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.

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

Peter LaFarge, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

In 1964, Johnny Cash recorded one of his best and most under-rated works, called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was a concept album, focusing entirely on the history and civil rights abuses of the indigenous population in the United States. The songs that that Cash did not write himself were all written by the New York-based singer-songwriter Peter LaFarge, including the only song released as a single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes“.
Cash dedicated a great deal of his time in the 1960s and 70s to the cause of Native American civil rights, including a visit to and a concert for the people of the Lakota reservation in 1968, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

Richard Elfstrom’s documentary, released in 1969, features Cash’s tour of the historic site, conducted by descendants of the victims. Elfstrom basically followed Cash around, with a camera, during 1968, when Cash was at a creative peak. He captured some wonderful behind the scenes footage as well as some significant concerts. In this clip, Cash is performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for his Lakota audience:

Cash’s “leftie credentials” are a subject of much debate, and rightly so.* My own feeling, on admittedly fairly superficial research, is that Cash’s dedication to particular issues of social reform were, as with many artists, spurred by his direct experience. In this case, Peter LaFarge himself was a personal inspiration.

LaFarge was associated with the Greenwich Village 1960s heyday of folk music, and was what might be called a single issue songwriter, devoting his musical career to the cause of Native American civil rights.

On May 10 1962, Cash’s long sought-after concert at Carnegie Hall flopped, badly. Deeply depressed, he sought escape in music, and went downtown to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, where LaFarge happened to be performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. It changed his life. In a style that seems typical, he threw himself into the social issue that was the central preoccupation of LaFarge’s life. Cash debuted Bitter Tears at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964; he went down a treat and gained an audience in the protest folk scene, a rare crossover for a country music star.+

In the way that good folk music does, the Ballad keeps returning. In 2011, the Mohican singer and flute player Bill Miller was invited to join the inaugural Johnny Cash Festival in Arkansas. He decided to play “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.

“It came about because John Carter Cash and I are working on a project with [Roy’s son] Wesley Orbison,” said Miller [in 2011]. “John Carter told me about the festival and asked if I wanted to do it. I’ve been singing [Cash’s 1958 classic] ‘I Still Miss Someone’ since I was 10-years-old, but Rosanne [Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter] was singing it in the show. So he asked me if I’d do ‘Ira Hayes’- which I’d never done, but always wanted to do.”But the lengthy ballad had so many lyrics that Miller had shied away from it.

“Then its impact on me hit me just the other day when I was getting ready to perform it,” he said. “It’s such a sad story and powerful image. I remember asking my mom, ‘Who’s hand is reaching for the flag on top of the hill?’ And she said it was a native man. And what happened to Ira Hayes in his life related to me: My dad [like LaFarge himself] was a Korean war veteran, and he died a drunk. And here’s a song about the same thing, and it’s tragic.”

50 years after Bitter Tears was recorded, a collective of artists came together to reimagine the album. Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, was produced by Joe Henry and features Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Norman and Nancy Blake, as well as up-and-comers The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens, interpreting the music of Bitter Tears for a new generation.

“Prior to Bitter Tears, the conversation about Native American rights had not really been had,” says Henry, “and at a very significant moment in his trajectory, Johnny Cash was willing to draw a line and insist that this be considered a human rights issue, alongside the civil rights issue that was coming to fruition in 1964. But he also felt that the record had never been heard, so there’s a real sense that we’re being asked to carry it forward.”

About Ira Hayes

Ira Hamilton Hayes was a member of the Pima tribe, based at the Gila reservation in Phoenix, Arizona, and a United States Marine. A veteran of the Pacific campaign, Hayes was one of the soldiers made famous by the classic John Rosenthal photograph of the American flag being raised on top of the hill at Iwo Jima. Despite his own efforts to remain incognito, he was thrust into the War Department media circus known as a “war bonds drive”, which did not work out well. He was eventually returned to his combat unit, but by then he had already learned to cope by drinking and was a confirmed alcoholic. In January 1955 he was found dead of exposure and alcohol poisoning on his Arizona lands.

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*Cash’s children, particularly his daughter Roseanne, have done an admirable job of preserving the story of Cash’s iconoclasm and complexity, and arguing against his being claimed by either the left or the right.

+There is a story that Cash Played “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for Nixon at a meeting on prison reform in 1972, but I have found some evidence that this is one of conflations of half-truth and myth. Further investigation requires listening to the Nixon tapes, and I really don’t have time for that right now. The article that argues this point of view is here.

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.

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

Review: David Rovics Live and Virtual House Concert

Watching a livestream broadcast of a concert is an interesting proposition for me, since I prefer my concerts actually live. David Rovics is undoubtedly at his best at a concert, so I joined the broadcast of his house concert expecting that (as I have found with his youtube broadsides and radio broadcasts) the abstract nature of the audience would detract from the show. I was pleased to discover that I was wrong.

Two aspects of the broadcast contributed to its success. The location, and the inclusion of a local audience.

There was an audience was in David’s living room, giving the concert an intimate atmosphere that went a long way to overcoming the sense of distance created by watching a live show via a camera. The camera was set up so we virtual participants “joined” the audience, and David could address both simultaneously. There was a message board that David (and all of us online) could see and respond to, so we were included in that unique rapport with the audience that he always builds with a live show.

There were also some special moments experienced just by the virtual audience. David has written songs about the grandparents of a friend of his in Hamburg, and he played both of them. That granddaughter was watching the show from Denmark, and responded with appreciative comments on the message board. It was interactions like this which took the virtual concert from “nearly as good as live” to having a unique value of its own, one impossible to attain with an actual live audience.

The interaction between global and local are a unique feature of today’s technology, and artists are often to be found there, experimenting with the tech and the show. This particular fusion of live and virtual worked very well, and I look forward to joining more concerts like this one, either (and this is a change!) virtually- or really.

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.

 

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.

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

Leon Rosselson, “Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party”

When I was a child, I used to wonder idly, every December, why the shopping centres kept playing the tune to “The Red Flag”. It took me years to realise that the tune was actually “O, Tannenbaum” to most people.

It was in the liner notes to Billy Bragg’s The Internationale, released in 1990, that I discovered that “The Red Flag” was originally written to the much less dirge-like tune of “The White Cockade”.

Given all that history, I got a great laugh from this song, based on the wrong tune, lampooning the “socialism” of the British Labor Party. It’s probably the Wob influence, but I’m particularly fond of satire that derides the hypocrisy of those who claim to represent the working-class while exploiting them. This song is now on my list of favourites, along with “Love Me I’m a Liberal”, and “Bump Me Into Parliament”. Many thanks to Alex Bainbridge for directing my attention to this musician.