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.

The Wakes and David Rovics, “Bethlehem2Belfast” EP

The Bethlehem2Belfast EP is a joint project from Glasgow based folk-rockers The Wakes, and US radical singer-songwriter David Rovics. It is well worth the price just for the music. However, it is not just a musical contribution you will be making.

You will also be contributing to the Bethlehem2 Belfast Project.

“This summer (August 7th and 8th) a group of youth, both boys and girls, aged between 16 and 21 will make the journey from Aida and Deheishe Refugee Camps in Bethlehem to Belfast, passing through checkpoints, bus terminals and airports. These young people will be representing Palestine in the Anti-Racism World Cup.”

This event, politically and symbolically, contains a great deal of significance for a historian with a bent for international solidarity movements (that would be me). I would like to mention just one, here.

While discussing The Palestine Football Authority’s recent proposal to the FIFA General Assembly that they sanction Israel on the grounds that ”the travel restrictions and checkpoints, imposed by the Israeli government has made the development of Palestinian soccer nearly impossible”, Dave Zirin wrote in The Nation:

 

In this case, the Israeli Football Association is saying, “Do not use sports as a way to argue for statehood. Sports is not the place for that kind of rhetoric.” The Palestinian FA is saying, “We can’t compete because the politics of the Israeli occupation makes developing soccer a near-impossibility.” This is a very tough argument for the Israeli FA to win. If sports and politics were truly kept separate, then the Palestinian Football Authority would be able to travel freely, receive foreign visitors, and enter international tournaments without the fear of not being able to show up. As I’ve argued here many times, attacking the ability of Palestinian soccer to develop is also about attacking fun, play, and hope.

 

The Palestinian national football team, at a Melbourne press conference during the Asian Cup last January, described the way the restrictions made playing professional football a seriously risky business. Every time they have a training session, or a match, they know that not only is it likely they will be prevented from attending, but that if they do get permission, they may never be allowed to return home. It’s a lot to go through for a sport, you might think, until you remember that they get treated this way because, and only because, they happen to be Palestinian. Every Palestinian in the Territories, Gaza and the West Bank lives under the same restrictions. This state control of peoples movements is a necessary method of controlling an occupied people, and both the Irish and the Palestinians are familiar with it, historically.

So buy the EP, and cheer for Palestine and “fun, play and hope”. Show your appreciation for Irish-Palestinian solidarity. And, of course, acquire some great music.

 

Darren Hanlon, “The Book Thief”

From the musical history project Mick Thomas Presents Vandemonian Lags

Vandemonian Lags is a beautifully executed album, driven by Australian songwriting legend Mick Thomas. We are fortunate, here down under, to have such musicians; devoted, without ego, to nurturing the industry and the art, with a deep appreciation for its collaborative nature. Based on the documented stories of the people who populated the outdoor prison camp that was Van Diemen’s Land, the whole project, housed on The Founders and Survivors website, offers a multi-genre journey into both the music made, and the subject of colonial Tasmanian peoples’ history. Primary sources, videos of historical analysis, images, family trees, copies of the album lyrics and music…

There’s a live show, too, that Mick Thomas is planning to stage again next April. A nice touch is the collection of photographs that come with the album download, of all the contributing songwriters and performers, dressed up as convicts, looking appropriately dubious. “I am what you say I am, a laggard Vandemonian” is a line from the first song on the album. Well, so are we all, somewhere in our rough colonial history.

Track 7 of the album, “The Book Thief”, is a song about a convict who once stole a book. That’s the history bit. But the writer of this song, Darren Hanlon (see the attached image), points to another truth. Badly made words shape our culture for the worse. There are countless examples of that in Australian society today. The decay of even the desire for an authentic and creative means of expression, especially on the part of those who traditionally preserve those sorts of values, (like journalists and intellectuals) is a source of personal pain.

“The laws of the land are full of words ill-writ.” And so is the language. Words are an important part of my world, as a reader and a researcher. The cultural debasement of the language bothers me a great deal, and this is why “The Book Thief” resonates particularly with me. Find out which song does the same for you, here.

Les Thomas, “Survivor’s Tale”

“Learning is neverending.” Les Thomas.

https://lesthomasmusic.bandcamp.com/album/survivors-tale
Progressive Melbourne residents are familiar with Les Thomas. Like his hero Woody Guthrie, Les is passionately committed to social justice in his own land, and he regards, quite rightly, our abuse of the rights of asylum seekers as a matter of particular urgency. Most of the songs on “Survivor’s Tale” have been heard at protests and benefits, performed by Les on his acoustic guitar.
This album, although it contains such passionate and polemical songs as “Free Ranjini” and “Song for Selva”, is a venture into electric and collective music. In Les’s words, he had “lots of amazing help from different musicians” in its creation. The result is a well-produced rock album with a very Australian feel, a definite contribution (and tribute) to a fine Australian social songwriting tradition. (In a lot of places, this sort of music would be called folk-rock, I guess, because it has a strong Irish influence and often involves a violin. Australians mostly think of it as rock music).
This is a new adventure, an experiment. Often it soars, sometimes it clangs, just a bit. But is the rawness and experimental nature of the music that makes it attractive, encouraging repeated listens. The lyrics are an invitation to experience empathically the journey and outrage of the detained Australian refugee, as good social songwriting should do. There is a more personal invitation in the music.
Survivor’s Tale, in a generous and open-hearted fashion, invites the listener to share Les’s love of his craft, his enthusiasm for expanding his musical horizons. “I definitely tried to do everything as well as possible and learned heaps”, he told me. “I am keen to keep raising the bar as possible with future recordings.”. Since it is just the kind of musical journey I like, I for one am aboard. When you listen to Survivor’s Tale, you’ll be on the bandwagon with me.