So, you are working as an engineer on the only steamboat operating in the United States?
Well, the Steamer Belle of Louisville is the only operating steamboat that survived the packet era of river boat commerce. There are other boats that are steam operated, however, none of them are over one hundred years old. And I work there yes, but what I really am doing is escaping from a life that was being threatened by automation.
What do you mean by that?
Well, by the time I had worked sixteen years in the railroad industry, I had witnessed the transition of totally manual operation of trains to an almost entirely computer, robot operation of trains.
What will happen when most jobs are handed over to computers and robots?
Well, humans will and always have longed to be loved and cared for, so, I hope that we as a people will go back to doing the things that have as much love and care contained in them as possible. It is suggested that humans have a tendency, when disaster strikes, to put differences aside and to help each other out unconditionally in the face of extreme difficulty. This to me is the saving grace of humanity. Unfortunately, waiting till the last minute to make changes is also a human trait that historically has caused so many disasters. It is obvious to me that the bottom line economically is most of the time the reason given for not making the changes required to avert many human made disasters.
You used to be very active in labor and social activist groups, what are you doing now?
Enjoying my new life as a river worker and member of a crew, reading a lot and writing.
What do you mean, “member of a crew?”
Well, Anne Feeney, my favorite labor singer and rebel folk musician has a song titled, War on the Workers, wherein she suggests that “if they call you a team, you better learn how to scream.” I hate it when some manager suggests that a group of workers are a team. On boats, we are all on the same boat is our motto, no teams. We have one goal, keep the boat floating and all the folks safe that are on board. We are all on the same boat is one of my favorite metaphorical reasonings. Something like asking this question – What would we do if we were all on the same boat?
This is the essence of a lack of competition. If teams were applied, then somebody would lose. In human existence and in labor, an injury to one, is an injury to all. The suggestion of an injury to one, is also the very essence of a compassionate community that recognizes that decisions must be made with every one person involved. If there is even one person suffering, then everyone must stop, recognize and discover what is troubling this member of the crew, because ultimately, the crew is also suffering. It takes a full crew to operate a boat safely.
We do not live in a perfect world.
Sure, and we don’t live in a constant state of emergency when all hands must be on deck at all times. And, in emergency situations a good crew would be strong enough to work with a member who can not work at full potential. Such as a strong community that operates with members who are suffering.
What is a community?
Unfortunately, community is sometimes just a word that has been co-opted as a brand and gimmick for profit takers. The same goes for free trade, cooperatives, green, sustainable, local and nonprofits. Many non profits will work their organizers, interns, directors and volunteers to extremes to enjoy a sort of free labor of love aspect of doing business, such as some businesses that make it their gimmick to create and sometimes support worker and farmer led cooperatives, but when it comes to their own workers, union cooperative collectivity is not something that is necessary to achieve.
Do you still support the union?
Well, I have been an active member of one of the oldest unions in the United States, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. I have also been a member of one of the largest and most powerful unions, The Teamsters. What I found being a member of these unions was the same thing Eugene V. Debs found. Corruption, competition and a lack of human care taking. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, it seems to me that the labor movement has lost its way. That is why I was a union reformer and supporter of democratic movements in the unions that I was a member of. Democratic principles are nice and all, however there must be dissent for democracy to exist. Power corrupts. Care taking of the minority view is difficult to manage while in power and the troubling results of overpowering the minority is what fails many an organization and community minded endeavors.
Do you support Democratic movements and organizations now?
At the moment, I am not a member of any group or organization. I am still a supporter of Railroad Workers United because that is the organization that taught me most of the deeply held beliefs that I have adhered to as I transitioned out of the labor movement, so to say. I am a solidarity member, however, I am not in the railroad industry, community any more and my work as of late has been internally, moreover, personal and that has taken most of my time and energy.
What about the I.W.W.? I thought you were a member of that union.
I am not a dues paying member of any organization right now. I am only a solidarity member of railroad workers united in so far as I still talk frequently to the secretary and would support works that they might do. If I were called upon, I would give my advice and take the time to offer what time I might have in opinion. As for the I.W.W. That union is closer to my deeply held conviction that Labor is Entitled to All Wealth created by labor. This is not the belief of many of the trade unions of today. I am also more inclined to be a member when what I can offer is wanted. The labor movement in general has lost its heart and soul. That is my department. I am a singer, poet, storyteller, folk musician and griot.
What is a griot?
A Griot is a West African word that belongs to a certain caste of people who are the keepers of the oral tradition of the community that they belong. They are born into the trade and have a high place in society. They are poets, musicians and somewhat the journalists of their community. I am somewhat also a Djeli. There is some crossover in those two terms, however they are closely related in what those roles play in West African Culture.
Why do you consider yourself a Griot?
Well, I was born into a very musical family. My entire German side of my family were and still are members of a social club centered around singing. I grew up in that rapidly disappearing tradition. My father and uncles were folk mass singers in church and my Lebanese grandfather was a chanter at his Greek orthodox church. Back in my school days, (1984) I was a trumpet player in band. One day an artist was contracted by our band teacher, Malinda, to come, build and play African Drums. Herbie Johnson came and we made drums out of PVC pipes. Painted them and did a performance with them. This was my first experience working with African Music. Eventually, I would meet him again and the drum would change my life. I got my first west African Djembe in 1994. I still have it now.
My first paying gig was playing drum for an African storyteller. Her name was amazing. Oyo Fumilayo M’fundishi, something like that. What a name. I went on to study with Baba Olatunji and several of the Drum players who have worked with the Guinea National Ballets and other West African groups. Bolocada Conde, Famidou Konate to name a few.
How does this make you a Griot?
Well it doesn’t really, because I am a Kentucky boy, not African born into a caste system, however I was doing the work that folks like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were doing. They were storytellers, poets and musicians. Most of my work, when I was working at the railroad and in the democratic reform labor organizations, was done innocently, doing what a griot in Africa would have done. My goal was to document the working conditions of the American railroads using the old myths and stories of the people as my guide.
What do you mean, “old myths and stories?”
I recently met a banjo player who has been working with Rhiannon Giddens. She was playing a folk festival here in Louisville. She has written a song that deals with the ever changing and being added to song John Henry. She wrote a song about John’s wife, Polly Anne. John Henry was a real person. To me, he was a moral to the story. The moral to the story was all about automation and pride. Moreover, to me that song is very triggering, because I worked very closely with families who were dealing with the tragic effects of automation. John Henry, lives in the memory of every worker who was killed on the railroad. To have her adding to the body of folk tradition, and adding to the what happened to Polly Anne question to me was absolutely fascinating. Not to mention this woman was a powerful young black woman playing the banjo. We certainly could use as many of those as we can get!
What have you been reading lately?
I have recently devoured all I can find in audiobooks. Joseph Campbell has been a recent study. I have also been reading tons of Idries Shah and other Sufi works. As of late, I am reading the Harlan Hubbard Payne Hollow Journal. Wendell Berry is a poet and essay writer I enjoy reading. I am finding also that Alan Bates is an excellent Kentucky author.
Who was Allen Bates?
He was a river worker who designed and worked on several steamboats. His books are written in a very easy to read way. Technical, but also capturing the human elements of what goes on out on the river.
What music have you been listening to?
The Grateful Dead, once a deadhead, always a deadhead. Sun Ra, I love Sun Ra. I listen to lots of West African Djembe groups and as of late, I have been listening to the birds mostly. I pulled out some Bill Monroe a couple of weeks ago, but mostly I have been listening to John Hartford’s steamboat stuff. Kinda goes with the territory.
photo by Greg Acker