Working Class Perspectives on Pete Seeger by Kathy Newman

http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/sing-out-lessons-from-the-extraordinary-life-of-pete-seeger/

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

(reprinted from the Working Class Studies Blog)

th-4Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the thSouth, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.  Click here to read more

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May Day And The Immigrant Worker: Chris Mahin in Tribuno del Pueblo

From Pilsen to Pilsen:
May Day and the immigrant worker

BY CHRIS MAHIN

May Day began in the United States, and immigrants played a decisive role in creating it.

On May 1, 2006, more than 750,000 workers – most of them immigrants – took part in a demonstration for immigrant rights in Chicago. They marched past Haymarket Square, the very spot where immigrant workers had rallied in 1886. Many of the workers in the 2006 demonstration lived in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood named after a city in Central Europe where many of yesterday’s immigrants came from. The immigrant workers of Chicago had revived the celebration of May Day in the city where it had been created — by an earlier generation of immigrant workers.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. At that time, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Its factories were being filled by workers from England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, Sweden and many other countries.

Three days later, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. Speeches were given in several languages. As this protest was winding to a close, cops moved in. They ordered the last speaker – an English immigrant, Samuel Fielden – to stop. Then someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer and wounded many. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

The police responded by breaking into homes, wrecking the printing presses of foreign-language newspapers, and beating and arresting union leaders. Immigrant workers were accused of being terrorists.

Eight union leaders were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square. One – Samuel Fielden – was from Lancashire, England. Six had been raised in Germany: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, and August Spies.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the defendants were hanged. (A fifth, Louis Lingg, died in his cell under suspicious circumstances.) Three were given long sentences.

In 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day.

# # #

This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of the Tribuno del Pueblo newspaper. For more information, go to www.tribunodelpueblo.org.

Hard Times In Chicago: Destruction of Wisconsin Steel, Exit Zero Project Reviewed

Hard times in Chicago

MIT anthropologist’s new book recounts the painful aftermath when steel plants suddenly closed in the American heartland.
Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office
January 18, 2013

In March 1980, when the industrial firm Wisconsin Steel abruptly closed its main mill in southeast Chicago, longtime employee Charles Walley was among 3,400 people who lost their jobs. The plant closure — which led to protests, controversy and lawsuits — had an enormous impact on Walley, a third-generation steelworker. He found intermittent employment as a tollbooth attendant, a janitor and a security guard, among other things, but never landed a better job, and remained bitter and depressed about his situation until his death in 2005.

“Yeah, we thought we were middle class there for a while,” one of his daughters once overheard him musing aloud. “We were almost middle class.”

The daughter who heard that comment, Christine Walley, is now an associate professor of anthropology at MIT and author of a new book, “Exit Zero,” about the impact of deindustrialization on the lives of blue-collar workers in Chicago. In the book, published this month by the University of Chicago Press, Walley explores the lasting economic and psychological toll of such plant closings on her father and other working-class people like him.

In the book, Walley also builds an argument that rapid deindustrialization in the United States was not simply the result of seemingly inevitable shifts in the global economy, but a consequence of corporate-friendly policies, and a new emphasis on raising short-term share prices, that pitted the interests of management against the long-term interests of companies and their workers.

“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization,” Walley says. “We have to think historically about how we got into this position and how we can come out of it.”

While the steel industry is a notable sector in which American industry has downsized, the same issue has been borne out in many areas of manufacturing and many parts of the country. As Walley notes, in 1960, one-third of all American laborers not working on farms had jobs in manufacturing, while in 2010, only one-eighth worked in the sector.

“The stories from Chicago are so similar in so many other communities that have experienced deindustrialization, I think it does have resonance with a lot of other places in the U.S.,” Walley says.

The paycheck and self-respect

Most anthropologists do their research by immersing themselves in other cultures. But in Walley’s case, she was immersed in the working-class neighborhoods of industrial southeast Chicago from birth. It was an area, Walley writes in “Exit Zero,” where “neat lawns and never going on public assistance were quintessential points of pride.”

“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization.”

Associate Professor of Anthropology
Christine Walley

But when several mills closed in the early 1980s, the tens of thousands of newly unemployed steelworkers in Chicago and the surrounding area had massive problems keeping themselves, and their families, afloat. Within a decade of the Wisconsin Steel closure, 800 of its 3,400 former workers had died, many after struggles with alcoholism or other problems tied to their unemployment and lack of other options. Many steelworkers felt that because of their membership in unions, they were discriminated against when looking for other work; in many households, wives had to go back to work to keep families going, a further humiliation to the steelworkers.

“It was my father’s paycheck from the mills that was his source of manhood and self-respect,” Walley writes.

Walley also asserts that we should reconsider the “dominant narrative” of the decline of the American steel industry, which many observers characterized as having grown inefficient. Actually, Walley asserts, empirical research has shown that American steel mills were still more profitable in the 1970s, just before the shutdowns commenced, than their state-subsidized Japanese competitors. The problem, she writes, was that “they weren’t profitable enough, in comparison to … high finance.”

In this way, Walley says, the Wisconsin Steel case is an early example of contemporary corporate practices, linked to the financialization of the economy, which occur at the expense of workers and their communities. Controversially, the firm had been sold in the late 1970s in what was effectively a leveraged buyout; the legal maneuvering around the firm’s closure allowed the holding company to force the government to pick up the tab for its unfunded pension guarantees. More generally, this kind of buyout, followed by asset-stripping and closure, Walley notes, allows enterprises to steer cash to more lucrative investments in financial markets, instead of being bound to bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Cancer and class

“Exit Zero” takes an unexpected twist when Walley recounts how, at age 27, she was diagnosed with an unusual form of cancer. While her treatment was successful, she suspects, but cannot prove, that her illness was related to environmental conditions in southeast Chicago, where many potential carcinogens were released.

More generally, Walley states, exposure to environmental hazards is yet another way that class stratification manifests itself in America. As she writes, “just as throughout our lives we drag our class experiences and the related aspects of who we are with us, our bodies also carry this legacy of chemical exposures as we move into the future.”

Walley’s book is part of a larger project on industrial southeast Chicago — accompanied by a documentary film to be completed this year, also called “Exit Zero,” that Walley has produced in collaboration with her husband, documentary filmmaker Chris Boebel. She is also helping to develop a related website, in conjunction with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, intended to feature archival materials and oral accounts from others who experienced the same economic changes. A daylong event featuring the book and film will be held at Chicago’s Field Museum in April.

“Exit Zero” has been praised by other scholars of labor; David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, has called the book an “illuminating” analysis that makes clear that “the working-class world is poorly understood both in popular culture and in mainstream academic literature.”

As Walley acknowledges, her family’s story is just one historical thread within the large, complicated fabric of American industry. But precisely by making her account a personal one, she says, she aims to show to a general audience the human effects of economic changes that public figures often describe in abstract, impersonal terms.

“This is a book of stories … but those stories are the terrain for further analysis,” Walley says. “I wanted it to be accessible to many kinds of readers, including those who don’t normally read academic work, as a way of having a discussion about these issues.”

Glenwood Avenue Arts Festival Aug 18 and 19

IT’S GAAF Weekend — or Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest

August 18 and 19
12 Noon to 9 PM

This year featuring
*Booth 26 dedicated to continuing the work of
Chris Drew and the Art Patch Project
new patches printed on site!

and

**Booth 27 Chicago Labor & Arts Festival
the annual HUMOUNGOUS (great price) BOOK SALE
with books in all categories including kids, Spanish language, black history and literature, fiction and non fiction, Marxist and other political science; buy three, get one FREE.

***Plus we are a source of information about all things ré
Public Education Crisis:

  • Occupation Rogers Park Education Committee
  • Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign
  • Various community activities coming up
  • How to support teachers and the campaign for World class schools our communities deserve!

It’s not tax deductible, but your $$$ help tremendously!
Please make checks out to CL&AF
and mail to Lew Rosenbaum, 1122 W. Lunt 4A, Chicago, IL 60626

As always, thanks for checking in with us!

PS.  Have you heard about the Pied Piper of Rogers Park?  Ask us about this . . .

The Highway Is Alive Tonight: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball — Lew Rosenbaum

[In the following piece a few things might need to be clarified.  Greta, my sister, died almost 4 years ago, at 80 years old.  Often I want to have a conversation with her.  Occasionally I'll write a letter, as this piece begins, because I still feel the loss and because there is something I want to say anyway.  She was a trained classical musician who listened to me because she said she envied my ability to appreciate so many genre's that she could not.  Chris Drew has contributed to this blog and I've written about him in the People's Tribune as well. Chris died on May 7, 2012 after a heroic battle with lung cancer.  Bill Glahn is a friend and music writer and jack of all trades who shared his insights generously to a community of political thinkers and music enthusiasts of which I am privileged to be a part. Clicking the link for each song will lead you to a video recording of the song.  The entire album may be heard by clicking on Wrecking Ball here.  And last, the comments in this piece reflect what I think of this music, what I take from it into my life, in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, when she wrote: "I give you my poem, it is my life, now do with it what you will."  Because I do believe the Highway is Alive Tonight in ways I have never seen.  This is the most amazing time in which to live.]

Dear Greta,

May 10 is drawing to a close.  I wanted to wish you Happy Birthday, even if it is an abbreviated greeting.  There are just so many things on my mind now, things that I want to talk over with you.  Things like why I think this is such an amazing moment in history.  Things like how it has felt  — felt, not what I think about it, but felt — to wind up the artistic life of Chris Drew.  I want to tell you how that feels.  I want to tell you how when I looked into his eyes as I saw him dying, I thought every minute of you.  That will never go away.

And I want to tell you, perhaps most of all, about music.  I want to tell you about the Bruce Springsteen album, the one I have been listening to over an over again. Wrecking  Ball.   How I would have made you a copy, how you would have said the words were good, but the music is still too loud for your ears.  How we would have had a conversation about the structure of the album.  How I listened over an over to We Take Care of Our Own, learning by bits and pieces the irony and anger and ambiguity and hope in that song.  How my friend Bill Glahn made me understand, even before I heard it, the meanings of Jack of All Trades, how the dirge resonates with me more than any other song in the album.  How at the same time the travelers on the rocky road remind me so much of the rocky road we are all traversing, and how the bridge to Land of Hope and Dreams is so perfect.  And how the tribute to Clarence Clemons which illuminates each show this tour, makes it clear why I am writing this letter.  Bruce tells his audience:  if you’re here, and we’re here, then they (Clarence and Danny Federici also) are here.  And so it is with Chris Drew.  And with you.

But as with Clarence’s now stilled sax,  so it is with your stilled voice.  Rest well.

May 10, 2012

The Highway Is Alive Tonight

I admit to some confusion, some anxiety when I first heard “We Take Care of Our Own,”  the song that opens the new Bruce Springsteen record.   “We take care of our own, wherever this flag’s flown,” he sings. And inside my head I said “Wait a minute: from Fort Bragg to Baghdad, we are not taking care of our own nor of others — or we are taking care of them like the mob does.” More and more, though, the song resonates with questions, ironies, ambiguities.  Who are “we,”  who are “our own,” what is “this flag,” and where indeed is it flown?  This song cannot be taken at face value.

“The road to good intentions has grown dry as a bone.”  This line ends the first verse, that emphasizes the stance of the song and the album.  The “good intentions” –debatable of course, but rhetorically correct — of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” FDR’s “New Deal” have no promise left in them.  They came from knocking at the door of the throne room.  The throne! The uncrowned emperor of the USA.  So when the singer intones that we take care of our own, from shotgun shack to the Superdome, it evokes an abdication of responsibility during Katrina specifically, but a more general abdication, a boast that covers a festering reality.

Where are the eyes with the will to see . . . where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?”  This series of questions deepens the dissatisfaction with we take care of our own. We can’t really be doing what we are saying. And “this flag” — if it is the flag of the USA, that “wherever” also is an opening to a bigger question, since “this flag” is flown in the most distanced parts of the world, from countries in a crescent surrounding China and Russia, to the NATO countries to wherever there is an armed forces presence around the world, thousands of military bases.  Are we taking care of our own?  Even if “our own” is defined as US citizens?  The casualties, deaths, trauma just among “our own” soldiers.  But what about the question about who “our own” really is? Don’t we bear responsibility for the destruction of the countries we bomb, the people killed and left homeless?  Are they not as much “our own” as the soldiers we have sent to render that destruction?

These are all questions raised by this song not because the song is explicit, but because it is deliberately ambiguous.  And because of this it raises the ultimate question for me:  how do we get to the place where “we”  –  the working class — take care of our own, protect our international class brothers and sisters, wherever our flag, the flag of the international working class, is flown.  That is the challenge of this album and it starts from the first song.

Easy Money” seems like it doesn’t belong.  But here is this character in the bleak world, that is tumbling down without him even seeing it, already described, who takes his Smith and Wesson 38 to go out on the town looking for easy money.  “Put on your red dress,” we’re goin’ out on the town “lookin’ for easy money.”  Bravado without substance marks this song, it seems to me.  Can’t make it any other way, which then leads into “Shackled and Drawn.”   Bruce Prescott, in a blog he calls “The Mainstream Baptist,” writes about this song:

Bruce Springsteen describes the result of the inequities of our economic system in a number of songs on his new “Wrecking Ball” album. Here’s my favorite:

Gambling man rolls the dice,

working man pays the bill

It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill

Up on bankers hill, the party’s still going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn

Pick up the rock son, carry it on

We’re trudging through the dark in

a world gone wrong

I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.

The gambler and the banker are the ones making the easy money. The poor boy in a world gone wrong can pick up his smith and wesson, but that won’t get him anywhere.  The bankers rob you without a gun (or rather, with the armed force of the state behind them).  The song ends calling on you to stand up and be counted and pray tonight.

Prescott might like “Shackled and Drawn” best, but “Jack Of All Trades”   hits me hardest.  “I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain,I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain.”  I’ll do anything, I can do anything — pull that engine apart  –  “the hurricane blows, brings a hard rain,  when the blue sky breaks, feels like the world’s gonna change, we’ll start caring for each other, like Jesus said that we might, I’m a Jack of All Trades, we’ll be all right.”  We’ll be all right is still sung like a dirge, an enduring funeral march almost, a death march, a survival march.  But with a hint of possibility this time.  It’s not the fantasy of easy money, it’s not the despair of shackled and drawn, it’s not the sarcasm or irony of we take care of our own.  It is the bridge to possibility of taking care of our own.

Now, jack-of-all-trades, in my family recollection, was always followed by the phrase “master-of-none.”  Meaning not being able to do anything well.  You can always count on him, he can do anything, he’s a jack-of-all-trades;  versus don’t let him do anything too complex, because he can’t do the really tough jobs. Taken collectively, and referring back to “we take care of our own,” the working class is that jack of all trades.  All trades are found within the class, all are developed to their specialities within the class.  The class will survive.  The class will be all right.

I’m not writing an exegesis of each line or even each verse, but read these lyrics, listen to the patience and sorrow of “it’s all happened before, it’ll happen again,”  living through rough times and good times, and bad times of all varieties, and yet you see a chance, a possibility, a new world that hearkens back to a promise made before (the Jesus image), meanwhile living with what exists, making and re-making.

the banking man grows fat

working man grows thin

it’s all happened before

it’ll happen again

now sometime tomorrow

come soaked in treasure and blood

we stand the drought

now we stand the flood

there’s a new world comin

I can see the light

I’m a jack of all trades

we’ll be all right

so you use what you’ve got

and you learn to make do

you take the old

and you make it new

. . .And then there is that one line, coming near the end, where  frustration breaks out but where the tone is the same patient sound that has filled this song, the same dirge, and still the character says what he would do

if I had me a gun

I’d find the bastards and shoot em on sight.

No hint that that was coming.

The song ends with an instrumental wail of defiance. This is a Tom Morello solo, a scream of guitar sounds which says more than we’ll be all right, says we will triumph, foreshadows the challenge to those who wield the wrecking ball of the title song. Which then leads into “Death to My Hometown.”

This is not a quiet death, but it is accomplished without one shot being fired.  No blood soaked the ground.  No bombs from the sky. Still “they brought death to my home town.”  The singer mourns the destroyed factories and homes, the vultures picked their bones.  Intensity identifies the corporate enemy, and while others have commented about the allusion to Irish music, I hear a French carmagnole, the tumbrils of the mind filled with the bodies of the oppressor. In a workshop on May 13, leading up the the protests against the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, poet Matt Sedillo reminded his audience that the bombs raining down on civilians (and combatants) in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere were only part of the story.  The economic side of NATO, the G8 were carrying out murder in the cities of their own countries, but without weapons of mass destruction, other than starvation, deprivation of health care, and numerous other methods accomplished without soaking the ground in blood. The very point that this song intensifies.

Next comes “This Depression,”  another dirge.  And death to my home town is something to be mourned, to be depressed about.  I’ve been down, but never this low.  I need your heart, I need your love in this depression.  There is a depression of the economy, clearly spelled out in “Death to My Home Town,” alluded to in “Jack of All Trades” and “We Take Care of Our Own.”  And perhaps when he sings “I’ve been strong but I’ve never felt so weak” it’s both the physical and emotional toll of the overwhelming and matching depression.  I mean it is obvious that there is an emotional toll taken and sung about.  But when he says “I’ve never been so low,” it seems that is both.

Wrecking Ball,”  the title song, is a song of defiance.  Written about the destruction of baseball stadiums (Mets and Giants), these arenas assume a metaphorical relation to society, where indeed giants have also played the game and suffered the same consequences that we learned about in “Death To My Home Town,”.  The character in this song, having weathered the coming and going of hard times over and over again, refuses to accept this fate.  Bring on your wrecking ball is at once a voice of experience, coming from the depths of depression, and a challenge.  Here is a John Henry for the modern era. In the mythic past, men strove to compete with machines, to prove they were better, faster, harder working.  They could not be replaced.  But as the machine itself was replaced, so was the life of the town in which they were housed.  That death also squelched the lives of the people left behind.  Except from out of the rubble, people emerge to challenge the wreckers.

What is it that can tell the rulers/destroyers of our society “Bring on your wrecking ball”? From where does the defeat of the new world order come?  “No school ever taught it,” Springsteen sings,  “no one ever bought it,  Baby you’ve got it come on and give it to me.”   This is the real thing.  One thread running through all of Springsteen’s work has been trying to find out if love is real.  In the context of this record, what are we to think of this love song, “You’ve Got It”? There is a quiet intensity to this piece, sort of a parallel in intensity to “Jack Of All Trades.”   No school, because you can’t teach someone “this.”  “It” is not a commodity to be bought and sold.  We inherit this consciousness by our experience and by our devotion to exploring and learning.  It demands an engagement with new ideas that challenge our connection to what makes up the old society.  For me this means definitively a break with private property.  I say “for me” knowing I am treading on my ground here, not necessarily Springsteen’s.  But I would also argue that now that it is out in public, it is the responsibility of the listener to make of it what he or she will.  And I would argue that this is a love song to the collective, and “give it to me” is the only love that can transform society.

And then comes “Rocky Ground,”   which is my second favorite song on the album.  We’ve been traveling over the rocky ground.  We certainly have. From “We Take Care of Our Own”  to this one, filled with religious allusion without hope for religious redemption. There’s a new day is coming (repeated quietly in the background), but its up to us. Of course every song on the album is a collaboration.  But this one seems even more a collaboration of styles and artists, reinforcing the collective response to the collective experience of traveling on rocky ground.  Just the repetition of “we’ve been traveling” makes this a journey of suffering and of quiet redemption. In the midst of this comes a  gospel influenced rap segment that leads inevitably and seamlessly to the “Land of Hope and Dreams,” where all are welcome.

All of the cast out characters of the previous songs are welcome on the train leading to the “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  This train is filled with people who will take care of their own. Whores, gamblers, lost souls, saints, sinners, losers and winners. Don’t know where you’re going but you know you won’t be back.  Thankfully.  We’ll take what we can carry and we’ll leave the rest. We don’t need the baggage that drains us where we live now. It is a glorious celebration, reaching  back to “there’s a new day coming,” rescuing us from the depths of despair and misery.   (The album contains a version that includes the Clarence Clemons solo;  touring for the album and playing sax is Jake Clemons).

“We Are Alive” closes the album http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXrHQsmON2U&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PLCCF33C028B32189C .  “We” are of course reading this.  “We” are listening to this album.  “We” are listening to Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, Clarence who died 6 months ago. “We” are the ancestors who died in freedom struggles, but who are alive and with us.  Bruce intones, in his concert performances, “If you are here and we are here, then they are here.”  We are alive if we are engaged in the struggle for the future that this album implies is possible.

In another song, from another album, one which he performs regularly with Tom Morello, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,”   Springsteen’s narrator sings “the highway is alive tonight.”  Indeed it is, it has not been so alive in decades.  And if you look in their eyes, those who populate the highways, you will see the ghost of Tom Joad everywhere.

The highway is alive tonight.

Democracy Now Celebrates Woody Guthrie’s 100th Birthday

Woody Guthrie At 100: Democracy Now

Commemorations are being held across the country this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie wrote hundreds of folk songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Do Re Mi” and “The Ranger’s Command.” While Guthrie is best remembered as a musician, he also had a deeply political side. At the height of McCarthyism, Guthrie spoke out for labor and civil rights and against fascism. In this one-hour special, you will hear interviews and music from folk singer Pete Seeger, the British musician Billy Bragg, and the historian Will Kaufman, author of the new book, “Woody Guthrie, American Radical.”

“Woody’s original songs, the songs that he wrote back in the 1930s … with these images of people losing their houses to the banks, of gamblers on the stock markets making millions, when ordinary working people can’t afford to make ends meet, and of people dying for want of proper free healthcare, you know, this song could have been written anytime in the last five years, really, in the United States of America,” says Bragg, who has long been inspired by Guthrie.

Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” was written in 1940 in response to Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” “Woody saw ['God Bless America'] as a strident, jingoistic, complacent, tub-thumping anthem to American greatness,” Kaufman says. “And now, he had just come from the Dust Bowl. He’d just come from the barbed-wire gates of California’s Eden there. He’d seen the Hoovervilles. He’d seen the bread lines. He’d seen labor activists getting their heads busted. And so, he’s thinking, what — God bless — what America, you know, is Kate Smith singing of?” In 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land Is Your Land” for the inauguration of President Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Commemorations are being held across the country this year to mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie wrote hundreds of folk songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Do Re Mi” and this song, “The Ranger’s Command.”

NARRATOR: Two fragments of film survive of Guthrie performing. One of them, lost in the archives for 40 years has only just come to light.

WOODY GUTHRIE: [singing] But the rustlers broke on us in the dead hours of night;
She ’rose from her blanket, a battle to fight.
She ’rose from her blanket with a gun in each hand,
Said: Come all of you cowboys, fight for your land.

AMY GOODMAN: A rare 1945 video recording of Woody Guthrie. Known as the Dust Bowl Troubadour, Guthrie became a major influence on countless musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. While Woody Guthrie is best remembered as a musician, he also had a deeply political side. At the height of McCarthyism, Guthrie spoke out for labor and civil rights and against fascism. He died in 1967 after a long battle with Huntington’s disease. But his music lives on.

Over the next hour, we’ll hear from folk singer Pete Seeger, the British musician Billy Bragg and the historian Will Kaufman. But first, Woody Guthrie, in his own words, being interviewed by the musicologist Alan Lomax

ALAN LOMAX: What did your family do? What kind of people were they, and where did they come from?

WOODY GUTHRIE: Well, they come in there from Texas . . .   click here for the rest of this story and/or to hear the program.

Chris Mahin Writes On The Anniversary Of The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King

[Chris Mahin, whose writing appears on this blog often, contributes the following on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.]

April 4 is the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Below you will find the text of an article I wrote in 2006 about the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968 during the Memphis sanitation workers strike. It was written for the regional website of the union I worked for at the time. It describes what happened in the sanitation workers’ strike, the role played by AFSCME, and the attempts of the FBI to slander and isolate Dr. King. I thought it might be useful background material for anyone involved in events commemorating the anniversary of the assassination.
Thanks,
Chris
——————————————————————————————-

April 1968:
Dr. King Is Killed Defending Labor’s Rights

Murder in Memphis: Life Magazine Cover

April 4 is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. While many events are held each year to honor Dr. King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned — why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr. King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes April 4 an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in U.S. history in general), but in the history of the labor movement as well.

On February 12, 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 an hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions, and a viciously anti-union mayor.

The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours a day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.

This dire situation came to a crisis point on Feb. 1, 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

"I Am a Man" became emblematic of the strike

Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.

The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city council to recognize the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs which read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognized around the world.

Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On February 14, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.

It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organizers appealed to Dr. King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to protest poverty. But when AFSCME organizer Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.

Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people, and called for a citywide march.

On Thursday, March 28, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s headquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, Mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people, and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.

On Friday, March 29, some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks, and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.

In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organizers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life, and his place in history.

In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction:

“[S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”

At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI, and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Murder at the Lorraine Motel

Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.

On Tuesday, April 16, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached.  The agreement included union recognition, better pay, and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.

It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory, but at a terrible cost, the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions, and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign which Dr. King had been
working on when he went to Memphis did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites.

Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps

Carrying on Dr. King's Legacy

the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labor leaders have an official position with a union — and that labor comes in all colors, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honor what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.

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Radium Girls Statue Dedicated in Ottawa, Illinois

Radium Girls Statue Dedication Is the Place to Be This Labor Day Weekend –  Friday, September 2nd, 11:00 AM, Ottawa, Illinois

radium-death-newspaper-article On Friday, September 2, at 11:00 a.m. at the corner of Clinton and Jefferson streets in Ottawa, Illinois, a statue of a young woman holding flowers in one hand and paintbrushes in the other will be unveiled. She is the symbol of the Radium Girls, the young women who worked in the clock and watch factories dotting the Illinois Valley in the first half of the 20th century. This was the era of “glow in the dark” watch and clock dials, painted with deadly radium. Many of these workers died from the effects of putting their brushes in their mouths countless times a day to sharpen the points, as the companies trained them to do.

The statue will stand on the site of the Luminous Processes factory in Ottawa at Clinton and Jefferson. The City of Ottawa, community groups and local unions worked together to raise the funds and assure the successful completion of this project. Laborers Local 393, an affiliate union of the ILHS, has donated many member volunteer hours to prep the site where the statue will be placed.

It all started when student Madeline Piller made the Radium Girls the subject of her junior high history fair project, and then never forgot their story. Her father Bill Piller is a sculptor and she enlisted his help to honor these women, many of whom were laid to rest after their untimely deaths in the Catholic cemetery just outside of Ottawa. A Geiger counter passed over these graves will still register the presence of the deadly radium poison that took their lives.

The Ottawa Radium Girls were not alone. Radium-painting factories were also operating in New Jersey and Connecticut. In her book Radium Girls, Woman and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, Central Michigan University historian Claudia Clark extensively documents the suffering of these young women and the fight they and their families mounted to obtain proper compensation from their employers.

radium-girls1 On July 7, 1937, the Chicago Daily Times covered one such legal battle. Reporter John Main wrote: “Fifteen living dead women will appear before the Illinois Industrial Commission here on July 25. It will be the next-to-last act of what lawyers say is the biggest and most pitiful miscarriage of justice in the history of Illinois. The last act will be these women’s death – sure, tortured, horrible.”

These efforts for justice helped spark needed legislation concerning occupational diseases’ and workers compensation laws throughout the country. This Labor Day weekend, we commemorate the contribution made by the struggle of these young women to the health and safety protection of all working people.

The video Radium City (excerpt) movingly recounts this tragedy.  For the complete video (almost 2 hr documentary), click here.

The Artist And The Strike

Published in April, James Dennis’ new biography of a painting, The Strike, explores in a marvelous way the confluence of art and labor.

Robert Koehler’s The Strike is the book title.  Click the link to read more.

An Independent Labor Movement in the Offing? Rich Trumka Addresses Nurses

[It should be clear, first of all, that organized labor's official position for decades has been to reward its friends, punish its enemies on a "non-partisan" basis.  Even during the height of the Roosevelt era, the AFL claimed to be non-partisan -- meaning it did not endorse presidential candidates, and did not have a labor political action committee.  Nevertheless, from the 1936 election on the AFL nationally pushed the Democratic candidacy, while there were variations on local candidates (when Adlai Stevenson ran for Governor of Illinois, the state AFL endorsed his Republican, incumbent opposition as a demonstrated friend of labor).  The CIO developed a political action committee earlier than the AFL, but the AFL was completely won over to the need for some kind of electoral organization when the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947. In recent years labor leaders have articulated the need for independence from their lesser of two evils strategy.  That led to the formation of the Labor Party, which had some limited success within the trade union movement itself and some limited success with organizations outside the unions.  In  50s there was some justification for the AFL-CIO to call itself "labor" when large numbers of workers were production workers, and a large number of those were organized in unions.  By the 90s one of the things the Labor Party recognized was that most of "labor" was not in the "House of Labor," and therefore any political formation of labor would have to take that into account.  As the limited success of the Labor Party waned, some of the unions that had given the Labor Party support actually withdrew from the AFL-CIO under the aegis of "Change to Win,"  a new federation of labor.  There is a considerable dissatisfaction among labor -- and here I mean among people who need to work for a living, whether or not they are currently employed, independently of whether they have a union affiliation. With this in mind it is important to consider Rich Trumka's comments in the speech reported for The Nation by John Nichols as follows.]

http://www.thenation.com/blog/161208/afls-trumka-pols-selling-out-workers-ive-had-snootful-st

AFL’s Trumka on Pols Selling Out Workers: ‘I’ve Had a Snootful of This S**t!’

June 8, 2011

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent his strongest signal yet about the labor movement’s frustration with the dysfunctional politics of the moment—where Republicans go to extremes on behalf of big banks and multinational corporations, Democrats compromise and working families are left out of the equation.

John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated…

Speaking Tuesday to the National Nurses United conference in Washington, where more than one thousand nurses from across the country rallied to begin the push to replace the politics of setting for less with a unapologetic demands for a new economic agenda, Trumka found a plenty of takers for his agressively progressive message.

“We want an independent labor movement strong enough to return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families and moral and economic standing to our nation,” declared Trumka, who in recent months has been repositioning the AFL-CIO as a force that will hold Republicans and Democrats to what he describes as “a simple standard: “Are they helping or hurting working families?”

“We can’t simply build the power of any political party or any candidate. For too long we’ve been left after the election holding a canceled check and asking someone to pay attention to us. No more! No more!” the federation president, a former United Mineworkers union chief, shouted above the cheers of the nurses.

Then he described a scenario all too familiar to union activists: that of trying to get officials who are supposed to be allies of the working Americans to act on their behalf with the same energy that Republicans bring to aiding corporations.

“For too long, we’ve been left after Election Day holding a canceled check, waving it about—‘Remember us? Remember us? Remember us?’—asking someone to pay a little attention to us,” recalled Trumka, who like many union leaders was frustrated with the failure of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and other needed labor law reforms. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a snootful of that shit!”

There was no way to misread Trumka’s message for Democrats who have strayed on issues ranging from EFCA to trade policy to mounting an absolute defense of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“When it comes to politics, we’re looking for real champions of working women and men. And I have a message for some of our “friends.” It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside—the outcome is the same either way,” he explained. “If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be—now, in 2012 and beyond.”

Trumka chose exactly the right setting in which to deliver that message. The NNU (which also welcomed this writer as a speaker at its gathering) has long advocated for a more miltant stance when it comes to politics, as evidenced this week by the union’s mass protest outside the headquarters of the US Chamber of Commerce. As the nurses blocked traffic, NNU executive director Rose Ann DeMoro led the crowd in chanting “Our street!” and then pointing at the Chamber building and shouting “Wall Street!”

That determination to take the fight to Wall Street is at the heart of the NNU’s new “Main Street Contract for the American People” that, among other things, demands that elected officials take a “Which Side Are You On?” pledge.

The pledge contrasts Wall Street’s push for “tax cuts for the rich and powerful” and “replacing Medicare with vouchers” with a Main Street Contract that seeks:

  • 1. Jobs at living wages to reinvest in America.
  • 2. Equal access to quality, public education.
  • 3. Guaranteed healthcare with a single standard of care.
  • 4. A secure retirement with the ability to retire in dignity.
  • 5. Good housing, and protection from hunger.
  • 6. A safe and healthy environment.
  • 7. The right to collectively organize and bargain.
  • 8. A just taxation system where corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share.
  • 9. Restoring the promise—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

As Trumka speaks about that “simple standard” to demand of elected officials, politicians and their parties, he and the rest of the labor movement could find few better places of beginning than that pledge to support the NNU’s “Main Street Contract for the American People.”

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