Waldheim, The Historical May Day, and The Tactics of Today — Lew Rosenbaum

Waldheim, The Historical May Day, and The Tactics of Today

300,000 workers demonstrated throughout the United States on May 1, 1886,  40,000 of them in Chicago.  The story doesn’t begin here and doesn’t end here.  But this is what May Day commemorates for the working class of the world — the battle to limit the working day to 8 hours.   Four days later, in response to police killings of workers on strike on the South side of Chicago, a few hundred workers assembled in Haymarket Square — corner of DesPlaines and Randolph — to hear a list of speakers decry the rule of the employers, the exploitation of the workers.  Mayor Harrison, after observing the peaceful and dwindling numbers of about 200 at the rally about to break up at 10 pm, left the scene instructing the police to end their surveillance. However the police chief massed 176 officers at the edge of the rally and, under circumstances to this day uncertain, a bomb was thrown and the resultant melee left police and protesters dead and wounded.  In the aftermath, eight anarchist labor activists — 7 of them immigrants, most of them never even at the rally — were arrested, tried,  convicted and 5 sentenced to execution.

One, Louis Lingg, presumably killed himself in his cell.  The other four condemned to die were hanged on November 11, 1987, all appeals exhausted.  The gruesome fact is that they struggled at the end of the rope for more than 7 minutes, twitching while the noose strangled the last element of life from them.  Their bodies were returned to their families where they remained in state in their coffins, tens of thousands of Chicagoans filed by to pay their respect.  Then, at noon on November 13, thousands of workers proceeded down Milwaukee Avenue picking up the caskets from the families along the way, beginning with August Spies who had lived farthest away.  Historian Bill Adelman, in Haymarket Revisited, puts the number of onlookers at half a million.  From downtown Chicago the mourners took the train 10 miles west to Forest Home Cemetery (German Waldheim), where they were buried.

I return here to the struggle for the 8 hour day, what seems something almost prosaic, defined in numbers.  Something as abstract as the concept of the working day.  How  do you

At the 100th anniversary in 1986

describe the working day?  What are its parameters?  Clearly the chronological limits are 24 hours at its maximum and approaching zero at its minimum.  There is of course a natural limit to the working day.  You can’t keep someone working 24 hours every day without killing the worker.  A worker who does not produce the minimum in value that is required to keep him or her alive starves to death.  Somewhere in between lies the length of the working day, and the struggle between capital and labor can be captured in that battleground.  While some have characterized this as the fight for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.  Others as the fight for the workers’ fair share.  What’s fair is an ideological construct that sets the environment.  But the essence of this contest remains the requirement to limit the surplus value sucked, “vampire-like” as Marx says, from the arteries of the working class.  It’s a tug of war, sometimes pulling one way, other times pulling another, the ground shifting one way or the other.  As long as workers are engaged in production this  rope in the tug of war to determine the terms for the sale of labor power is something that neither side can possibly let go.

For the worker it is a matter of survival, a desperation that mere numbers, hours, percentages cannot evoke.  Beneath those numbers, the flesh and blood brought the workers in their hundreds of thousands out of their homes to look on and to take part in the funeral of 5 Haymarket martyrs (the other 3 were transferred to Joliet to serve out prison terms and were pardoned by John Peter Altgeld, Illinois governor, in 1893).

A number of sources indicate that Waldheim, the German non-denominational cemetery where the martyrs were buried, was chosen because it had no connection to an institution or church. The land had been used in part as burial grounds by the native people (one burial mound is preserved on the land today).  Following the Blackhawk War and the “Treaty of Chicago,” the native people (Pottawatomie) were driven west into exile.  The land was purchased by farmers and became used as a convenient place for laying Chicago’s deceased to rest, as health reasons convinced authorities in Chicago to prohibit more cemeteries within city limits. When the 3 surviving members of the Haymarket 8 died, they were also buried at Waldheim.  Since then, many labor activists and others have been buried here as well.  For a more complete history of Waldheim and the surrounding cemeteries, click here

Emma Goldman was buried here, as were many labor activists, anarchists and communists

In 1889, AFL president Samuel Gompers wrote to the first congress of the Second International, which was meeting in Paris. He informed the world’s socialists of the AFL’s plans and proposed an international fight for a universal eight-hour work day. In response to Gompers’s letter the Second International adopted a resolution calling for “a great international demonstration” on a single date so workers everywhere could demand the eight-hour work day. In light of the Americans’ plan, the International adopted May 1, 1890 as the date for this demonstration.

A secondary purpose behind the adoption of the resolution by the Second International was to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and other workers who had been killed in association with the strikes on May 1, 1886. Historian Philip Foner writes “[t]here is little doubt that everyone associated with the resolution passed by the Paris Congress knew of the May 1st demonstrations and strikes for the eight-hour day in 1886 in the United States … and the events associated with the Haymarket tragedy.”

The first international May Day was a spectacular success. The front page of the New York World on May 2, 1890 was devoted to coverage of the event. Two of its headlines were “Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in All the Trade Centers of the Civilized World” and “Everywhere the Workmen Join in Demands for a Normal Day. The Times of London listed two dozen European cities in which demonstrations had taken place, noting there had been rallies in Cuba, Peru and Chile. Commemoration of May Day became an annual event the following year. (The Haymarket Affair)

A monument to the Haymarket Martyrs was erected in 1893.  Since then the area has been declared a national historical monument:

One of the most recent scenes in the dramas of Haymarket was the ceremony on May 3, 1998, marking the designation of the Waldheim monument site as a National Historic Landmark. Landmark status had been approved in 1997, and the plaque placed near the monument explained that it “represents the labor movement’s struggle for workers’ rights.” Once again the speakers were dominated by labor leaders, with the keynote address given by the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who criticized the latest instances of what he termed corporate greed and disregard for the welfare of workers. Present also were descendants of the martyrs, a representative of the National Park Service, the combined German-American Chorus of Chicago, and the German consul.

There are two things left to talk about here, that take this from the realm of a history lesson and pose some real questions of strategy and tactics for today’s movement.

The Haymarket Martyrs were immigrants, nearly all of them. They had come to the US from Europe looking for a better life, and were trade unionists.  They were propagandists, dedicated to introducing new ideas into a burgeoning working class movement, swelled by a Civil War that put an end to chattel slavery.  It was Marx who said that “labor in the white skin could not emancipate itself, so long as labor in the black skin was branded.” He went on: “the first fruit of the American Civil War for the abolition of slavery was the agitation for the eight-hour day, a movement which raced from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California with the seven-league boots of the modern locomotive.” Immigrants have  once again sparked a movement which has touched every section of our country, this time from Pacific to Atlantic.  Many of the immigrant marchers of recent May Days, along the parade route that took them past Haymarket Square, knew of the significance of May Day even if they were unaware of the hallowed ground on which they trod. And once again they are being squeezed by a tug of war:  this time often a tug of war from which they (along with their brothers and sisters in the countries from which they came) have been permanently excluded.

The second point is the matter of numbers.  That zero we referred to earlier.  From the introduction of machinery into production, the time necessary for workers to produce an equivalent value for their survival has dropped.  That is called “productivity.”  For a time, as long as the market of purchasers could increase, “productivity” could expand.  In order to gain a temporary advantage over competitors, corporations strive to increase productivity.  If for the corporation the ideal number would appear to be zero for necessary labor time (everything is surplus value), it means absolute starvation for workers or — workers that do not eat, wear clothes, take coffee breaks or need health care.  That is what immigrant workers and public sector workers alike are competing with:  an era of electronics and robotics that have made many categories of workers obsolete.  This puts the teacher, the sanitation worker, the auto worker, the garment worker on a par in terms of replacement. This is why the rhetoric for improved education is matched equally by deteriorating public schools that are no longer expected to fill the factories and and offices.

A new movement is about to be liberated, birthed. And if the one of the late 1800s moved with the speed of the “seven league boots of the modern locomotive,”  the new movement will move with a multiple of that speed, the speed of gigabytes on silicon chips, and what is loosing this energy is the chain reaction that separates labor from its time immemorial tug of war with its exploiter.

On this 125th anniversary of May Day, it’s time to rededicate ourselves, but not to the old tug of war. It is time to do different things,  to recognize the new nodal point at which we stand, to introduce the new ideas of our own era. Paying homage to the Haymarket martyrs does not mean bowing to nostalgia. It means recognizing the way that they broke with shackles of their times to migrate into their new era.  There is a metaphorical way in which we are now all immigrants.  The borderline on which we stand is the end of the era dominated by corporate-private-property, on the verge of potential economic abundance.  We must move, we must emigrate, but we cannot run away.  No matter what, the people must reorganize society in their interest, or corporations will  organize society to destroy humanity. The fate of humanity depends on what we do.

In addition to the sources in the text above, the following are essential resources:

Haymarket Revisited, William J Adelman (Illinois Labor History Society, 2004)

Haymarket Scrapbook, Franklin Rosemont and David Roediger, (Charles H Kerr, 1986)

Kenneth Rexroth Remembers Waldheim, Where The Haymarket Martyrs are Buried

AGAIN AT WALDHEIM

“Light upon Waldheim”
—Voltairine de Cleyre on the Haymarket martyrs

How heavy the heart is now, and every heart
Save only the word drunk, power drunk
Hard capsule of the doomed. How distraught
Those things of pride, the wills nourished in the fat
Years, fed in the kindly twilight of the books
In gold and brown, the voices that had little
To live for, crying for something to die for.
The philosophers of history,
Of dim wit and foolish memory,
The giggling concubines of catastrophe —
Who forget so much — Boethius’ calm death,
More’s sweet speech, Rosa’s broken body —
Or you, tough, stubby recalcitrant
Of Fate.

Now in Waldheim where the rain
Has fallen careless and unthinking
For all an evil century’s youth,
Where now the banks of dark roses lie,
What memory lasts, Emma, of you,
Or of the intrepid comrades of your grave,
Of Piotr, of “mutual aid,”
Against the iron clad flame throwing
Course of time?
Your stakes were on the turn
Of a card whose face you knew you would not see.

You knew that nothing could ever be
More desperate than truth; and when every voice
Was cowed, you spoke against the coalitions
For the duration of the emergency —
In the permanent emergency
You spoke for the irrefutable
Coalition of the blood of men.

—Kenneth Rexroth

Book & CD: Road To Rembetika

From new Roots & Rhythm email (rootsandrhythm.com)
ROAD TO REMBETIKA by Gail Holst Traditional Crossroads 6006 $19.98 Book/ CD combination – Book: Paper, 190 pages; CD – 17 tracks, 57 mins; Essential
What a fantastic new release. “Road To Rembetika” was originally published in 1975 but still remains the definitive work on the music in English. Holst is an Australian writer and musician who fell in love with the music and travelled to Greece in 1965 to study and play the music and in the process met many of the still living legendary figures in the music. The first half the book discusses the historical, political and sociological origins of the music, its musical characteristics and instrumentation. In addition it recounts Holst’s adventures in tracking down the music and its practitioners and provides an eminently readable account of this great music which has many parallels with American blues. The second half the book is a selection of rembetika songs transcribed in Greek and English and the text includes period photos, musical examples and original manuscripts of songs. This is the fourth edition from 2006 which features the same basic text with corrections, new introduction and revised bibliography and discography. And now the book comes with a soundtrack including a CD with 17 tracks – all but one of them referenced in the text, featuring classic performances by Rosa Eskenazi, Stelakis Perpinades, Stratos Payioumdzis, Yorgos Batis, Kosatas Roukanis, Sotiria Bellou (described by Holst as “the Bessie Smith of rembetika”),  Vassilis Tsitsanis and others reproduced with superb sound. If you have any interest at all in rembetika this is absolutely indispensible and if you don’t, you will once you read this book and listen to the music. (FS)

The Road To Rembetika – Music of a Greek Sub-culture – Book & CD

Music of a Greek Sub-culture, songs of Love, Sorrow and Hashish by Gail Holst This 190-page book by Cornell Mediterranean Studies Scholar, Gail Holst, is the first and most thorough account of the music known as Rembetica. Songs that were sung in the poor quarters of Smyrna, Istanbul and the ports of Greece in the late 19th century and became the popular bouzouki repertoire of the 19302 – 1950’s have been described as analogous of with American Blues. Like the Blues, Rembetica was the music of the outsiders, who developed their own slang and their own forms of expression. Road to Rembetica is the first book in English to attempt a general survey of the world of the “rembetes” who smoked hashish and danced the passionate, introspective “zebebekiko” to release their emotions. Includes the words and translations to over 80 classic sngs. And 40 photos taken on site of composers, performers and some examples of actual music notes written by the composer’s onw hands. The companion CD includes 17 tracks by the Legends of Rembetika, including performances by Sortira Bellou, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Kostas Roukounas, Rosa Eskenazi, Markos Vamvakaris, Stratos Payioumdzis, Yorgos Batis, Markos, Kalfopoulos and others. Digitally remastered from the original 78 records. 1. Down in Lemonadiko (The Pick-pockets) by Vangelis Papazoglu, performed by Rosa Eskenazi 2. Hariklaki by Panayiotis Toundas, performed by Rosa Eskenazi 3. The Voice of the Hookah, by Vangelis Papazoglu, performed by Stelakis Perpiniades 4. Make it Stravros, written and performed by Markos Vamvakaris, 5. Secretly in a Boat (Zeimbekano Spaniola) written and performed by Stratos Payioumdzis, 6. Frankosyrian Girl, written and performed by Markos Vamvakaris, 7. The Stoker, written and performed by Yorgos Batis, 8. The Dew, by Vassilis Tsitsanis, performed by Tsitsanis & Stratos Payioumdzis. 9. The Bomb, written and performed by Kostas Roukounas, 10. Night Without Moon, by Apostolos Kaldaras, performed by Stella Haskil, 11. Some Mother Sighs, by Vassilis Tsitsanis, performed by Stella Haskil, 12. Cloudy Sunday, written and performed by Vassilis Tsitsanis, 13. The Carriage Goes Past, by Vassilis Tsitsanis, performed by Markos, Kalfopoulos, Tsitsanis, 14. Make Up a Bed, written and performed by Vassilis Tsitsanis with R. Dalia, singer, 15. When I Die on the Boat, by Babis Bakalis, performed by Sotiria Bellou, 16. When you Drink in the Taverna, written by Vassilis Tsitsanis, performed by Sotiria Bellou, 17. Captain Andreas Zeppos, by Yannis Papaioannou, performed by Sotiria Bellou, “…an excellent and very sympathetic study about as aspect of Greek culture of which we knew virtually nothing. Quite obviously the music is, in meaning and purpose if not in sound, very close to blues.” Paul Oliver, Blues Historian and scholar

Re-Enactment Of Haymarket Massacre April 30, 2011

Several events took place to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Haymarket, the even that spurred the May Day holiday. This is one of them. The photos are of the actual reenactment April 30, 2011.

The meeting 125 years ago had been peaceful and was coming to a conclusion about 10 pm. Mayor Carter Harrison, who was in the crowd, walked to the police station nearby and told the chief to send his forces home. Instead, the chief dispatched 176 officers to the scene. Here, marching across Randolph, North on DesPlaines, these "police" retrace the steps of the officers who attacked the 200 people left in the square 125 years ago

The wagon that is part of the sculpture in Haymarket Square reprises the makeshift platform from which the speakers addressed the crowd 125 years ago. Actors portraying the Haymarket martyrs and Lucy Parsons addressed the reenactment crowd.

Historian Tim Samuelson narrated the reenactment, pointing out the points of historic interest along the way. As the evening wore on 125 years ago, it began to rain and people talked about moving the rally to Zepf Hall (some of the crowd had actually gone there before the police charged). This is a picture of the building, still standing, that was then Zepf Hall.


The Haymarket monument sculpted by Mary Brogger was placed in Haymarket Square in 2004, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines

Gauley Bridge, West Virginia 76 Years Ago

[A year ago a West Virginia mine explosion shocked the nation.  No new legislation has been passed to protect workers, no criminal sentences have been handed down to punish the corporations responsible.  It may be shocking, but it's not surprising, as the story below shows.  There is a long and dishonorable tradition of ignoring workers health and safety.]

1500 Doomed”: People’s Press Reports on the Gauley Bridge Disaster

The deadly lung disease silicosis is caused when miners, sandblasters, and foundry and tunnel workers inhale fine particles of silica dust—a mineral found in sand, quartz, and granite. In 1935, approximately 1,500 workers—largely African Americans who had come north to find work—were killed by exposure to silica dust while building a tunnel in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Ordinarily, silicosis takes a several years to develop, but these West Virginia tunnel workers were falling ill in a matter of months because of exposure to unusually high concentrations of silica dust. The crisis over silicosis suddenly became a national issue, as seen in this article in the radical newspaper Peoples’ Press. In 1936 congressional hearings on the Gauley Bridge disaster, it was revealed that company officials and engineers wore masks to protect themselves when they visited the tunnel, but they failed to provide masks for the tunnelers themselves, even when the workers requested them.


476 Dead

1500 Doomed in W. Va.

Tunnel Catastrophe

From Federation News, 1936 (Chicago Federation of Labor)

Picture Caption:

Their only gravestones [are] cornstalks waving in the wind, their shrouds [are] the overalls in which they died, 169 tunnel workers killed at Gauley Bridge were tossed into trenches in this field at Summerville, W. Va., to rot. As they keeled over in the death tunnel, one at a time or several in a day, choked to death by silicosis, they were hauled 40 miles to Summerville and dumped into the grave the same day. No identification, no coffins. The company paid the undertaker $50 a piece to bury them. A wife who came tearfully to claim the remains of her loved one was quietly driven away. There was no way in which his body could be found. They were all victims of America’s worst industrial disaster. Then government officials, newspapers and others conspired to keep this story from the public knowing that soon the witnesses would all be dead. The 26 foremen are already dead. In Gauley Bridge, Town of the Living Dead, men once strong and hearty waste away while loved ones grimly await their death.

Gauley Bridge, W. Va.—America’s greatest industrial catastrophe has been hidden from the public.

There are 476 known dead.

There are nearly 1,500 doomed to die. Of these 200 are believed already dead.

Daily they cough their lives away, their lungs clog, they grow weaker. Finally they fall.

Gauley Bridge, the Town of the Living Dead, shrinks a bit and hurries on. For practically every man in the whole community is doomed to a death like that.

In one cornfield, 169 bodies have been tossed, unmarked. One doctor has treated 307 other men. They’re dead. Some 200 have written desperate letters from other cities—and then have stopped writing!

Desperately, the corporation whose tunnel job caused this holocaust has tried to keep the facts from the public until the last witness was gone. That will not be long. Already all of the 26 foremen are dead.

Mrs. S. E. Harrah sent a two-line item to the county seat paper about ambulances—and her husband was fired. He son, a lawyer, investigated, talked suits. Not any more. Last September he died suddenly. “Heart failure,” they called it.

Mrs. Charles Jones brought suits. Her son, Shirley, 18, was the first to die. Then his brother Owen, 21, died. Then their brother, Cecil, 23. Then an adopted son, Oley Jeffrey. Then Mrs. Jones’ brother. She has lived through this horror to see her husband wither before her eyes. Once he weighed 182. Now he weighs 126. He will read his story; we draw the curtain here.

All for Greed

All this because a rich and powerful corporation valued dollars above lives.

When the Rinehart & Dennis, Co., contractors for the New-Kanawha Power Co., started tunneling through two mountains a mile east of Gauley Bridge, on a power project to cost millions, it knew the tunnel would go through silicate rock.

It knew that men working in the tunnel would breathe in the dust.

It knew that without protection they would get silicosis, deadly lung disease.

Behind Rinehart & Dennis was the New-Kanawha Power Co., set to build the tunnel, dissolved as soon as the tunnel was completed late in 1934.

Union Carbide at Top

Behind the New-Kanawha Power Co. is the Electro Metallurgical Co. This is the big company that will use and sell the New Kanawha power.

Behind the Electro Metallurgical Co. is the Union Carbide & Chemical Co., gigantic company spreading into many fields.

Power to be won from the mountains and the rivers of West Virginia was behind the building of the tunnel at Hawk’s Nest, near Gauley Bridge. Dams, powerhouses, and a tunnel through the mountains to increase the drop in the New River and the force of the water power—a huge project, with huge profits to be made, from the power and the enormous silicate deposits.

A huge project, started in 1926, not yet completed, though the death tunnel is done.

Millions have been spent—$20,000,000 already.

Four years ago, preliminary work done, the tunnel was started.

Engineers of the company had made tests. The mountains were full of silicate rock. Silicate—valuable, deadly if breathed into the lungs in large amounts.

No complete protection against silicate was known, when very fine, as in this case. But there were masks that helped. Ventilation shafts would carry some of the dust away.

Lives Against Dollars

These would cost a few thousand dollars, in the $20,000,000 project.

Should Rinehart & Dennis order the masks, the shafts?

The men who own the Electro Metallurgical Co. did not go into the tunnel. They did not see the fine particles of dust, so penetrating that a 48-ton locomotive with headlights on could not be seen five feet away.

They did not see.

The men who would get the profits but never go into the tunnel decided—

Not to buy masks, not to put in air shafts or any other ventilation.

Some 2,000 men worked in the tunnel, 400 to 1,100 at a time. They got 25 to 30¢ an hour and worked 12 hours a day.

They are all dead, dying or doomed to death.

Shirley Jones was the first to die. He was 18, thrilled to get his first job, in love.

‘We’ll Be Marryin’ Soon’

“Think of it, honey,” he told his girl happily. “A job! Twenty-five cents an hour, 12 hours a day. That’s—why, that’s $3 a day! We’ll be marryin’ soon, honey.”

Three dollars a day for 12 hours of hell in an airless tunnel filled with fine dust that kept you from breathing, that you might wash off your hands but would never wash out of your lungs.

That’s what Shirley Jones found.

Within three months, he was fighting for breath, fainting, going back to work and fainting again, shaken by agonizing pain in his chest. He was losing weight so rapidly his big bones were hardly covered.

“Don’t know what’s wrong, honey,” he gasped now to his sweetheart.

Finally he had to go to bed.

The First Death

One day he called his mother, Emma Jones, mother at 47 of so many children she had to count them to tell a stranger the number.

“Mom,” Shirley gasped. “I don’t know what’s wrong but I’m a-goin’ to die. I think it’s from my work. I want you to have me cut open. If you can get anything from the company, go ahead.

“And mom, get pappy and Uncle Raymond and the boys out of that hole.”

A few days later Shirley was dead.

But pappy and the boys stayed in the tunnel. Three dollars, maybe $3.60, a day’s a lot around Gauley Bridge, and if you didn’t work for the company what could you do?

They stayed in.

The boys are dead—Owen, 21, Cecil, 23, the adopted boy, Oley Jeffrey. Owen died second; Cecil, who had a wife and two children, last. Silicosis kills the young first. Mrs. Jones’ brother Raymond Johnson is dead. Her husband still lives!

What Was Andrew Mellon Doing in Gauley Bridge in 1926?

Watch the People’s Press for answers to these questions.

An Appeal for the Dying

In the name of greed, 476 men—at least—are dead. Another 1,500 are doomed of whom 200 probably are dead in other places.

The dying are unable to get state or federal relief.

The doomed who can still work cannot get jobs. Employers know they are doomed.

The wives and children of the dead, the families of the dying and the doomed live at the edge of the starvation line.

Greed put them there.

In the name of humanity, the People’s Press asks you to help them.

Any sum, large or small, $100 or 1¢ will make life a little easier for this Town of the Living Dead.

They will not get help from the millionaires who kill 2,000 men for a few dollars. That we know.

So we urge you to help them. Everything given will go directly to these people in desperate need.

Send what you can to:

The Gauley Bridge Fund,

Care of the People’s Press, Eastern Branch,

245 Seventh Avenue, New York City.

Source: People’s Press, 7 December 1935. NARA, Record Group 174, Department of Labor, Sec. Frances Perkins, Labor Standards — Jan.-April 1936, Box 59.

History Of Protest Songs Reviewed By Thomas Jones For The Guardian

33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs by Dorian Lynskey – review

This ambitious history of protest songs suggests their best days are over. They can, of course, be recycled…

    • Thomas JonesThomas Jones , Sunday 20 March 2011, in The Observer
    • stevie 

      Stevie Wonder and friends perform at a birthday concert for Nelson Mandela in 2009. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

      Among the challengers hoping to keep the X Factor winner Matt Cardle from topping the charts last Christmas were a new recording of John Cage’s “4’33” and “Liar Liar” by Captain Ska. The first was the work of a group calling themselves Cage Against the Machine, who were trying to replicate the success of 2009’s campaign to make Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” Christmas No 1, ahead of that year’s X Factor winner. “Liar Liar” was an infectious synth-reggae attack on the coalition government’s comprehensive spending review. In the event, neither even made it into the Top 40; and neither makes it into Dorian Lynskey’s new history of protest songs. Cage’s composition isn’t a song, of course, though its four and a half minutes of silence can be an eloquent form of protest; and “Liar Liar” is either too slight to be included, or was released too late.

      33 Revolutions Per Minute is organised like a giant compilation album or homemade mixtape or iPod playlist: each of its 33 chapters is named for a song, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Green Day’s “American Idiot”, via the work of, among others, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder, the Clash, Carl Bean, the Dead Kennedys, Crass, the Special AKA, Billy Bragg, REM, Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. Lynskey places their music in the context of America’s union movement, civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam war, black power, gay rights, opposition to Reagan and Thatcher, the Falklands war, CND, the miners’ strike, the anti-apartheid movement, rave culture and opposition to the war in Iraq. It’s quite an undertaking.

      “For reasons of space,” Lynskey says, “I have limited my focus to western pop music.” That “western” implies British and American seems to go without saying: there’s no room for Deutschpunk or Fabrizio de André. There is a brief and slightly awkward diversion in the mid-1970s, however, with three chapters on the music of Chilean activist-songwriter Victor Jara (who disparaged “the commercialisation of so-called ‘protest music'” in the United States), Fela Kuti and Lee “Scratch” Perry, and a quick run through the postwar political histories of Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that Lynskey’s a music journalist, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is better as a history of pop music than as political history.

      A pattern emerges over the course of the book, as musician after musician appears with the hope that he – occasionally she, but most of Lynskey’s protest singers are men – can change the world, tries, fails and retreats into disillusionment, having made a few great songs along the way. The book itself follows a similar trajectory. “I began this book intending to write a history of a still-vital form of music,” Lynskey says in the epilogue. “I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.” The reason for the decline of the genre “lies as much with listeners as with artists”, and is related to a “waning faith in hands-on protest… although the wave of British tuition fee protests in late 2010 marked a welcome and surprising resurgence”.

      A book about topical songs was always going to run the risk of being out of date by the time it came to be published. The uprisings in north Africa would be beyond its remit but Lynskey should be cheered by the occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, where they’ve been singing the O’Jays’ “Love Train” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, a song that Lynskey says was “politicised after the fact”, since its celebration of “the tight bond between the group’s four sisters… resonated with black, gay and feminist listeners” – and now with public-sector workers fighting to retain their collective bargaining rights.

      Old protest songs have been making a comeback elsewhere, too. Anti-Berlusconi demonstrators in Italy last month took to the streets to the sound of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”; the British students protesting in London last year sang “Tories, Tories will tear us apart again” to the tune of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Putting new words to old tunes has long been standard practice for protest songs; that way they’re easier to sing along to. And it makes sense that opposition to the Tory attack on the welfare state should look to the Thatcher era; “Liar Liar” is a form of early-80s revival, too. As for truly new protest songs, it may well be the case that there aren’t any being made; but then again it may just be that broadsheet journalists haven’t heard them yet.

      In the meantime, we still have the old ones to listen to. And the best thing about Lynskey’s book is that it will send you back – or for the first time – to an array of extraordinary songs, from Nina Simone’s nerve-tingling “Mississippi Goddam” to the full-on assault of Crass’s Falklands-inspired and Thatcher-directed “How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead”.

    Rereading Uncle Tom’s Cabin: 150th Anniversary Of The Civil War

    [April 12 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.  On this day, in Columbia, South Carolina a marathon reading will take place of the novel by "the little lady whose book started this great war."  Read the entire text of the story by clicking here.]

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin Reading Marathon

    Uncle Tom's Cabin, Boston edition

    Posted on April 6, 2011 by Kevin Alexander Gray

    The Uncle Tom’s Cabin reading marathon will be held on April 12 beginning at 8:00 am at the The Modjeska Monteith Simkins House at 2025 Marion Street in Columbia and will run until the entire novel has been read.
    The event is being held on April 12th  in response to the many Civil War “commemorations” going on across the South and nation this year. April 12th is  the 150th anniversary of the start-up date of the Civil War.   The date is also significant in that the Confederate flag was first placed atop the SC Statehouse dome in 1962 during the centennial observances of the Civil War.
    Since many of those commemorating and celebrating the “Lost Cause” want to write African enslavement out as a core reason for the war, many of us feel that it’s important to set the record straight in a historically connected way.

    We want to tell the enslaved Africans and abolitionists’ side of the story.

    Read more here . . .

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