Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, “The Last Wobbly.”

Chorus:

I’m the last damn Wobbly, I’m a hundred-twenty-five
The fatcats are flummoxed that I’m still alive
But I’m strong and I’m spry
And I don’t intend to die
Till the world is One Big Union


Bookstalls are always a feature of history conferences, for obvious reasons. (Not that this bookworm is complaining about that, mind you). The North American Labor History Conference in Detroit is no exception. In 2012, my first appearance at this annual event, I actually had some spare cash, and I bought a book called Working Words. Locally produced (the editor signed my copy), the book is a collection of songs and poems about work. It is an ecletic and fascinating collection, but the truth is, I bought the book mostly because of one particular contribution entitled “The Last Wobbly.”


Fast forward a few years, and a growing obsession with history and music, and I read “The Last Wobbly” again. “Huh. It’s a song, not a poem.” I thought. “I wonder if there’s a tune involved?” So I tracked down the author and asked him.
Mikhail Horowitz is a poet, satirist, philosopher, and musician, based in New York. In recent years he has teamed up with Gilles Malkine; they tour and record as a duo. He replied to my email, sent me a CD, and told me that indeed The Last Wobbly is a song lyric, and that it is still on his set list. No recording though- yet.


“Over the summer we will record it for you,” he promised. And they did. Here it is.



To an enthusiast such as myself, the fact that there is a song out there recorded at my request is exciting enough. It’s just a bonus that Mikhail and Gilles have recorded a well-crafted bluesy tune that fits the lyrics beautifully, with a singalong chorus that must be enormous fun at concerts. Go on, try it…


I want to share this lovely gift with my fellow workers and comrades of all stripes and types, in the proper IWW spirit. For, as the chorus implies, there is no last Wobbly. We have survived persecution, co-optation, ostracism, and social media. We keep coming back to help workers organise themselves in true solidarity, agitate against the bosses and the state, and re-build the new world in the increasingly fragile shell of the old (and to smack around the boneheads when required). May we do so until the One Big Union is built. For the first, last, and next Wobblies, in the face of the difficult times before us, some solidarity in song. Sing along.


Revolutionary Love and Shaggy Dog Stories: the Best of Cosmo

Cosmo: I want to do a greatest hits album- except of course I don’t have any hits! What would be your track listing, just off the top of your head?

Me: Top of my head? I think not. Now I have the prefect excuse to listen to your whole output- again.

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. I have had enormous fun putting my ideal “Best of Cosmo” compilation together. Here it is, feel free to argue about it with me. Oh, they are in no particular order, I leave arrangement to the expert, ie you.

PS: I haven’t listed any songs from Hiraeth, deliberately. Besides the fact that it’s your latest and should be marketed as such, I think it’s a complete album in itself and people should listen to it all the way through. Oh, and keeping the choices to a dozen is REALLY difficult.

CD1: Love, Innit?
Anarchic Romance from Cosmo

Evelyn
The Family
Issues and Tissues
Fling
My! You Go On
Julia
I Could Play You a Million Love Songs
That’s Style
Revolutionary Love
Jack’s-A-Daddie!
No Man’s Possession
Deep Cover

CD2: Street Songs and Shaggy Dog Stories
The Best of Cosmo

Strike! Occupy! Resist!
Clash Of Civilisations/George Bush RIP
Climate Change is Comin’
Making a Killing
Tarry No More By the Cross
Flip the Script
Oh to Be in England
The Butcher’s Apron
No Gods, No Masters
Music Hall War!
These Chains Won’t Ever Hold Me
Jubilee
We’re All Angry Now
Dream a Different Dream

Song, Struggle and Sorrow: Phil Ochs and Victor Jara

On May 9th, 1974, Phil Ochs organised a concert at Madison Square Garden. “An Evening with Salvador Allende” was a tribute to Chile’s peacefully elected socialist president, and a protest against the brutal military coup that had instituted a dictatorship the previous September.

Ochs had a personal reason for organising this concert. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, soldiers poured through Santiago, imprisoning thousands of Chileans in the local boxing stadium. They turned that stadium into a death camp. One of the people they arrested was the folksinger and activist Victor Jara, already a legend in Chile and a consistent supporter of the socialist government.

“Victor Jara was a friend of mine,” Phil Ochs told Harry Hampstead after Jara’s death. Jara had introduced himself to Ochs when the latter visited Chile in August of 1971. “Why don’t you come with me and sing to the workers up in the copper mines?,” he asked Ochs, and a friendship was born. (No doubt Ochs sang “Hazard, Kentucky“, one of the songs he wrote for striking coal miners back home).
Ochs described Jara as “the Pete Seeger of Chile,” which is precise.

There are several versions of  the details of Victor Jara’s last days. The decades long attempt to find and charge the guards who tortured and murdered him has also provided new testimony.

It remains clear though that Jara was deliberately singled out by the officers guarding the stadium. He was not hard to spot, since he continued to do what he always did, circulating amongst the prisoners who had been arrested and taken to the boxing stadium, singing with them, encouraging them, helping out where he could.

When found, Jara’s body showed that he had been brutally beaten, his hands smashed, and that he had been shot to pieces.

Phil Ochs: “They threw his body with the other corpses. Just another dead body. His wife found him a week later. When that happened, I said, ‘All right, that’s the end of Phil Ochs.'”

As I wrote here, Jara’s death contributed noticeably to Ochs’ decline. Yet he struggled on, paying tribute to his friend as best he could, organising the concert and persuading Bob Dylan to join the lineup in order to boost ticket sales.

It was at this concert that the ballad “Victor Jara” was born. Just beforehand, Arlo Guthrie composed a tune for the poem written by Adrian Mitchell, and performed it during his set. The version below is sung by the inestimable Irish singer Christy Moore.

Insurge, “Political Prisoners”

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, “Announcement of Nationally Co-ordinated Prisoner Work Stoppage.”

Lyrics:

This song is for all the political prisoners, both here and around the world, for the people incarcerated for fraud, stealing, and larceny, and all other crimes involving property, for it’s nothing but the state protecting the rich from the poor, ever since we lost our common ground, that’s what the law’s been for.

Chorus

Yeah, I see no criminals, i see before me political prisoners.
I see no criminals, i see before me political prisoners.

This song is for all my friends, for those inside for drug offences, does the state really care about your own misguided will? – no. They’re protecting the profits of the pharmaceutical and tobacco corporations.
and you must suffer, for the oligopoly of the few.

This song is for all the political prisoners, for anyone who wants to live, and live like they know they should, the indigenous, minorities, the mentally ill,the passionate few, as we’re fighting for justice, they may take away our freedom to walk, they’ll never take away our freedom to dream!

“Political Prisoners”, by iNsuRge. Track #4 from the album Power to the Poison People, released in 1996.

James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses”

“Bread and Roses” is about the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mill strike of 1912, right? Everybody knows that.
Well, as it turns out, the association is a bit more complicated. Don’t you just love history?

The “Bread and Roses” Strike

The 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” in Lawrence, Massachusetts united mostly women textile workers from more than 40 different nationalities. Led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), it spread rapidly through the town, growing to include more than twenty thousand workers and nearly every mill in Lawrence. The strike lasted more than two months, through a brutal winter.

In late January, when a bystander was killed during a protest, IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested on charges of being accessories to the murder.
So IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to lead the strike. Together they organized a unique type of strike relief, evacuating hundreds of the strikers’ hungry children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The move drew widespread sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, leading to violence at the Lawrence train station.

Congressional hearings followed, resulting in exposure of shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills and calls for investigation of the “wool trust.” Mill owners soon decided to settle the strike, giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent.

Rose Schneiderman (a brief digression)

The phrase “bread and roses” itself originated from a line in a speech given by the labor organizer, socialist and suffragette Rose Schneiderman (who already knew way too much of shocking working conditions in the textile industry); “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It’s part of a good speech, but personally I like this story:

A state legislator warned in 1912: “Get women into the arena of politics with its alliances and distressing contests – the delicacy is gone, the charm is gone, and you emasculize women.” Schneiderman replied:

“We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the Senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy and work in foundries. Of course, you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread, let me tell you that.”

Back to the Story

To return to the subject at hand, the “bread and roses” line inspired James Oppenheim to write the poem “Bread and Roses”, published circa 1912 with the attribution line “‘Bread for all, and Roses, too’—a slogan of the women in the West,” The poem has been translated into several languages and has been set to music by at least three different composers. The most widely used tune was composed in 1974 by Mimi Farina, Joan Baez’s younger sister. [fn- Bread & Roses foundation] Farina wrote a tune designed for solidarity singing, and trade union choirs the world over love it. The video below, a clip from the movie “Pride”, shows this beautifully:

The poem is commonly associated with the successful textile strike in Lawrence because Upton Sinclair attributed the origins of the phrase to it in a 1916 book, and the association stuck. Writers do that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, the theme of the slogan/poem/song, the workers right to “sun and life and art”, as Schneiderman put it, is one that recurs throughout labour history, and it does originate with the worker protagonists of Lawrence, who carried banners and placards with the slogan. To my mind, it will always beautifully express why we need a revolution. Judge for yourself.

Bread and Roses, by James Oppenheim

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

For a French translation and some other cool information, see this link: http://unionsong.com/u159.html, or this one: http://www.iww.org/content/bread-and-roses-hundred-years

The Wakes, “Bella Ciao”

“Bella Ciao” is a partisan song from the Italian civil war, and is still sung worldwide, in many different languages, as a hymn of freedom and resistance. The author of the lyrics is unknown, the music is based on a much older folk song.

In recent years it has been sung during the 2010 Student demonstrations against tuition fees in Parliament Square, London; the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in New York; the 2013–14 protests in Turkey in Taksim Gezi Park; the funeral of two victims in the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris (January 2015), the Greek 2015 political campaign of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and in Syria by the Kurds. Some lovely Italians have put together these videos of examples from around the world:

http://pstream.lastampa.it.dl1.ipercast.net/lastampa/2015/01/23/d37A1QUG.mp4

http://video.corriere.it/bella-ciao-tutte-lingue

The English version of this song was a permanent fixture in the Melbourne May Day songbook, and was always one of my favourites to sing. Partly this is nostalgia, I guess. My great-grandfather was himself an Italian partisan, and a lifelong communist and anti-fascist. He preferred to sing endless verses of “Avanti Popolo” which is much more rousing and martial, but “Bella Ciao”, with its haunting lyrics and a melody line designed for crowds, is a wonderful song to sing in solidarity.

This Celtic folk-punk ride by The Wakes is my current favourite version.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=1790521176/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=de270f/track=3745416487/transparent=true/

The Wakes are a magnificent folk-rock band from Glasgow. I suggest you buy their albums here: https://thewakes.bandcamp.com/

Woody Guthrie, Will Kaufman and The Last Internationale: A Wobbly Collaboration

If you follow this blog at all (I write hopefully), you know why I have posted this wonderful manifestation of history in song. Both The Last Internationale and Will Kaufman are Fellow Workers, keeping the IWW traditions of peoples music and history.

The Last Internationale:

“Are you as surprised as we are to learn that Fred Trump – Donald Trump’s dad! – was Woody Guthrie’s landlord? And that Woody wrote songs about him? We decided to put his words to music and write our own verses about Fred’s equally evil son.”

Will Kaufman

Guthrie’s two-year tenancy in one of Fred Trump’s buildings and his relationship with the real estate mogul of New York’s outer boroughs produced some of Guthrie’s most bitter writings, which I discovered on a recent trip to the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa. These writings have never before been published; they should be, for they clearly pit America’s national balladeer against the racist foundations of the Trump real estate empire…

For the most part, low-cost housing projects had been left to cash-strapped state and city authorities. But when the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) finally stepped in to issue federal loans and subsidies for urban apartment blocks, one of the first developers in line, with his eye on the main chance, was Fred Trump. He made a fortune not only through the construction of public housing projects but also through collecting the rents on them…

Only a year into his Beach Haven residency, Guthrie – himself a veteran – was already lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood, which he’d taken to calling “Bitch Havens.”…

What Guthrie discovered all too late was Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the FHA’s guidelines for avoiding “inharmonious uses of housing” – or as Trump biographer Gwenda Blair puts it, “a code phrase for selling homes in white areas to blacks.” As Blair points out, such “restrictive covenants” were common among FHA projects – a betrayal, if ever there was one, of the New Deal vision that had given birth to the agency…”

“For Guthrie, Fred Trump came to personify all the viciousness of the racist codes that continued to put decent housing – both public and private – out of reach for so many of his fellow citizens:”

I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project ….

A Letter to Cosmo (Innit!)

This is why Hiraeth is the best album you have made so far. You wanted objective,* I know, but to paraphrase the great Gonzo, objective art criticism is a pompous contradiction in terms. That being said, I stick by this well-informed opinion, and here’s why.

This is a thoughtful and reflective album without any trace of navel-gazing or self-indulgence, and obviously the product of a very profound emotional journey. It is inward looking, but still engaged with the social. “These Streets Are Ours” is a defiant protest song, with a chorus designed for singing along with, and “The Likes of Me” uses the effective trick of displacement to remind us of some of the problems involved in acting in solidarity with the oppressed from a position of privilege. It’s a dilemma that any radical from an industrialised nation will recognise, if we’re honest.

Hiraeth is also unusually serious, for you. Absent is the manic Python-for-anarchists-esque humour scattered through your previous albums. There is humour, fortunately, or I would have to ask, “who are you and what have you done with Cosmo?” However, it’s more in the self-deprecating vein you engage when you tell stories, and so it invites us in without wielding a club.

You remarked that Hiraeth is “musically all over the place”. (I have no doubt this came from a place of perfectionism, a necessary but sometimes self-defeating characteristic for an artist). It is true that the styles deployed are from a wide range, but your enormous versatility is part of your appeal. (It sometimes upsets your fans, but that’s all to the good. We can do with the challenge). It can lead to some stylistic rambling around, true, but that is not the case with this album. This one works beautifully as an album, unified by your distinctive playing style. More importantly though, the lyrics make deft and empathy-inducing use of the first person perspective. Thematically and aesthetically, this album is the personal odyssey of a revolutionary, rendered poetically.

You are generally very good at first person narrative, and I have frequently enjoyed the way you make it serve as historical fiction, writing in the unwritten parts of our history. On Hiraeth though, despite it being obvious that you create and speak through “characters”, your artistic voice comes through very strongly. If we still used the word in its original sense, I would say this album is your “master piece”; it demonstrates your mastery of songwriting, of your own artistic voice.

This is the kind of album that requires listening carefully, several times, from beginning to end. You can tell your fans that from me, and I believe this album will net you new ones.

———————–

*I also get that “objective” means in this context “outside your own head”, but I can’t resist a chance to (mis)quote Hunter.

The Last Internationale, “The Personal is Political”

New York band The Last Internationale play a rollicking blues-based style of music, all driving bass and soaring vocals. They are also the inheritors of an important American musical tradition sometimes referred to as “folk”, but which I think of as peoples history in song.

The Last Internationale are also, like many a radical artist over the last century or so, Fellow Workers.

This is not a coincidence. Many great artists have recognised the vitality and force of the Wobbly aesthetic, joined the union, and taken to the work of musical agitation over the last century or so. The Last Internationale cover other peoples songs, in a folk tradition type way, but they also write new interpretations of old stories and ideas.
November 19th 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the execution of Joe Hill, and I have been studying the way radical musicians in particular keep the Wobbly spirit and methods alive and relevant. (I’m even writing a paper on the topic)*.

The radical sociologist C Wright Mills wrote:

“I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a Wobbly is? It’s a kind of spiritual condition. A Wobbly is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He’s also a man who’s often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn’t made up himself. He doesn’t like bosses –capitalistic or communistic – they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is Wobbly freedom.”

“The Personal is Political” is a fine example of the Wobbly spirit in song.

“Bury me tomorrow if I happen to leave
Don’t feel no sorrow, just fight to be free.”

In other words, “Don’t Mourn- Organize”!

Art, particularly music, recreates and reinforces the sense of solidarity in a group. Songwriting is at the same time an effective organising and educational tool for social change. The Last Internationale have taken this knowledge, this history, and poured it into their own creative output. They agitate, they educate- and they rock.

To quote Bill Ayers (and The Last Internationale bio page):

“They have a story to tell, a thousand stories really, echo after echo from long ago and from just a minute past, reverberations booming toward an uncertain future and ricocheting back at us, refrains from the rough but lovely localities of the wretched of the earth to the hard boundaries of lost and disappearing things. Every line calls us together and invites us to create, each gestures toward a world that could be but is not yet; every note offers another door you might squeeze through in search of the rest of your life. Turn the knob, slip the lip, dive headfirst into the wreckage—now there you are.”

You can do that here, or buy their albums on the bandcamp link above.

———————–

*That paper never got written, although I did turn up to sit on the panel. I suck at things academic.

David Rovics “St Patrick Battalion”

A St Patrick’s Day Musical Tribute

Everywhere there are uprisings and resistance to unjust occupation, one finds the Irish. Irish nationalism is unique in its commitment to international solidarity, due both to its anti-colonial perspective and its many many exiles.

The story of John Riley and the San Patricios is a fine example of this tradition, and American songwriter David Rovics has created a song about this 19th century brigade that beautifully combines Irish and American musical traditions, evoking the sense of Irish exile and showing how Irish international solidarity is deeply entwined with the history of the American people, north and south. He has great subjects to work with, but David’s unique ability to imagine the motivations and character of his subjects has served him well in this story rendered in song. The result has been universally popular amongst his followers and fans around the world (and even, to judge from my own experience, his detractors and hecklers.)

To find out more about this remarkable battalion, go here: http://www.stpatricksbattalion.org/index.htm