Friday, December 31, 2010

FICTION: 'On the Lost Boulevard'

"On the Lost Boulevard"


By John Pietaro

The sting of light penetrated his eyes, piercing sleep like a razor. A flare in the darkness, it burnt harshly and, shielding his face from the glare, he leapt back, awakening with a gasp.

“Hey, what the hell are you deaf? Get up I said! Move on, ya skel!”, shouted the angry voice behind the blinding beam. As Ronnie huddled against the storage room wall, looking upward, he could just make out the figure of an 8-pointed, brimmed hat and the intolerant eyes beneath it.

“Whadda you gonna make me crack you in the head? Come on, man”, the imposing figure said, poking his nightstick liberally. “You can’t sleep here… This ain’t the Bowery”

As the direct blow of the flashlight beam finally angled away, the officer’s voice too seemed a little less abrasive. Ronnie stumbled to his feet and hurriedly grabbed his shoulder bag by its worn strap, and attempted to pull his coat collar further up around his neck, bracing. Glancing back, he said nothing to the beat cop whom he’d recognized from several earlier encounters, one of the regulars who patrols around First Avenue. Ronnie noticed that the annoyed blue eyes glaring his way belonged to a ruddy, youthful face, maybe fifteen, sixteen years younger than his own. The cop, after staring through him, looked away uncomfortably, almost embarrassed as Ronnie tried to ready himself for the outside, for the cold yet to come.

“Look, ya can’t just walk into a building’s service entrance like this”, he told the disheveled man. “You near scared the shit outta the super who came down here after 2AM to check on something. Listen”, his voice softened, “I seen you around and I know you’re not a troublemaker. But buddy I can arrest you now for breakin’ and enterin’ and I’m sure if I search you now, I will find something ta send you off to Riker’s for a little while. You won’t have to worry about findin’ a warm bed then, you’ll have one-- care of the city”. He sighed, “Why don’t you go over to the shelter on 31st Street?”

Ronnie opened his mouth to speak, but a couple weeks of braving an inordinately cold wave coupled by a bit of dehydration robbed him of his voice for a moment. Clearing his throat he said, “Officer, you haveta understand that it’s freezing out there---and December isn’t even done yet. I been to that shelter—plenty of times. It’s a horrible place and there’s more crime going on there than out in the streets. I’ll take my chances outside”.

Ronnie stood up straight and buttoned his coat tight, put on his hat and gloves and headed out into the early morning air. It was still dark and the blackness hung like a mist over the cityscape. The streetlights seemed to fight the blue-black sky for attention, throwing odd-angled shafts of light this way and that, melting into the shadows. The view from the streets robs the Apple of all its luster. The parade of tall structures join together to shut out the stars, disappear the moon.

Exiting out of the alley, he stayed close to the facades of the silent buildings along First, but was still battered by the intermittent blasts of early winter wind. All-night diners offered no solace for him; maybe a fast food joint----or he might be able to slip into the ATM vestibule of a bank. Maybe. Gazing up into a nearby store window, looking passed twinkling holidays decorations, he noted the time: 3:03 AM; Christ, it’d be more than two hours before dawn. Shutting his eyes to close out the taunting gusts, Ronnie moved along the streets slowly with nowhere in particular to go. He fished around inside his pockets seeking out loose change or a Metro Card, hoping to be able to at least sleep on the subway, but, “Shit---nothing”. Resigned, he then frantically searched his pockets and coat lining for something beyond money; he now sought out something to make the moment less painful. “I know there has to be at least one more stick of xanax in here somewhere, maybe a couple of benzos…”. But his hands re-emerged empty; he found only more nothing.

Moving along now, moving along, Ronnie tried to focus away from his exhaustion and the gnawing pains in his stomach. Pressed almost against the face of an old building, he looked up at 28th Street and saw Bellevue Hospital and its glowing, cavernous lobby. The homeless often tend to congregate in the area, perhaps out of force of habit, reaching toward Bellevue as a healthcare safety net. Oh sure, you thought it was just a psych hospital, didn’t you? It is the city’s best equipped trauma center and many of the street people end up there when subject to assaults, overdoses or the elements. And then of course there’s the psych unit as well---and detox. Hey you never know. But mostly they tend to stay fairly close by.

As the wooshing sound of a wind-swept revolving door faded softly behind him, Ronnie felt the lobby’s warm air embrace him. Not wanting to push his luck, he leaned against a wall not far from the entrance, hoping to tacitly meld into the background. Perhaps he might not be noticed if he just sat still…..

“Hey, you—can I help YOU?”, cried out a Hospital Police Officer posted near the Information booth. Looking over his cup of steaming coffee he asked again, “Can I help you?!”

Ronnie looked back at the tall African-American man in the dark blue uniform, his ‘It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You Cup’ staring back, mockingly. “Uh, yeah, uh…I am sick. Officer, I need to get to the ER. I know the way; I can get there myself, I was just resting”, he stated, emphasizing his limp and demonstrating a pained look on his otherwise smooth face. As he inched up the long hall toward the Emergency Room he felt the eyes of the Hospital cop on his back.

Ronnie’ s limp was long-term and other than moments like this, something he rarely thought much about. He’d originally hurt his leg many years back while playing high school football. Now, nearing forty, it had been a long time since he’d engaged in the athleticism that had been so much a part of his early life (oh, in high school he was a champ, all-state, and he went through cheerleaders like they were going out of style). Now the injury was long healed when, in the blur of a benzo high five years ago, he fell off the loading dock he was sleeping on and broke the leg in three places. That ranked another stay at Bellevue, a long one. After being treated, he’d spent time on the physical therapy unit for mending and reveled in the comfort of a warm bed and three squares. He could almost get used to that. The social worker had referred Ronnie to a decent drug rehab that time but, well you know how those things go. He’d had his share of TCs and ¾ houses and so there really wasn’t going to be any more treatment for now. Many of these places were hard-ass and designed to break you down to build you back up or simply took the Medicaid money and left you to your own devices. The desire to keep clean is rarely lasting in the face of inside dealing.

And as he shuffled down the corridor, his surroundings alarmingly alive with activity during the depth of the night shift, he thought about the anxiety that always came with a trip to any ER, whether it be this one, B.l., Roosevelt or any of the others he’d surrender himself to from time to time. You try to schedule such visits with rotations, of site and shift, in order to avoid the inevitable doubting eyes of the staff. But he knew how to work it and was admired by peers for his calm and ability to engage others. Ronnie somehow maintained his youth and his looks over these years on the street. He wore his blond hair straight back and the blue eyes still sparkled when he smiled; his charm is not simply a learned survival skill, but it helped in such situations. It always came naturally. As a nurse, apparently on a momentary break, quickly walked out of the ER toward the cafeteria, he smiled at her politely, lifting his hat and nodding in a countrified manner. The harried woman slowed down her pace in response and offered a weary smile back at Ronnie as he struggled up the passageway. Sighing, she reluctantly began to ask if he needed any assistance but, true to form, Ronnie shook his head and replied, “No, dear, I see that you are in a rush to get something to eat. Please go ahead”, he motioned, “I am okay and know my way inside. And enjoy your break. Really”. The nurse nodded and, seeing as Ronnie was getting along and she had scant moments to get some food, she proceeded ahead.

Moving along his path, Ronnie began to experience some real pains ---- the pain of withdrawal. Removing his gloves, he looked down at his hands and the fingers danced about involuntarily around his open palms. He began to feel suddenly warm and, pulling open the coat he’d worked so hard to fasten just a few minutes ago, his pace slowed down in direct contrast to the race of his heart-rate. “Just a little further, just a little further”.

Ronnie walked into the large Emergency triage area and was relieved to see that there wasn’t much of a line at this ungodly hour. A tired-looking elderly man stood near his even more elderly wife, a heavy woman who continually blotted her forehead with a rag and muttered in a foreign tongue. All he could make out was the occasional “aye, aye!”. As she sat with eyes shut tight, the husband stood behind her wearing a rather bored expression, patting her shoulder, awaiting the nurse to call for the Mrs. In fact if you watched closely the old man with the forlorn face and crumpled hat looked like he’d been through this too many times already. Ronnie’s eyes scanned the room and saw a strung-out looking young woman dressed in a trench coat, fishnet stockings and killer stilettos. Her attention was torn between a frantic pace of texting on her cell phone and staring back at herself in a hand-held mirror, blotting what looked like a swollen lip. Long, streaky blonde hair rather askew and make-up applied thick enough for the stage, she’d probably been roughed up by her pimp but would never bother to report this to anyone. After checking out her legs one last time, Ronnie’s attention was drawn to the back wall where a tall, thin guy with one hand over his face sat. He was trying desperately to sleep in the hard plastic chair, appearing quite tortured. He was unshaven and looked like he’d been on a binge. Ronnie made him immediately as someone who’d come in for a stay in the detox unit and was now waiting to be seen by the day shift RN, expected about three hours from now, for an evaluation. Ronnie had been through this before too: it’s a an awful wait as you feel the last vestiges of your favorite substance wear off and you become increasingly fearful of not being able to get another hit. One more chance to get clean sure, but one more sickening disappointment you feel you’ll never be able to get through. Which scenario will close off the tale? Ronnie averted his eyes away from the man. Sitting way over to his left was an obese man uncomfortably holding a make-shift ice-pack to his shoulder, rocking in place, looking as if he may cry.

The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead as Ronnie gazed over the counter at the middle-aged unit clerk with the two pencils stuck into the bun of her hair. The name plate sitting in front of her stated that she was Rosa Escalara, and apparently she’d been given an award for excellent attendance recently; a small medal pridefully hung over the brassy nameplate. Must be the highlight of her career, Ronnie thought as he rested his head on his chin, watching. She was speaking in a hushed tone to a young African American woman who’d brought her toddler in after he’d swallowed something or other. The young lady, holding the wiggling child in one arm, desperately tried to find her insurance card in a much too large purse that appeared to contain most everything but. Ronnie could not make out the conversation but could easily hear the young mother’s voice raise anxiously in pitch as Rosa sat glassy-eyed, watching her dig for the wallet.

“Okay, okay, people----we gotta move!”, he overheard one man in scrubs say to another, “Gun shot wound coming in on the bus that just pulled in!”. And so the wait would be a little bit longer. Ronnie shut his eyes, trying to absorb the heat into his every pore, savoring it, as he knew it may not last long. Just as he began to drift off, a youngish Asian man in a lab coat approached him; it was Dr. Nguyen, the resident who saw him not one week ago. “You---back again? What’s going on now?”

“Oh, hey Doc”, Ronnie groaned through his sleep haze, “I didn’t know you were on nights now”. Ronnie smiled that boyish smile at the doctor, hoping to buy some more time.

“Look Mr, uh, uh…

McCallister”, Ronnie inserted.

“McCallister. You know I saw you here just a few days ago and before that a week prior. And reviewing the charts I see that you had come into the ED one time in between and there’s quite a few other visits in the past weeks and months…”

“Uh, not really Doc. Some of those times I was out of it and brought here by EMS. I can’t help it if the ambulance driver takes me here. You know I…”

“Okay, Mr. McCallister, what seems to be the trouble tonight?”, the doctor inquired, looking at Ronnie over his glasses, the authenticity of his concern in constant question.

“Well, you see Doc, it’s this leg injury again. Must be the cold weather that’s got it acting up, but I am having such a hard time walking. And this cop is hassling me and threatened to arrest me for vagrancy so you know I couldn’t exactly stay off the bad leg. But I am in a lot of pain just trying to walk. It’s throbbing”

“Mr. McCallister, if you are saying that your leg is hurting, I will examine it but history tells us that you are drug-seeking and so I am giving you no medications tonight. You probably need to go into detox again. I can’t lie to you, my patience is growing thin; you know we have to treat very sick people here—you take up valuable time. So now is that leg really in pain, Mr. McCallister?”, the doctor asked through what amounted to a hiss.

“Um, yeah, yeah, Doc. It’s killing me, really. Why would I lie to you?”, Ronnie asked incredulously as the old man, now seated next to his long-suffering wife, watched the interaction closely, glad to have something new to focus on.

The weary doctor nodded reluctantly to Ronnie and then turned to head back to the bays containing the already full beds of patients who stared out from their small curtained cubicles. As the doctor disappeared into the bowels of the Emergency Department, the old man grew disinterested and looked back toward the front triage desk as his wife quietly cried out “aye, aye!”, Ronnie looked over the waiting room one more time. The young mother with the child was now back in the unit and the blonde prostitute had taken her place at Rosa’s counter, still trying to soothe the split lip and God knows what other injuries lay beneath her coat. From the hallway beyond the security guard’s post at the far end he could hear an audacious shouting, that which seemed to emanate from the most acute sort. The guard looked down at his crossword puzzle, nonplussed. Another one headed for CPEP, psych emergency. One for the locked ward in the waiting.

Ronnie looked around for an old magazine or newspaper to bury his face into but the chairs about him all sat empty. He looked down to the floor, hands in his hair. An alert on the overhead, ‘Code Blue, Code Blue’, settled it. As nurses ran with a crash-cart, he got up and walked out post haste, having had enough of this. It was cold outside but already nearly 4. The newsstand up the street would be opening soon enough and he could always do some quick panhandling to earn enough for some coffee and whatever. The cruelty of the season only seemed to bring out the best in others. The walk down the long corridor back to the lobby was somewhat brief this time.

Free of the noise of Bellevue, beyond its corridors and outside its boundless glass front wall, stood Ronnie McCallister. He glanced over the circular driveway normally filled with visitors and taxi cabs and vendors and passersby, now sealed in a vacuum topped by purple sky. His usual crew that hung out on the benches across the avenue, over on 27th street, was nowhere to be found. And so he stood alone. Huddling against the frosty wind which challenged the buttons of his coat with each gust, Ronnie looked toward downtown and faded into his own thoughts. The regrets were too voluminous for each to be considered separately; they’d unified into a tapestry that surrounded him. Thoughts of blown opportunities, lies within lies, and auspicious beginnings invaded his memory with a will of their own. He thought of the drinking he’d been introduced to at age nine by his older brother Mark---it all seemed so funny to the teenagers to watch Little Ronnie stumble around. There was no supervision to speak of and, surely no protection either. From anyone. Their mother worked two jobs to try to keep the family together after their on-again, off-again father disappeared. She was too busy and too blind to see and as the years went on the liquor and then the pills became so much the norm, they began to have something of a familial presence. But through it, Ronnie continued to have plans. High school was all sports and all promise for the future. He almost had that college football scholarship---it was good to go but he missed the academic entry exam both times it was given. Couldn’t make it either time. Couldn’t or wouldn’t, who in hell knows?

Pulling the brim of his cap down over his brow to secure it, Ronnie’s mind slipped back to the construction jobs he’d held over the years, a carpenter, like his old man. But the jobs got hard to come by after foremen saw his hands tremble a time too many. It goes like that. A liability, they called him. So he moved on. Lived out west for a while too, but it was hard to find lasting work in LA (“Why’m I gonna hire you when I can get the Mexicans for half your price?”, he was asked by an especially pompous contractor). Venice Beach sounded great too, but there were lots of homeless there, many living in cars, others in their own little Hoovervilles. In fact, that was where he first found himself penniless, living on handouts and the occasional odd job. His connection did not work out and Mark had to wire him enough money to take an Amtrak back to Penn Station. “You fucking bum, when are you gonna get a job?”, Mark demanded when Ronnie called him in desperation. “You can’t go traipsing around the country like some kinda hobo---this is the real world. Wake up, kiddo!” Knowing he could never pay his debt, Ronnie tended to stay away and after a while, they just lost contact. Ma finally got remarried and he tried to move in with her but that didn’t work out. She even sent him to a technical school to get his electrician’s license, but he had a hard time getting through his apprenticeship. It’s a damned union thing, Ronnie told himself at the time, seeking a more plausible answer for yet another defeat. So the jobs were by happenstance, like everything else.

Heading downtown, Ronnie braved the cutting wind. Block by block, step by step, he dug his hands deeper into his pockets and kept his chin tucked into his chest. But his mind again strayed and he thought of Gina, probably the only genuine thing in his entire life. She had light blue eyes against shining black hair and every head turned when she entered a club. Back then he was still riding on the momentary football hero status, telling his friends that he was awaiting the right scholarship opportunity. His confidence towered over his formidable frame and his rap was devastating. With his collar fashionably turned upward and his hair perfect, he slinked over to Gina’s stool and ordered two of whatever she was having. And it went on from there. He fell hard for her. They seemed to be inseparable, and Ronnie wore her down too and then she was gone. A fucking drunk she called him. I’ve given you chances Ronnie but you always let me down. It’s over. I’m not gonna marry some fucking drunk from Long Island City!.........

As he crossed 23rd Street the first glint of sunlight began to shimmer in the reticent sky, mingling with the sweeping garland strung above the city. Further down, further down he traveled, as if there was a destination beyond the reach of Manhattan’s Lost Boulevard. The golden rays of light began to permeate the night in streaks of red and yellow and amber. The buildings about him glowed and as the wind warmed, he felt the urgency within begin to cease. He forgot about the tremors. He sought out where to be. He remembered the anger of the cop who woke him up to push him out of this haunt of the very rich. “Below 14th Street”, he thought to himself, “Below 14th Street I can rest a little bit more”, and he walked on. As 1st Avenue led him from Gramercy Park through the East Village he walked passed the condos and luxury buildings and condos and luxury buildings. “This ain’t the Bowery”, “This ain’t the Bowery”, the cop had told him. And it wasn’t. So Ronnie continued his descent.

Bypassing the string of silk stocking restaurants and crown jewel cafes that slowly opened their doors, he walked. The city began to stir and the people in their business suits moved in and out of cabs and train stations and this building and that. No one seemed to notice Ronnie as he moved along their sidewalks and crossed their streets; they moved around him as if there were an invisible shield which came between them. But it was he that was transparent. Moving west now, he walked along the shadows that the buildings threw onto the side streets as the sun rotated far above. And as he came upon it, recalled that the Bowery wasn’t the Bowery anymore. The holiday-lit bistros and galleries and designer shops led him away, down, and as the town began to swirl with activity, the buildings again moved in closer and closer and the nightsong turned into a din. And In the dense world about him Ronnie began to fade into the grey pavement over which the busy people ran. And then he was no longer an issue.

And he was no more.

--December 31, 2010, 5:06 PM, Brooklyn NY--

Monday, December 27, 2010


Solidarity Forever: The IWW and the Protest Song

By John Pietaro

Of all US radical organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World is perhaps that which has most fully embraced the notion of the revolutionary cultural worker. Many, many of its early organizers were writers, musicians or visual artists (often all three!) and successfully used the arts as a tool in organizing workers across the globe. The Left’s focus on folk arts as a representation of cultural and national heritage has been a foremost tool in outreach since the turn of the 20th century. This foray into a “culture of the People” became a major point of identification by the proponents of the masses and was the natural outgrowth of the use of songs by workers and others in trying situations. Folk song collectors grew in prominence during the first decades of the 20th century, producing a ‘folk revival’, which, by the 1940s, had blossomed. Ironically, in the United States, the political Left (the Socialist and Communist parties primarily) did not acknowledge the important role of folk arts for decades, though this media was a vastly important historical point of reference. Particularly in the IWW.

Accounts of Wobbly musicians have been recorded as early as 1906, but one year after the IWW’s founding. The Spokane branch was approached by a highly active Socialist Party orator/organizer, Jack Walsh, who developed a plan to aid the Wobblies’ somewhat stunted organizing attempts. Though Walsh was able to draw a considerable crowd in the depressed tenderloin district of the city, he was encountering purposeful disruptions by the missionaries of the Salvation Army and one of their particularly pious brass bands. Not to be outdone by the cacophony, Walsh and the Spokane Wobblies soon had its own powerhouse Industrial Workers Band. Blaring on cornets and marching to the thunderous pulse of drums and tambourines, the Wobbly band were said to have devastated all whom they crossed. The band, clad in black overhauls and red work shirts, left no corner safe for the street evangelicals.

Walsh organized a brass band of his own, in which Mac McClintock played an E-flat baritone horn and a giant lumberjack beat, as McClintock recalled, the “b’jeezuz” out of a bass drum. Walsh’s band learned four tunes and hammered away at these over and over until the evangelists capitulated. (Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page174-175)

The Industrial Workers Band, taking a cue from the popular parodies of the evangelists’ songs, began to perform their own such lampoons of the Religious Right of its day. Among them was “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”, was well as songs by Harry ‘Mac’ McClintock (1883-1957), already a noted songster in the hobo jungles, and Richard Brazier. Armed with this minimal repertoire and copies of song-lyric leaflets they printed up, the Band embarked on something of a tour of the Pacific Northwest coastal towns.

‘Mack’ McClintock had come to the IWW with an arsenal full of topical original songs including “Halleluiah, I’m a Bum” and “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and he helped to popularize many of Joe Hill’s songs including “The Preacher and the Slave”. He traveled the country, organizing for the IWW, spending much of his time in the “hobo jungles” of the period, where he had been a frequent guest since his teenage years. Prior to the IWW, McClintock had worked as a railroad switchman in South Africa and then, according to Wobbly historian Joyce Kornbluh, he

…bummed his way to London to attend the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. He was a civilian mule skinner in the Spanish American War, and had also made his way to China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. (Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 29)

Of course McClintock also had the honor of leading that first IWW marching band, which became a fixture in the Pacific Northwest for several years. McClintock, like others of his generation, remained a Wobbly throughout his life. He began to perform songs of labor and struggle on radio broadcasts in 1925 and he continued to have a show through the mid-1950s. In addition to his IWW membership, McClintock had also joined the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 in California, but he is best known as a songwriter of the IWW.

Ultimately the Industrial Workers Band and the IWW Spokane branch dispensed with its early leader Jack Walsh, whom they saw as a shrewd businessman, largely out for his own profit. But the dye had been cast and the cultural workers among the Wobbly ranks had come to be seen as celebrated by the people and notorious by the powers that be.

…his idea had taken root, and before long street singing and organization became the principal activity of the struggling Pacific locals. The national policy board bestowed its benediction on topical singing as a weapon of revolt, and Walsh’s four-page leaflet grew larger year by year.(Greenway, page 176)

Another important songwriter associated with the IWW was T-Bone Slim (dates unknown, c. 1890-1942), whose actual name was Matti Valentine Huhta. T-Bone served the movement as a highly active Wobbly musician/organizer, though he was a journalist by profession in addition to laboring in other fields over the years. He became affiliated with the IWW by approximately 1910 and quickly began to write for their various periodicals. He also put many of his poems to music, the best known of which was “The Popular Wobbly”, a parody of the then-hit “The Girls Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me”, which Slim transformed into a sardonic protest song. The Wobblies’ own historical documents call T-Bone Slim one of the most famous and popular of Wob writers, as he penned numerous pamphlets in addition to a number of songs. He would remain an active Wobbly throughout his life.

Starting with 1909, the Wobblies began publishing the Little Red Song Book (“songs to fan the flames of discontent”) which made songs of labor and social change available to all workers.

Richard Brazier was an IWW musician who was part of the committee which produced the first IWW songbook. He described how the music of the Industrial Workers first drew him in:

What first attracted me to the IWW was its songs and the gusto with which its members sang them. Such singing, I thought, was good propaganda, since it had originally attracted me and many others as well; and also useful since it held the crowd for Wobbly speakers who followed. (Brazier, Richard, “The Story of the IWW’s Little Red Song Book”, Labor History number 9, Winter 1968, pp. 91-92; source: Salerno, Salvatore, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World. NY: State University of New York Press, 1989, page 28)

Wobbly historian Salvatore Salerno clarifies:

Cultural expressions such as songs, cartoons and poetry became a critical form and means of communication between the IWW and its members. While IWW worker intellectuals had a major role in disseminating knowledge of the activities, principles and tactics of industrial unionism, worker artists went beyond formal political expressions to create a language and symbolism that made the IWWs principles meaningful within the context of the workers’ cultural and social alienation. (Salerno, Salvatore, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World. NY: State University of New York Press, 1989, pp149-151)

A Wobbly poet/organizer of almost legendary proportions, later an associate of the Socialist Party, was Arturo Giovannitti (1884-1959). This Italian anarchist relocated to the USA in 1901 and became entrenched in the cause of radical labor and developed powerful journalism skills along the route. Giovannitti worked as a coal miner and joined the Italian Socialist Federation of North America and soon his writing skills led him to the post of editor of Italian-language Left periodical Il Proletario. Quickly, Giovannitti joined the IWW and focused his efforts on organizing the textile workers in Lawrence Massachusetts. He and organizer Joseph Ettor led this groundbreaking 1912 strike during which both men were arrested on a bogus murder charge. During their jail term, Giovannitti was encouraged to write about it and he composed the multi-verse book-length Arrows in the Gale, which spoke of the struggle and brandished an introduction by Helen Keller. It included the haunting poems “The Walker” and “The Cage” which told of the sense of eternal hopelessness of the men he encountered in jail. A 1913 article in Current Opinion magazine wrote of Giovannitti and his poetic works:

He has the soul of a great poet, the fervor of a prophet and, added to these, the courage and power of initiative that mark the man of action and the organizer of great crusades…This jail experience of Giovannitti’s has given the world one of the greatest poems ever produced in the English language…‘The Walker’ is more than a poem. It is a great human document (Current Opinion, January 1913; source: Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 184)

More so, a piece in Forum magazine of the day stated:

The significant thing is that here we have a new sort of poet with a new sort of song…He and his songs are products of something that few Americans yet understand. We do not comprehend the problem of the unskilled just as we do not comprehend the IWW that has come out of it. A poet has arisen to explain…In ‘the Walker’ he has pointed the prison as no man, not even Wilde, has done. (McGowan, Kenneth, Forum, October 14, 1913; source: ibid)

The charges against Giovannitti and Ettor were overturned on appeal and the pair were freed after five months. Upon release, they’d found that their strike had been a success and the mostly Italian immigrant workers had won. Indeed, they’d secured not only a voice on the job but fair and just wages. Following this, Giovannitti participated in the unsuccessful Patterson strike of the IWW and wrote for significant Left magazines in both English and Italian including the Masses and the International Socialist Review. He also created his own anti-war organ, Il Fuoco as World War One erupted. Giovannitti, long considered one of the Labor movement’s greatest orators, was expelled from the IWW in 1916 along with Ettor and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn due to their activities in a Minnesota iron-ore strike that IWW leaders did not agree with. (source:

Joe Hill (Joel Emmanuel Haaglund, aka Joseph Hillstrom, 1878-1915) was—and remains--the IWW’s guiding cultural force. A model for the fighting cultural worker, Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most famous pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones, the Union Scab”, “There is Power in the Union”, “Mr. Block” and “Where the Fraser River Flows”, amidst a stream of others. He performed on piano, guitar and various other instruments, composing songs in bars and IWW halls at night, so that he would have them ready for union meetings, pickets and other functions the next day, spreading the word of this global industrial union through music. Hill came to the US from Sweden as a young man and saw firsthand the terrible conditions workers had to endure in the first part of the twentieth century; shortly thereafter he pledged allegiance to the cause of the IWW. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his infamous unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me---organize”. Hill, for all the mythology that surrounds him, has been the subject of numerous biographical sketches; his life, and the frame-up which ended it, have been the viewed as a principal to the labor historians’ repertoire.

IWW members Dean Nolen and Fred Thompson’s detailed booklet offers considerable insight, even if some of it remains shrouded in the Joe Hill legends. While they cite that Hill’s first years in the United States were often a rather desperate attempt to find employment (he became something of a “wharf rat”), the first accounts of his cultural work date back to 1906. Hill was then living in San Francisco and chronicled the great earthquake for his hometown paper. Living in New York later, he worked as a porter by day and played piano in downtown saloons by night. But much more to the point,

The earliest parody written by Hill that we know of went to the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, a Salvation Army favorite. It was already in circulation before it appeared in the 1911 edition of the IWW songbook (Nolan, Dean and Fred Thompson, Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter. Chicago General membership Branch, IWW, 1979, pp 4-5)

The IWW’s official historical document, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology describes Hill’s cultural work thusly:

Hill’s songs and writings articulated the simple Marxism of the IWW Preamble and the Wobbly philosophy of “direct action..Wobblies, socialists, communists, AFL-CIO members transcend sectarian differences to sing Joe Hill’s songs and share his lore.” (Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 131-132)

John Greenway’s American Folksongs of Protest tells of Hill’s first possible encounter with the Wobblies as well as his presentation of “The Preacher and the Slave” to the IWW:

One evening late in 1910 Joe Hill walked into the Portland, Oregon IWW hall with a song he had written to the tune of the popular Salvation Army gospel hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. He gave it to the secretary of the local, George Reese, who handed it to Mac McClintock, the local’s “busker” or tramp entertainer. Mac sang it to the men idling in the hall, and the tremendous applause that greeted its rendition convinced Reese that they had something. He and McClintock revised the song, and printed it in their little song leaflet which two years later was adopted by the IWW as the official songbook of the union. Hill was invited to join the Wobblies, and so began his fabulous career. (Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page 185)

As has been written of many times over the years, Hill’s organizing efforts in the state of Utah were successful enough that the powers that converged on both government and business sought the need to stop him at all costs. Not long after, he was arrested on a murder charge that has always been contested by the IWW and a wealth of others. Eugene V. Debs, the nation’s most celebrated Socialist and radical of the 1910s, offered the highest praise to Hill during the time of the Wobbly’s imprisonment. He wrote in an article in the American Socialist:

Joe Hill is of a poetic temperament and is the author of songs of labor of genuine merit; he is of a tender, sympathetic and generous nature and utterly incapable of committing the crime charged against him (Debs, Eugene, The American Socialist, August 28, 1915; source: Foner, page 117)

The story of Joe Hill is best remembered as one of martyrdom. He’d survived red-baiting, police assaults and vicious Pinkerton detectives’ dubious means of strike-breaking. He lived to tell of dockyard fights, barroom brawls, and back-room precinct house beatings. But he was not able to survive the Utah court which found him guilty and sentenced him to death in 1915. While imprisoned, Hill wrote prolifically and toward the end offered what was arguably his most famous prose, which today is simply recalled as “Don’t mourn---organize!”

While Joe Hill continues to put a face on the concept of Wobbly cultural workers, he was by far not alone in his role. Significant numbers of itinerant musicians, poets, bards and visual artists functioned as IWW organizers, traveling to areas which contained oppressed workers, often immigrant or home-grown unskilled laborers, who could be moved to action via the arts in a most profound way. Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) is recalled as one of the strongest cultural voices in the IWW, functioning as a writer and editor on several of their periodicals as well as offering visual artwork and music to many struggles. But Chaplin’s influences pre-date the IWW: as a boy he was a witness to the infamous Pullman Strike in Chicago and by his young adulthood was employed as an artist by the Charles H. Kerr publishing house, which released relevant early socialist books and also published the International Socialist Review, a guiding force for all progressive activists.

Chaplin’s activities with the IWW came early into the federation’s existence and he worked alongside such legendary figures as Mother Jones. His most important achievement, however, was his 1915 authorship of labor’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever”, written to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”, a theme of the Abolitionist movement. Over the years, Chaplin spoke of the struggle of the coal miners at a strike in a Kanawha Valley, West Virginia as the influence for his writing of this song. He was serving as editor of the union newspaper at the time, and he returned home returned home from the strike line one evening in January of 1915 and wrote the lyrics out to as he lay on his living room rug. The song was published immediately thereafter in the January 9 edition of Solidarity. This song continued to hold up as the primary anthem of labor and some of its more militant verses are heard only during the more radical gatherings, but in any event, it remains respected as the movement’s theme. He wrote of the song’s origins in Wobbly, an IWW organ:“I wanted a song to be full of revolutionary fervor and to have a chorus that was ringing and defiant” (source: Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 26)

Additionally, Chaplin penned other Wobbly songs that have been well-remembered including “The Commonwealth of Toil” and “Paint ‘er Red”. The latter song became a vehicle for the forces of reaction in their fervor to neutralize the IWW and it was cited in numerous court documents during the World War 1 era prosecutions of the IWW.

Ironically, by the 1930s, Chaplin became a voice for the more conservative end of organized labor and he stood as an outspoken critic of the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Communist-associated unions, though these were usually on the cutting edge of workers’ rights and engaged, on a mass scale, in the same industrial organizing the IWW had pledged itself to since its founding. His turn against his Wobbly comrades has never been fully explained.


The Industrial Workers of the World suffered the brutal assault of the reactionary US government’s initial Red Scare, that which targeted anarchists as ‘foreign terrorists’ and subjected the IWW offices to continual ransackings, its members to constant oppression. By the end of the organization’s first decade, it had already experienced significant damage and during the First World War, Wobs needed to largely take their operation underground. By the end of the 1920s, this noble union had become a shadow of its former self. While the IWW has had points of invigoration over the decades, it was often ravaged by times of deprivation. But the anarchist core found new alliances within the street and campus uprisings of the 1960s and ‘70s and could boast such members as celebrated folksinger/activists Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and especially Utah Phillips, who remained perhaps the most active Wobbly musician until his passing in 2008.

In the current day, the IWW stands as a dedicated force for social change, maintaining offices not only throughout the nation but internationally. In recent years, in the wake of the IWW’s centenary of 2005, increased attention has been brought to their struggle, such as the ongoing campaign to organize workers in Starbucks shops. Multiple accounts of compact disc collections have offered music dedicated to the cause and the publication of many new books on the Wobbly journey have brought it a newfound focus. As organized labor seeks to look into to its own radical heart, it cannot avoid the mission of these Industrial Workers, particularly when “Solidarity Forever” is next performed at a strike line or rally. These words of unity, this melody of rebellion, rings loud and true--now as then.

The noted journalist John Reed , a Wobbly in the 1910s before helping to found the Communist Party, wrote in a 1918 piece for the Liberator magazine of how the IWW was able to touch so many, so deeply. Here he offers perhaps the best possible description of the power of song within the Wobblies’ actions:

Let there be a “free speech fight” on in some town, and the “wobblies” converge upon it, across a thousand miles, and fill the jails with champions.

And singing. Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten...They love and revere their singers, too, in the IWW. All over the country workers are singing Joe Hill’s songs, “The Rebel Girl”, “Don’t Take May Papa Away From Me”, Workers of the World, Awaken”. Thousands can repeat his “Last Will”, the three simple verses written in his cell the night before execution. I have met working men carrying next their hearts, in the pockets of their working clothes, little boxes with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them. Over Bill Haywood’s desk in national headquarters is a painted portrait of Joe Hill, very moving, done with love…I know no other group of Americans which so honors its singers…(Reed, John, “The IWW In Court”, The Education of John Reed. NY: International Publishers, 1955, pp 179-181. Originally entitled “The Social Revolution in Court”, The Liberator, September 1918)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

ESSAY: Kenneth Anderson and the Spirit of Paul Robeson (2009)

Kenneth Anderson and the Spirit of Paul Robeson

by John Pietaro

Recently, the city of Peekskill, NY hosted an event in commemoration of the 1949 Paul Robeson concert which had erupted into an infamous riot when attacked by a mob of neo-fascists. While many unionists, progressives and at least a few Communists were in attendance at this anniversary event, none felt the need to form a protective line around the stage area as their counterparts did sixty years before. Instead, the crowd which gathered did so in honor of the man whom our own government attempted to disappear so long ago. The event featured artists from all walks of musical life, but the one who actually carried the spirit of Robeson into the hall was vocalist Kenneth Anderson.

"I was very excited to be a part of that important occasion", said Kenneth Anderson, the octogenarian bass-baritone whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Robeson's. "Paul was a giant. He was a renaissance man. An artist, a statesman. He spoke truth to power and was unafraid".

When asked about his connection to Robeson's greater cause of social change he immediately spoke about the People's World. “Years ago when I was home sick, a friend of mine never forgot to bring me a copy of your newspaper and I am so glad to have had the chance to read it. Now when I go to sing in nursing homes I see these poor folks sitting back in recliners, propped up in front of the TV with Fox News on all day long. It’s terrible. They are prisoners".

Anderson added that this is why he continues to perform in such venues and always is certain to sing the music of Paul Robeson at each visit---the music of human rights and progressive activism.

In discussing the original Peekskill Riot, Anderson also drew an important parallel between the neo-fascism of the early Cold War years and what seems to be its resurgence right now. "These right-wing attacks on healthcare reform, the vicious lies of the conservative media, the Red-baiting. It’s all the same. When was the last time you heard about a man being able to carry a loaded gun into a meeting the President spoke at? We are in for some serious struggles", he warned.

And Anderson should know. In the past, he has served the greater good as a community organizer with the New York State Human Rights Commission, where he focused on housing and healthcare issues, and he also found himself thrust into a very personal sort of civil rights struggle—along with a wealth of song to perform along the way.

Anderson traces his musical background to his boyhood in Wilmington, Delaware where he regularly heard European classical music at home, but he also had an aunt who was a church pianist; from the start he held a keen appreciation for both African-American and white Euro traditions. Anderson began singing as a child and performed for events including for the local Grand Army of the Republic, a society which traces family ancestries back to the Civil War Union Army. During these years he began to develop a fascination for Spirituals.

“Negro Spirituals are sadly overlooked, but this music is the original American folksong. The oppressors wanted to use religion so that they could ‘civilize’ whom they thought of as savages and they did this through religion. They did not want us to sing at first but it became a deep part of our tradition”.

While he may have begun this foray into music as a boy soprano, Anderson would experience a seismic shift in his vocal range at puberty; by high school, “Ol’ Man River” had become a staple of his repertoire. In 1951 he entered Army service and was quickly transferred into the Special Services division, performing R&B and doo-wop with a vocal quartet stationed in Germany. The director recognized Anderson’s talent and encouraged him to perform solo pieces as well and he sang Robeson standards over the armed services airwaves to great response. After returning to civilian life, Anderson and the rest of the quartet had some aspirations of turning professional and though singer Eddie Fisher was interested in producing them, the group fell apart. Anderson moved on. “I realized that I needed to have a career, so I went to school to study nursing at Long Island University in Brooklyn, intent on becoming a Nurse Anesthetist.”During his studies, he also sang at Manhattan’s noted Riverside Church on Sundays.

Following graduation, Anderson found work in an unlikely place, Port Jefferson in Long Island, NY, then a fully white area with strongly conservative views.

“It was 1963, the heart of the civil rights era. The town was very racist and I could not find a place to live. I came to realize that racism was virulent in both the north and the south. Port Jefferson was my Mississippi, so I took action. I got involved with the local NAACP chapter. Later I became that organization’s Regional Director for all of Long Island and served in that capacity for some years. I brought Saul Alinsky to speak at one of our meetings back then. I have never forgotten that he told us to ‘comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable’.”

In the 1970s Anderson began working on the faculty of Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, in Port Jefferson. He was deeply concerned that no Black students were enrolled in the program, nor was there any other faculty member of color to be found on campus. There he developed a core of activism and became a strong voice to recruit African-American students into the school. He established outreach to the community around Port Jefferson and slowly saw important change occur. By the late ‘70s, he was proudly attending Black History Month celebrations there at the college. Around this time, he also came into contact with noted pianist Sylvia Olden Lee, an African-American musician who introduced Ken to the performers of NYC’s classical scene, but particularly to those involved in the National Association of Negro Musicians. Ms. Lee guided him toward the singing of Spirituals again and he began to perform whole concerts of this repertoire by 1989. But Anderson quickly came to realize that it was Robeson’s versions of these songs that resonated most with him.

A year later he performed the first of many Raul Robeson tribute concerts, for which he would receive invitations to sing at colleges around the nation. By 1996, Anderson was invited back to Stony Brook to present an evening of Robeson material in a special concert. And a year after, the college inducted him into Phi Betta Kappa. This after suffering the indignity of being ostracized in the area in 1963. The moment stays with Anderson as but one victory to reflect on.

It was in 1998 that Anderson first came to know Pete Seeger, who’d been a great friend of Robeson’s. His first performance with the folk legend was at the Church of St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York City and he has since been called on by Seeger on many occasions. Pete has said that Anderson’s voice is as close as one can get to that of the late, great vocalist’s. Watching Ken’s performances on YouTube one can easily see why--- these selections have been viewed nearly 4000 times.

When asked about the highlight of his years as a Robeson tribute artist, Anderson immediately spoke of a 2006 presentation with labor luminary Henry Foner in Beacon NY, and of the centenary concerts celebrating Robeson’s birth anniversary in 1998. Anderson performed at several of the centenary events and in each case he sang “Ballad for Americans”, a noted work of radical composer Earl Robinson and lyricist John LaTouche, premiered by Robeson in 1939. The significance of this piece was never lost on Robeson: it spoke volumes about the ideals of the United States—equality and brotherhood—in a time of great racial divide and discrimination. It is not lost on Anderson either. While performing this song he is acutely aware of the powerful message within-- and how much work is yet to be done. And it is this combination of great musicality with social commentary that makes Paul Robeson such a towering, historic figure, one who stands as a model for today’s cultural workers.

“When I do a Robeson tribute presentation I am always torn about how much time to spend on Robeson the man, the intellectual, or to spend on Robeson the activist. You can dedicate hours on either as they were both so present”.

These days it is the lasting legacy of Paul Robeson that stays with us—his message, his example, his evocative and empowering music. And in a series of thoughtfully organized presentations in colleges, theatres or community centers, his spirit is called upon to keep us strong through the voice of one Kenneth Anderson.


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