know of no other celebrity (despite Pete’s disgust of the idea, he was a celebrity) who was as accessible as Pete was. He answered all his mail personally, a task that would take a full time staff person for most people. I have never known anyone in the New York City left and activist circles who does not have a personal recollection of Pete Seeger, either from a concert, a children’s summer camp or just a neighbor’s living room. People admired Pete Seeger because he embodied an ideal that very few could reach. (When he rejected Soviet style Communism for its treachery, he said he would always be a communist with a small “c”.)He would never say no to a request to help out with a good cause. His optimism about the future might seem naïve to many, but Pete’s tenacity would demonstrate to them otherwise. Who else would have taken on the pollution of one of America’s major rivers? And win? He believed unflaggingly in the power of people through grass-roots organization, supporting unions, community activism and small organizations that took on powerful giants. Through Pete’s example, we learned that we could win against all odds. It was his leadership and influence through example that set him apart.

There’s no one to fill Pete’s shoes. He comes from an era when a singer with a guitar or a banjo could stand in front of an audience and keep them enrapt for hours. After his voice gave out, he could still put on a concert by having the audience sing the lyrics, harmonies and all. I knew Pete mostly through union activity, though he passed on some of my songs to other singers. When Local 1000, the AFM local that I helped organize for touring folk musicians got its charter, Pete was first in line, wanting us to call the union the un-local. He was fond of saying, “If we humans are around in a hundred years, it will be because of music.” That may sound optimistic if you ignore the “if”. Pete knew the world he lived in. If it were left up to him, the “if” wouldn’t be a qualifier. Now it’s up to us to carry on. Thankfully, Pete showed us how.




Events from 100 Years Ago Illustrate the Power of Song and Art

Posted in Uncategorized on November 8, 2013 by johnpauloconnor

“Take a trip with me in 1913 to Calumet Michigan and the copper country…” are the opening lines of one of the most haunting, powerful and depressing songs in the Woody Guthrie catalogue. I learned the song from a recording by Jack Elliot, who is still to this day the best interpreter of Woody Guthrie songs. The ballad is the telling of a real event in Michigan history when on Christmas Eve in 1913 miners and their families gathered in Italian Hall for a holiday party. As Guthrie’s ballad tells it, “copper boss thugs” yelled “fire!” from outside the hall and in the ensuing moments the crowd rushed for the door at the bottom of a set of stairs where the thugs outside held the door shut, causing some 73 people, mostly children, to smother to death.

What is remarkable about this song and the story is that no one really knows exactly what happened on that tragic night outside of the fact that the deaths did occur and someone did yell “fire”. For decades a version of the facts that contradicted Guthrie’s lyric had it that the doors at the bottom of the stairs opened inward, preventing the victims from fleeing from the building. This is what the local press reported. But the local press, according to Steve Lehto’s 2006 book, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder, was controlled by the mine owners. Lehto’s investigation while writing the book showed that the doors opened outward (supported by photos), contrary to myth so prevalent that a state historical marker declared it fact.

If it’s true that the establishment press denied the culpability of the “copper boss thugs”, what is undeniable is the power of Woody Guthrie’s song and how it brought the miner’s version of the story to forefront of popular culture. Thousands of Americans (not to mention Woody Guthrie fans from around the globe) know no other history of this event than the one Guthrie tells. So the copper industry, with all their wealth, in the end lost the propaganda battle to a song that has been handed down to us through the singing of a few folk musicians. Steve Lehto’s book goes a long way to back up Woody Guthrie’s version of the event, though he is careful to point out the inaccuracies in the Guthrie song.

This year is also the centennial of an event that led to one of the most infamous union tragedies of the twentieth century. Miners went out on strike in late 1913 in Colorado for recognition of their union and basic wage demands. Spurred by the murder of a union organizer by a guard working for the detective company known as Baldwin-Felts, the strike grew violent and the governor sent in troops to suppress the miners. The violence culminated in what is known as the Ludlow Massacre, when the state militia strafed the miners’ tent colony and set it on fire. “Eleven children and two women were smothered in the flames,” according to Philip Taft’s The AFL in the Time of Gompers. Again, many know the history of this tragedy from a Woody Guthrie song, The Ludlow Massacre, which numerous singers have recorded, bringing the tale to thousands.

The ballads that Woody Guthrie sings are ballads in the traditional sense of the word, where a story is told in verses and makes fable out of true events in history. Woody Guthrie was a master of this art form. Both ballads take their time leading to the tragic turns in each piece, slowly setting the scene and pulling the listener into the story and creating an emotional bond between the listener and the subjects of the ballad. By the end of each of these ballads the listener can’t help be saddened and enraged.

The intelligentsia of Greenwich Village in the year of 1913 may have used some of the same approaches when they hosted a pageant to tell the story of the silk weavers who were on strike against the silk mills in Paterson, New Jersey that year. The great pageant was put on in Madison Square Garden. At this point in history, there was a convergence of movements that contributed to a strong solidarity effort between the strikers and artists and intellectuals in New York. The feminist and suffrage movement was in full swing and people like Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn got involved. In addition, the art movement, which was in the throes of change, more often than not was seen in concert with the political revolutionary movements of the time, including the plight of labor and the activity of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who were brought in to lead the strike. The eight-hour day movement was in full swing and the Paterson strikers made a shorter work day one of their demands. The strike was inspiring for the use of songs and humor from each ethnic group of workers involved.

The strike ended badly but the pageant was a huge success. John Reed, who wrote “Ten Days That Shook the World”, organized the pageant with the backing of Mabel Dodge, a well known patron of the arts at the time. John Sloan, the founder of the Ashcan art movement, painted a 90 foot backdrop depicting the mills of Paterson and strikers were brought in to help dramatize the story. The sold out extravaganza ended with thousands of workers singing the Internationale.

Today, the Botto House in Haledon, NJ, where IWW leaders staged massive rallies for the strikers, is the home of the American Labor Museum. A permanent exhibit of the strike features photos and artifacts from this important chapter of labor history. I recommend a visit. It’s just across the Hudson River. Standing in front of the photos in the exhibit inside this house where Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addressed the throngs from the balcony gives one the sense of the greatness of this chapter in labor history.

“Woody at 100,” by John Paul O’Connor

Posted in Uncategorized on June 12, 2012 by johnpauloconnor

It was not my ambition to become a musician. It was my mother’s, who majored in music and piano at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. When I was in seventh grade I was handed a trumpet and enrolled in school band and private lessons. But what I really loved was singing, and when my older sister’s boyfriend came over one evening to serenade her with a Gordon Lightfoot song in 1961, I couldn’t shake the image of this jeans clad teenager strumming and singing with ease and suaveness. This was my “cool.”

Lightfoot was the first of many who I discovered on the folk scene, though they were not easy to come by in the culturally deprived river factory towns of Eastern Iowa. I read Carl Sandburg and romanticized the industrial toughness of blue collar work and the wandering life of the traveling day-worker and hobo. In 1963 my younger sister received a $14 Silvertone guitar for her birthday. I picked it up, learned a few chords from a schoolmate and she never saw her guitar again. I discovered the songs of Woody Guthrie on a Kingston Trio record my parents bought with the family’s first hi-fi. It took me a while to get to the Asch recordings of Woody Guthrie, but when I did, I was completely hypnotized and immediately began listening to every recording I could get my hands on and read almost everything he wrote that was published. I saw him as America’s literary genius outsider. When you’re a teenager, outsider is everything. At age 17, I traded in my trumpet for a Guild and broke my mother’s heart.

Though I never planned on it, the romance of the industrial life became real to me when I went to work in a factory in Waterloo, supporting a baby daughter and a wife, who was getting her college degree. I became immersed in union politics and Woody Guthrie took on more meaning. Music and the labor movement were inseparable to me. I was singing his songs and the songs he sang with the Almanac singers two decades before my time. It was as if Woody was my guardian angel as I began experimenting with songwriting with the objective of adding to the mythology of the folksongs that came before me. That’s what had been happening for a full decade before I discovered the folk song movement. Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie and of course, Bob Dylan.

Woody didn’t invent the twentieth century art of the topical folk ballad. Others were fine practitioners. Just one strain was the singers from the Appalachian coal fields. Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan Gunning and Jim Garland were doing exactly what Woody Guthrie was doing. But Woody was amazingly prolific and versatile and set off a spark when he came to New York to meet the intelligentsia of Greenwich Village. Moe Asch and Alan Lomax understood the gravity of what Woody was spreading around and they immortalized it on vinyl. The folk revival of the 40s and 50s would have been lackluster without the input of Woody Guthrie.

There is nothing in the record to indicate that Guthrie was ever a member of the musicians’ union. But he was steeped in the labor movement and did much to contribute to the myth that it was a singing movement. For the most part it wasn’t. But the power of the songs left an indelible mark. Woody, with his creations, raised the working class to heroic stature with songs like Deportees, Hard Travelin’, Pastures of Plenty and Roll On Columbia. He was the quintessential Everyman socialist, democrat, anti-fascist, patriotic, hard scrabble unionist that caused John Steinbeck to write, “He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people.”

Every singer songwriter who ever strapped a guitar around his or her shoulders owes a great debt to Woody Guthrie, whether they know it or not. Without Guthrie there would be no Dylan, no Beatles, no Springsteen. When Dylan fused rock and roll with folk he did it with Woody Guthrie’s welding arc. I suspect that’s why so many of the great rockers pay such great homage to Guthrie.

It is said that Woody wrote This Land Is Your Land in critical response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth, it could be said that he was the twentieth century’s second Irving Berlin. He was just as prolific and influential. He, more than anyone, gave license to songwriters to find strength in being hard-edged and unpolished, creating a new American songbook. But more, he inspired generations with his personal story, which began and ended in tragedy, while maintaining an undefeatable optimism. I would submit that in our current epoch, there is nothing more necessary.