As mid-afternoon arrives …
At the coffee house …
a homeless man sits in the back drinking water and coffee. Talking. Talking to a person who does not seem to be within the scope of reality. Looking to the ceiling, he is talking of being 73 years old. “If past behavior is a reflection of what I am doing now, why can not reason apply?” was his argument. “If I have never been a cattle rustler, it would seem to be that most likely, almost within intelligent reason, that I will not start being one now.” He then makes his argument to the ethereal judge and jury that, “If I have not hurt anyone by now.”
I am sitting, alone, in the back of the coffee house. Thinking of how fate has sent me down a troubled river of life. Somewhat to be stuck in a two year rapid eddie of confusion. The man’s argument with the angelic nothingness seems to move into the he is a veteran of some war department. Maybe vietnam? He is talking of the moral ethics of lying. “If you were in Nazi Germany, and an SS person asked you if you knew where the Frank family was hiding, would you tell a lie?” “Maybe i killed someone, it was the nature of being in the military.”
I almost speak to him but leave on a connection as if my nod was enough for this juncture. I go to this tavern for the quietness of not being known to may of the customers. The other coffee house is more like a bar. The same people sit on the porch everyday. Somedays, just to see the same people every day is strength enough to know the difference of being seen and unseen.
To be more descriptive of this mentioning of the Tavern. For years, a study of mine has been reading and listening to the words of a sufi mystic poet. The Tavern is a place where soulful dreamers meet to speak in sacred conversation. This poet, Rumi, the translator, Coleman Barks, the reason behind the work, Robert Bly, the mystical meeting that gave Coleman his literary license to translate, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. This is the coffee house tavern metaphorical rendering of this prose.
I am talking to myself, in a little house next to a church, writing free verse on a social medium that would have given Guttenberg a run for his money! I am doing this for no other reason than to hear myself think. To mention a river of life, a hearts of darkness apocalyptical severing of self. This is not my first rodeo. Matter of fact, this is not me. Sometimes, i feel like a motherless child dreaming of rebirth, dreaming angelic voices.
Between two worlds, two coffee houses, two places to stare into the face of contemporary dystopian fear.
To smile at unknown faces. To continue down into the jungles of mind, spirit and body, knowing that at the end of journeying, will be that final test. The test of the hero, the fight to the finish. In the tavern we will meet, with language as shared experience, in a place where there is no darkness … if love is what you seek, keep seeking. A seeker after truth knows this Orwellian reference and knows the torture of not being allowed to speak freely of their deepest fears without the threat of isolated reprimand.
To make a choice between the seen and unseen. Eventually, the middle place becomes the point of all of this rambling. All of this so called connectivity is doing nothing. Putting nothing into motion. Into the digital realm. And isn’t this the danger of allowing something unseen to be in control of our narratives, vibrations and memories? What is seen, of a relative nature, an appeal to contemporary reason this manuscript may also be.
As much as I, you will have to also choose what is more profitable to you: the truth that you know, or the myth! And yes these are borrowed words, from an outkast jazz seeker, however, answer the question! At least try. The truth is said to be set in stone. So put that marker on the grave of ideals and an ever changing mission and vision. To speak of the myth, like my God mother used to say when questioned where she was going,
“crazy, you wanna go?”
In between two places, the tavern and the coffee house is the reality of sight and sound. About eight blocks of cityscape concrete jungle realty. The truth of the matter as of right now, be here now, I am alone. In a small house. A friend is letting me rebuild this reality that I speak of. To speak of first chapters, economy. Do we not borrow from others ideals and expressions? If, it is what it is, then, like a flow chart into words, sound and power, then follow the connective line into truth. Don’t get stuck there for too long or truth becomes doctrine. Render unto caesar as little as possible. I have chosen to stop feeding a beast. Chant down babylon, one more time. Dread beat dread.
A dance of chaos. Keep your head when everything around us in those eight city blocks makes thoughts in mind travel down realities of aggression, property ownership, competition, exploitation, disease, addiction. All of that is flowing these days in every stream of conscience. Liken a player piano roll, many of the hierarchical abuses are being rendered, and who is playing along? There seems to be no one behind the curtain. Some computer server in a cold climate, tied and chained together holds all our information.
Children these days dream images and ideals from screens. Adults, the sacred poor, all of us are victims of colonial forces. Is this truth? It is what it is, and that is the question. The human race seemingly on a suicide course,
a dangerous game of chicken with mother nature.
And could this be the new myth that many seers have suggested we need to create to survive? The old myth suggests the meek, shall inherit. Mother nature is a fine example of a mean queen given all power.
So, be it, soon come is now, her volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes all her faces of destruction are more terrifying, more damaging than the violence of us ants. Us humans and our righteous attempts at creation. Our fear based atom bombs are no competition to what is unseen. What is lurking in the darkness of space. The dance of scientific exploration into black holes, nothingness, no explanation but to keep faithfully reinventing myth.
Who are we without our story?
In the tavern i was reading, drinking coffee enjoying some free time. I walked the streets looking for you! You were not anywhere to be found! Everywhere beautiful women seemingly looking like I was, for a free time adventure. Looking for a friend or the silence of a lazy afternoon on the town.
Now I am back at my hermitage shrine to solemn resolve. Thomas Merton and Dalai Lama quotes on the wall, experience rolling inside a mind weary of worldly desire – lost religions and blissful music, a rose above the door to invite soulful deep conversation. Questions roll from tongue like incense to the gods – swirls of past story like endless star galaxies revolve – callused hands and worn, creaking bones tell the tale of a rebellious past that finds me now even more in control of personal passage! In a far off contemplative stare – I am day dreaming of the bright, innocent youthful faces that caught my attention today – their mass consumption of a Pandora’s box of shiny little objects in nice little packages – their fancy clothing, their cultural statements of time and place. Older folks, holding desperately onto whatever the hell was important – hoping what was found long ago will not decay or fail!
For this time is confusing! The papers are talking of war, again, the drums of destruction are beating relentlessly of a blood soaked – oil drenched unreasonable global position. This day weighs heavy on heart and soul. In all of this, in all of today, and tomorrow’s tomorrow – if your searching for a partner, a muse, someone to say it’s going to be alright? This mind has seen a big ominous picture that tells of days soon come that may not be alright. Things may not just be OK and nobody is going to care if you are triggered, offended, you may get lost!
However, is just a connective way to suggest a duality of the reality that I enjoy, the blissful alter-destiny of paradox -another way of looking at all that surrounds today – the troubled minds of working stiffs, the suffering of the street beggar, the homeless people on the corner. I was out today, looking for that soul that is scared – for that mind that is open – for that heart that feels deeply all the sorrow, joy and the suffering, yet eats of it like a queen bee fed royal jelly.
Maybe you were that young girl, reading Sylvia Plath – mad at her father, mad at the hypocrisy of her upbringing? Maybe you were that lonely woman, feverishly working on some term paper – for some side hustle degree – so her career can provide more mobility? Maybe all your childhood dreams of pretty horses and handsome princes have come to haunt you like some sort of painting hanging on the wall, here, in this coffee house, where lovers and lonesome souls mingle – workers toil – maybe you’re dreaming while awake? Lost in worldly demise. The gloom and doom of generational drift pulling your spirit into the cracks?
Be that it may that I was looking for you – here, there and anywhere god’s children play. And all this beating about the burning bushes is folly for students of poetry, prose, I am settling differences, making plans for a long difficult journey, know what to take, what not to carry and what not to pick up along the way! I have been there before. Where darkness surrounds mindful dreaming like a skipping record, like a repeating message of known useless information. Caught like a prisoner, used like a metaphor, over and over – this life is not fair. Be that is may that you have gone missing.
Your Saviour is crucified and satisfied with the narrative so long overturned that he is traveling to a new free trade, silk road escape. I can’t help your spiteful queen and vane princesses – who in selfish revolt, have ruthlessly killed their king. Overpowered and drunk in creation spirits, their mother nature gods have failed them. Now they are cold – now they are as powerless as power relentlessly turned inward. I warned you – I told you so! I knew your fruitless praying to symbols and light was dangerous! Playful occult muses were playing tricks with vanity! In this age of digital lost connection, this age of difficult reality and reason, you should have long put away your little girl teapots and childish games and came home when you were called!
Eventually, I may find you. I’ll keep looking. And if you are hiding behind some corner and saw me searching? If you make your presence known? Leave your disgust of patriarchy to the fires of creation. A spark of light from a hearts kinship is all it takes to rekindle that conversation. Many a love sick girl runs to her father when it’s time to rebel against their mother. The corruption of human love is a lack of care-taking! A win -win situation? That scheme is not for the soulful. To win, you must lose it all and show up to the game naked as a jay bird singing.
John Henry was the second folk song I worked on after I started working at the CSX railroad as a yard switchman. The first tune I wrote was Hub Engineer. We will get to that later.
There was so much going on around us as this tune was being reformatted for contemporary use. A new technology was being introduced, jobs were being cut and morale was at an all time low. Written on the cab wall of one of the railroad yard switch engines, in big black letters read:
The Flogging Will Continue Until Morale Improves.
Remote control technology had been a rumor for a long time and every once in a while in conversation we railroaders would suggest that it could never work, or any version of that argument, however, the union was making agreements, the remote control boxes were arriving and something needed to be done.
I grew up around folk music my whole life!
I was raised by a railroader and political activist! I knew the John Henry story and knew the power of song and being a Sun Ra devotee, knew that myth was important to developing our story. John Henry might as well had been a steel driving man, but we needed a hero. We needed myth and a story. What we needed was good old folk music to the rescue!
After releasing the song, I was sort of concerned because my co-workers were not fully aware of one of their own working class heroes. What was even more troubling, was that the moral to the real folk story John Henry was not being heeded.
Pride killed John Henry, and pride was not going to help us organize against this new technology. The railroad knew Remote Control Technology was a direct threat to the locomotive engineer craft. They knew the two unions it was being forced on were historically known to fight each other. The railroad worked every aspect of the pride issue and eventually got exactly what they wanted. We were railroaded.
Everybody was pissed off, mad and nervous.
Things were changing fast! Operations were changing, two unions were being pitted against each other and something historical was happening and needed to be told. A story. A story about what was going on back in the not so far away past. In some ways, I was embedded behind the front lines of the class war. Sort of a war journalist in a railyard battlefield.
I compiled the song John Henry on a CD titled Music For Modern Railroaders and sold them at the railyard from a clerk van. I think we sold about 200 copies at the yard. The song made everybody who bought a CD from the railroad clerk, laugh.
We needed laughter, bad.
There really was a locomotive engineer named John Henry at the railyard. He retired before the remote control technology was implemented. Ol’ John used to say when the rumors became a locker room conversation, that he would be gone before they came. If you get the nickname John Henry on the railroad these days, it’s probably because you are a company man. You probably need to slow down. He was one of those who would work us out of a job. Slow down! John Henry for ya’ work us all out of a job!
John Henry 2006 from (JP) (rufus porter) to all my brothers and sisters in
the BLE&T and The UTU!
Well John Henry he was a locomotive engineer
Workin’ down in the Osborn bowl.
And he looked at his switchman said you
Better git to work.
We’re gonna beat that RCO.
Gonna beat that RCO!
Yankin’ and a Pullin’ on them cars with his
Switchman working as fast as he can.
Ol’ John is a thinkin the whole time,
A Machine aint gonna beat a man.
A machine aint gonna beat a man.
Well the groundhoggers came out of the shanty
And they looked at the 6022.
Said to each other as they switched on their boxes,
Ya know we got a lotta work to do
Ya know we got a lotta work to do.
The groundhoggers were havin a little problem
They couldn’t get their boxes to link up.
Between a poll off-line and a comm loss,
They wer’nt having a very good time.
Seems like it happens everytime.
Well the groundhoggers hollerd at the bowl.
We’re havin a problem linkin up.
We’ve tried everything we know how to do.
I guess we’re shit outta luck
I guess we’re shit outta luck.
The tower hollers to John Henry.
Come and get this engine outta the way
It’s blockin the East and we gotta pull some cars,
I guess we’ll convert one today,
It seems like it’s better that way.
The groundhoggers sat in the shanty,
Waitin for a Big E to come and git er done.
John Henry and his switchman allready pulled 300 cars
That RCO job pulled none.
But it’s safer when you sit on your bum.
There is a reason for this story,
Corporate greed is killin this land.
If we don’t do something and ORGANIZE.
Say hello to the ONE MAN PLAN.
That’s talkin Union!
They wanna run trains with one man.
Roll the Union on!!
our breath reaches only so far
into sky and hearts on the honest
hope of connection.
Leave the anger behind.
This truth may be confusing
may be too much to disolve
I am not looking to impress.
Sharing requires a certain
something that this limited voice
booms to leave behind.
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
To My Brothers in the Brotherhood
(When I left work – exhausted and hot.
Our secretary was hanging directions
to our meeting on the union board.)
Peace be with you.
And also with you.
It is my direct action to love!
Go home directly, hug my boy –
kiss the wife and hit the sack.
Peace be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Brothers, one day you will take
this union as sacrament.
This power we seek is to unite human
heart with sacred vision.
To be forward thinking – with resolve.
Our kinship, our favor.
Our love for one another,
will be our saving grace.
It is radical to speak without kind intention.
It is what it is, is the mantra of the broken.
Reality dictates that our strength comes in numbers.
It is ignorance that expects people
to come, who have not been invited.
It is morality that guides us to be all inviting.
Conscience that tells of our failure.
Peace be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Let us not fall to fear of what might
happen if we raise our voices on high.
They will say, “they won’t stick together!”
They will say, “they don’t care!”
They will say, “they have fallen to
greed and don’t understand!”
Let us be like the tree,
planted by the water.
For I was happy but now I’m not.
I was lost but now, I’m found.
Was blind … but now I see.
I am employed by your favor!
Let’s not get lost in arguments.
Peace be with you.
And also with you.
Let us now greet each other &
feel open hands meet &
raise our voices on high!
There is power in a band of working folks
when they stand hand in hand.
I make motion to change
the name of our union to also
include the word.
Can I get a witness?