Black 47,”Touched by Fire”

In the mid-1990s, my social life revolved around Irish music. It’s been a long time since I joined a Whiplash mosh pit or did the weekend rounds of Melbourne’s many Irish pubs, but the music that I loved and lived in my twenties stays with me.

Irish folk-punk, to me, was something that was live and local. I owned albums by The Pogues of course (doesn’t everybody?), but that was geographic necessity. So it makes sense that I missed Black 47, even though they were signed to The Pogues label in 1990 and toured with them back then. I am making up for that now, though…

About Black 47

I have written before on this blog about the peculiar international nature of Irish nationalism, and the way that comes up in music. Wherever the Irish migrate in numbers (pretty much everywhere in the industrialised world) their (very republican) culture and music intertwines with that of the local working class. That’s the story I immersed myself in all those years ago in my home town, and New York has a similar history, only more so.

Hence Black 47. Mostly they write about Irish republican history and the American working-class experience. Their audience was a strange mixture of left and right-wing punks for just that reason, which must have made for an interesting dynamic at live shows.

“Touched by Fire” belongs to the first topic. It is a biographic song about one of the most fascinating (and historically neglected) leaders of the Irish nationalist movement; the Countess Constance Markievicz. If anyone deserves a song, this woman does, so I’m very pleased to point you in this direction. It includes not just her story, but her voice, a first person story. It’s not simply a tribute; it’s also history in song. There’s also a great horn section.*

About Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz (born Constance Gore-Booth), was raised on her father’s Irish estate in Sligo.

Sir Henry Gore-Booth stands in history as an enlightened land baron… His children mingled among the local Irish, learning Irish songs and stories, as did Yeats. The father’s example – he was an Arctic explorer–may have led to Con’s risk-taking disposition and her advocacy of causes on behalf of the powerless. The Countess’s last days were in a ward in St. Patrick Dunn’s, a charity hospital in Dublin. There a woman left a bottle of Lourdes water for Madame, saying, “She’s given up everything for us and she thinks what is good for us is good enough for her.” (John Walsh)

Constance trained in France as a painter, and there she married a Polish count and artist (hence the title and Slavic surname). She joined the Dublin artist community in founding the United Arts Club. Ostensibly dedicated to preserving Irish language and culture, the Club included members of the Gaelic League, and so the Countess was introduced directly to Irish nationalist politics. In 1908 she joined Sinn Fein and the Daughters of Ireland. She became a suffragette, performed in plays at the Abbey Theatre, and inevitably started getting arrested and jailed for political activity. The first instance was 1911, when she spoke at a protest against George V’s visit to Dublin.

During the Dublin lockout of 1913, she joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and ran a soup kitchen at her own expense while helping Jim Larkin lead the struggle wherever possible. (They became friends and comrades in 1913; they got along famously. Peas in a pod, Jim and Constance).

She participated, very competently, in the Easter Rising of 1916. In the lead-up to the Irish Spring, she not only equipped her militia at her own expense, she took responsibility for their training. She poured all of her resources into the cause, and died virtually penniless, in fact. She must have been an awesome (and scary) drill sergeant. She commanded a position during the uprising that held out longer than any other. Of the 70 women jailed after the uprising, she was the only one subjected to solitary confinement. It didn’t noticeably reduce her effectiveness.

In 1918, she was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, running in Dublin on the Sinn Fein ticket. (Like all of the Sinn Fein MPs, she refused to take her seat, and became Minister for Labour in the republican parliament at home). She was re-elected while “imprisoned by the foreign enemy”, as Sinn Fein described it, in 1921, and resigned from the party the following year in protest against the Anglo-Irish treaty.

The Countess made a great speech, was very direct and well-organized, and clearly didn’t hold with people dithering or mucking about. Her whole life, she did what needed to be done. Hers was, as Larry Kirwan writes, a life touched by fire. It was a life that was sadly cut short in 1927, when she died of complications from an appendicitis attack.

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*The lyrics to this were written by Black 47 front man Larry Kirwan. Kirwan writes novels as well as punk rock lyrics; he actually organized a tour called “Rock and Read”, which is such an awesomely nerd-punk thing that I just had to mention it.

Phil Ochs,”I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More”

In August of 1968, the Yippies and other assorted counter-culture groups held a “Festival of Life” protest in Lincoln Park, Chicago, a counterpoint to “the Convention of Death” (otherwise known as the Democratic Party National Convention). Phil Ochs was a Yippie, and centrally involved in organising the protest. The massive police security around the Convention had intimidated a great many political artists into staying away, so besides Ochs, only the Motor City 5 and Country Joe and the Fish turned up to perform.

Phil Ochs played this song for the crowd, and as his fellow Yippie Tom Hayden wrote later, the performance inspired a “pandemonium of emotion, of collective power.” Hundreds of young men in the crowd were inspired to burn their draft cards. Ochs later referred to this performance as the highlight of his career.

“I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” became a Phil Ochs signature song, one he performed repeatedly, sometimes for the mainstream media. When he sang it on the courthouse steps outside the trial of the Chicago Seven (the court prevented him from singing it to the jury), Walter Cronkite broadcast it on CBS, much to his amusement.

This is not a topical song, in the sense that it reports a particular event or presents a biography. The narrator is an archetype rather than an individual, a war weary American soldier who has “been” at every US war since 1812. The lyrics testify to a collective historical experience of American imperial adventures, and reject further collaboration in the war machine. It is a fine example of a narrative technique used by political songwriters to this day.*

About Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was born into a nice apolitical middle class family in Texas. It was at college that he discovered the nature of the American beast, and devoted his classically trained musical talent, sardonic wit, and poetic sense to changing it.

He learned to play guitar, dropped out, and joined the New York folk scene, devoting himself to ending the Vietnam War and opposing the draft. He joined the Yippies and helped to organize the Festival of Life outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Tasks included several hours of searching the outer suburbs of Chicago with Jerry Rubin for a pig to run as a presidential candidate).

1968 was a bad year for radicals in the United States. The politically optimistic anti-war/civil rights movement was dealt several shattering blows, and Phil Ochs felt them all deeply. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon left Ochs feeling disillusioned and depressed. In particular, the vicious state reaction to the Lincoln Park protests, and the utter venality of the convention itself, broke his heart.

“I’m really beginning to question the basic sanity of the American public,” he remarked in an interview later that year.

I think more and more politicians are really becoming pathological liars… I think the Daily News, Tribune poisoning that comes out is literally creating – and television, all the media are creating a really mentally ill, unbalanced public…. I’ve always felt a contact with political reality from 1960 to 1968. But after Chicago I’m totally disoriented. I’m disoriented because the time has come for guns, and I’m not personally ready for guns. America’s such a violent country. The American revolution is going to be ridiculously bloody.”

Ochs’ 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement has a tombstone on the cover, inscribed with the words “Phil Ochs… Died Chicago Illinois 1968.”
Despite several more albums and an active touring career, Ochs continued to decline over the late 60s and early 70s.

One biographer puts it this way:

By Phil’s thinking, he had died a long time ago: he had died politically in Chicago in 1968 in the violence of the Democratic National Convention; he had died professionally in Africa a few years later, when he had been strangled and felt that he could no longer sing; he had died spiritually when Chile had been overthrown and his friend Victor Jara had been brutally murdered; and, finally, he had died psychologically at the hands of John Train.

[Note: John Butler Train was an alternative personality that subsumed Ochs identity for several months in 1975, one of the manifestations of an increasingly severe bipolar disorder].

On April 9th, 1976, Phil Ochs took his own life. He was 35 years of age.

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*David Rovics, “Glory and Fame” uses this same technique to narrate the history of the industrial worker, and Cosmo, “The Butcher’s Apron“, for the sailors and soldiers of the British Empire.

Ernest Riebe and Joe Hill, “Mr Block”

About Mr Block

Mr Block first came to life on November 7th 1912, as a comic strip character created by IWW political cartoonist Ernest Riebe.

“Mr Block” is a cautionary tale, told through slapstick and sarcasm, an eternal victim of what we would call, these days, “false consciousness”. (The Wobs of the time used the word “bonehead”). He finds himself embroiled in disaster after disaster at work, due to his operating premise that what the boss tells him is true- but he never learns his lesson.

Riebe encapsulated certain aspects of the Wobbly sense of humour with this 3 year series, and so Mr Block was very popular with readers. In 1913, Joe Hill cemented the character’s popularity with a song.

“Mr Block” was published in the little red song book and was immediately added to the solidarity singing repertoire far and wide.

“Mr. Block is legion,” wrote Fellow Worker Walker C. Smith in 1913. “He is representative of that host of slaves who think in terms of their masters. Mr. Block owns nothing, yet he speaks from the standpoint of the millionaire; he is patriotic without patrimony; he is a law-abiding outlaw… [who] licks the hand that smites him and kisses the boot that kicks him… the personification of all that a worker should not be.”

In 1913, 3,000 striking hopfield workers in California sang “Mr Block” as part of the protest repertoire. Wobbly historian Fred Thompson wrote:

…”Mr. Block”… was being sung by striking hop pickers in Wheatland, California when the sheriff moved in and provoked a riot. At the subsequent trial of organizers Ford and Suhr, the song was read by the prosecution and the songbook given to the jury, the local paper noting, “it was not the song itself that was so suggestive as it is the flaming red cover of the book wherein it was contained, Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.”

The Australian IWW also made use of the Mr Block in-joke during these years. Tom Barker told Eric Fry this story in 1963:

It wasn’t long before the authorities got curious about who was editing [Direct Action] the [Australian IWW] paper, and they couldn’t decide whether it was Tom Barker, Tom Glynn, or who it was. We got the idea that we’d make it a little more difficult, so we put on the paper: “Editor: Mr A. Block”. For this A. Block we got a block of wood and a dingy old top hat someone had inherited. We put the hat on this block of wood and kept it behind the editorial room and if anybody came wanting to see the Editor, we took him in; “Allow us to introduce you the editor, Mr A. Block.”
When the detectives came around they got very mixed up.”

The same year Joe Hill wrote “Mr Block”, the character became the protagonist of America’s first radical comic book. Twenty-four comic strips were compiled and published by Riebe, and copies were advertised and sold through the IWW press. The comic strip is a fine and still funny demonstration of the way the IWW attacked hypocrisy and political manipulation through satire; a very old working class technique, much deployed by the Wobblies in this era.

To read the comic strip itself, visit this link. Some industrious fellow worker has scanned and uploaded all of them (I think) and deserves your hits, at least.

If you must have a soundtrack, check out this montage set to Utah Phillips:

A Digression

The featured image on this post is the cover of a 1984 reprint of Riebe’s book, edited by Franklin Rosemont, my favourite Wobbly scholar and artist. Not incidentally, he was an editor for many years at the wonderful socialist publishing house Charles H Kerr, who published a lot of his work, including Rosemont’s wonderful biography of Joe Hill. Not to mention practically every pamphlet or book the US IWW made over most of the 20th Century.

Back to the Story

Leon Fink referred to the anarchist writer Bruno Traven as “biographically mysterious”. It’s an apt description for working class radicals of the early 20th Century. In some ways there is a great deal more material on them than any other kind of industrial worker, but the records are not found in the sort of institutional sources traditionally used by historians. IWW organizers spent a great deal of time avoiding authorities of one kind or another, so are hard to trace through immigration or arrest records, that kind of thing. They lied and changed their names to get away from cops. Since many of them had foreign names, the cops that did catch them mispelled names.

The best place to find material on the IWW is in their own publications. The IWW extended their ethic of worker self-sufficiency to their cultural production, and so their publications are filled with contributions, both factual and creative, from the members. It’s a journey into the way this marginalised class of workers saw and expressed themselves, and so it is a kind of insight that arrest records and ship manifests cannot provide.

Ernest Riebe

Ernest Riebe is still obscure as a figure even amongst IWW historians, so it is worth going into some details here. Riebe was one of the many German immigrants who came to the United States seeking work in the early 20th century. Like Joe Hill, he found a radical home in the IWW, and devoted his creative energies to its culture.

He was an in-house political cartoonist for the IWW press from 1912 to 1922. His distinctively slapstick style features regularly in the headline cartoon of Solidarity in the late 1910s and early 20s. I know this from experience. I saw most of them while ruining my eyes at the Reuther Library microfilm station.

In 1919, Riebe wrote, illustrated and published “Crimes of the Bolsheviki”, a classic example of satire through reversal, another very old technique for propagandists. One of my favourite examples of that is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. Savage.

Joe Hill

If you need an introduction to the most famous Wobbly in history, you can find it easily via a keyword search. I don’t need to recap the Joe Hill story here.
An almost equally famous Wobbly named Big Bill Haywood sent Joe Hill this telegram the night before he was executed: “Goodbye Joe: You will live long in the hearts of the working class. Your songs will be sung wherever the workers toil, urging them to organize.”
And they are, to this day. Enough said.