The Ballad of Joe Hill
Pete Seeger ->
Wendell Berry –>
The Other Ones ->
Drums -> Space is the Place ->
Ken Kesey ->
Brett Eugene (hobo) Ralph ->
Uncle John Gage’s Band
enc. Anne Feeney
I am writing this chapter about two months after I quit working for the railroad. I suspect I shouldn’t leave without an EVEN FURTHER, explanation. I was inspired to write this last doo hickey of a word play because I visited with a fine man yesterday and read to him a chapter of my unfinished book. I seriously respect this man, his work, heart and writing.
He is in the greater story. At one point, back in my manic days of the 1990’s, I think in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the Kerouac event, we bumped into each other. The Rant event, the one with the crazy ride with a bone man, when I was manic as fuck, and a real burning man.
Brett Ralph. At some point, we shared a shot of bourbon at a party. I remember a hotel room and it being dark. I was sitting on the floor and this really big dude was standing above me. He was laughing like the man from lake, the Iron John of a dude, that he is. That guy. I went to his new record store Surface Noise, yesterday, and read the chapter about the crazy folks that I feel massive solidarity with. He knew some of them. The Brotherhood of Contraries.
I stole that line and chapter title from a Wendell Berry, Mad Farmer poem, rather, I borrowed it. See, hipsterly speaking, right … The first time I was invited to visit with Wendell, I had some conversation with Utah Phillip’s widow before the meeting by the river. I told her I was visiting with Mr. Berry and asked her what I should ask him. She suggested to ask him if Gary Snyder was ever in the I.W.W. I suspected this was a trick question.
When I got a chance to ask him about Mr. Snyder, Mr. Berry leaned back in his rocking chair and said, “well then,” and said he was not sure about that. We talked briefly about it and in conversation, he contemplated that he didn’t think the I.W.W was around anymore. So, I showed him my red card.
After I sang one of my songs, Mr. Berry was very entertained and happily said, “’yep, you sure can sing!” So, hipsterly speaking, right? I guess that was good enough for me? … That experience found me talking with Utah’s son Duncan Phillips again. He mentioned that he read a Wendell Berry poem at Utah’s funeral.
So, a button on your shirt, and, before I wrote this book, I had not a clue who Ed McClanahan was. I found a paperback that my father in law had of Ed’s just recently and read it. I recently read Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Except the girls and the fishing trip …been there done that and got the T-shirt.
After reading my chapter, Brett suggested that I have my voice and that he was intrigued by the story. He encouraged me to keep working on the book. I trust Brett, he teaches English at a Kentucky College! I trust that he was giving good critical voice to my chapter. Sometimes, I must wonder why I am doing this … I am a folk musician, not a writer, captin’.
I am somewhat aware that being a writer is a way of life. and, you can start sentences with and. And further and however, hipsterly speaking, right? Wallace Stegner is a chump! He got the whole Joe Hill story wrong! His research for his books on Joe Hill was, in my humble opinion, sloppy. His life works, and activism? Mind-blowing and something to not shake a stick at.
I recently made a new electronical friend in a photographer from the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. He has made it his work to prove that Mr. Stegner did Joe Hill the union organizer, a disservice. Not to mention, basically threw an academic nose up to the I.W.W when they called him out on his bullshit. So, me being the devout Sun Ra follower that I am, have this to suggest …
First, if you didn’t RFD (read the fucking directions) the first time – I suggest firing up that google machine, look up Sun Ra, then second, apply this thinking to Joe Hill, the labor myth.
“If I am telling a lie, they have to judge whether the lie is more profitable to them than the truth that they know.”
Sun Ra said that fragment of his thinking in the movie, “Make a Joyful Noise.” And, the reason I started this chapter like a Grateful Dead bootleg, was because the connective thread that seems to be my personal teaching moment from this writing experience has been – Wallace Stegner. It is more profitable to me, as a person who very much understands the power of myth, that Joe Hill remain the labor hero that he is.
It is very cool that Joe Hill’s family and the family of the man who they accused Joe Hill of shooting got a chance to meet on the 100th year after Joe was murdered. It is also very cool that my electronical friend has made this story close to his heart. I suspect one day, my photographer friend and I will meet in person. That’s exactly how Joe Hill works. The Power of the Union …
I wrote the suggestion, Even Further on my car with a boxcar moniker paint stick, a couple of years ago when I started this journey. I am not sure why I was moved to do so. I was following my bliss. I was doing what Joseph Campbell suggested. I was in my sacred place, doing what I do. I was being – in. Listening to the voices of elders. I made Anne Feeney the encore of the bootleg, for this purpose … I wanted to tell just one more story before I considered this book finished.
Once upon a time, in Chicago at a Labor Notes convention, an Appalshop Documentary by Anne Lewis & Mimi Pickering was shown. The movie is called Anne Braden: Southern Patriot. When I saw it in Chicago, it was one of, if not the first public showing of the film.
I was sitting right next to Anne Feeney for this showing. To make a long story short. I knew Anne Braden was important, but, after that film, I was blown away. Somewhere in the middle of the film, I went outside to call my mother. I walked out to the hotel parking lot to get some alone time at a very bustling convention to tell my mother that in the film they had documented the work we did back in the Anti-Apartheid days at the University of Louisville.
My mother, was tired, fighting cancer, and couldn’t talk. She wanted to … but told me that she needed to rest. She told me to have a good time and to be careful, and that we would be able to talk about it when I got home. I broke down. Cried like a baby, snot running from my nose…weeping. and then went back inside to watch the end of the film. This was the first time that I as a man, thought that my mother was going away – soon, going to be gone. That thought, killed me.
Anne Feeney, saw my tears, heard my voice when I briefly mentioned after the film, in the open discussion period, that I was from Louisville. We walked out of the presentation together and Anne said to me loudly, as she slapped my back, “we have a softy!”
When I was on the Joe Hill 100 tour, I got a chance to really meet Anne Feeney. She is an amazing woman. The point of this chapter was to find a way to mention a lot of connective thoughts. Mention, folks who I have a deep respect for. Honor. This Is the folk tradition way. We must share! It is not boasting to have a need to tell a story. It is a must to share. That is how it is done.
The list at the beginning of this chapter, is at the root of my fragmented thought that I use on my website. Railroad Music: The Thread in the Quilt That Is Americana. There are many circles to talk about, many connections. Many tracks to go down. Utah Phillip’s suggested that Anne Feeney… Well, here is the quote from her website.
Anne is “the best labor singer in North America” according to Utah Phillips.
and I agree. What else could I say?
At that same Labor Notes convention, I handed out 100 free CD Baby download cards of my then new CD, Born Union. Not one person downloaded it. So, hipsterly speaking, right? Nobody likes a complainer?
Here’s why no one downloaded the CD. I hope!
People need a face to face, authentic human experience.
Folks need to know that you’re not trying to hornswoggle em’!
Ken Kesey considered himself to be the link between the beat poets of the 1950’s and the Hippies of the 1960’s. I consider myself to be the link between the anarchists and I.W.W members of the day and the connector track between the Dead Headish cooperative hippies of the 1980’s and the folk punk, hobo train kids there-of. I am a GenXer’ and take that as a label in-kind; counterculture so be it. I’ll own it, if I must. Baltimore Red suggested that I am the unknown the poet laureate of the union. I’ll accept that.
I am not interested in being part of the folk music industry. That is why I took the word Americana back and used it in my motto. A Folk Music industry? It would be against the soul porpoise of the goal!
All puns and miss peeled words – intended.
After words …
As a seasoned railroad worker and union activist, when I first learned of John Wright’s poetry and music, I knew that I was experiencing a rare phenomenon. J.P.’s songs come from real life, from day-to-day work 24/7 on the railroad. While the old railroad classics are among my favorites, anyone can play “The Wreck of Old 97” or “The City of New Orleans”.
Brother John is taking modern day stories – from his and his co-workers experiences – and creating heartfelt, humorous and often hard-hitting songs and ballads that speak intimately – not just to “rails” – but to anyone who has ever worked for a living. There is simply no one out there doing what J.P. Wright is doing.
At a rally in San Salvador in 2002, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the bands – the “entertainment” – rather than the official speakers, who lead the show from the podium, who set the tone of the event (an international rally against the Central American Free Trade Agreement). It impressed upon me that we need more artists, musicians, poets, story-tellers and performers of all types to step up and lead at these types of gatherings.
My Fellow Worker on the railroad – John Wright – is one of those with the keen insight, creativity, and artistry to transform an everyday sterile, dry, and lackluster “political event” into an uplifting and mind expanding experience. With his stories, poems, music and humor, J.P. speaks to working people’s reality, drawing them into the fight, providing encouragement and confidence, urging them forward.
Railroad Workers United