John Henry The Myth – The Flogging Will Continue Until Morale Improves.

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.

Dumb Boys UTU BLET Fighting Cartoon

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.

BOWL TOWR

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!!

The Sabbatical of the Belle

They call me old man.

My crew. Nothing has really changed

in the over 100 years our lady has

made her way around.

They call her a tramp.

The boat. They use her to make a point,

of how things used to be built to last.

They say she is haunted.

By a deckhand, who walks the lower

deck whistling a mournful tune, and

by a captain who loved to gamble.

We are not a team.

For a team is out to win something.

Competes in game-playing.

We are a crew.

Wherein We, is the only way.

There is no, Them.

They call me old man.

My crew. Of young boys of summer.

Spirited like freedom, like

fireworks. Crass, salty and no different

than any other working men –

I have experienced.

They give me shit, and I give it back –

as they carry large bags of ice up a grand

staircase. I shirk that work, as they

miss the details, skip the corners –

walk around in circles,

day dreaming of

cute girls,

success

and

money.

There is something about her –

our Southern Belle. She breathes

with the ebb and flow of the river.

As her lines tighten and slack.

One little mistake could skin

a finger, pull a body into the water.

And that is our only goal, to keep

everyone out of harms way.

The river, our river –

much like how this boat

has been at times.

Trashed, dirty and rolling free,

like the murky blood

of a forgotten country.

And I walk the decks, a reincarnate

of Floyd the whistling deckhand.

Singing railroad hobo songs,

traditional blues. Making up

words to go with the troubles

I have seen, the struggles I feel.

A continuation of a body of

working songs, left in the air

like vibrations reverberating

in time with the clicking of

this massive machine.

They call me old man.

As I honestly greet every passenger

with a southern charm –

that is not a gimmick.

The rich, who shuffle on the

boat without making eye to eye.

The children, scared by the

grandness of our lady’s strength.

The old woman, who rides for free.

The Mayor, just making an appearance.

All the people, no matter

their lot, greeted in the language

of a native son.

Welcome to the Belle,

watch your step and then

Y’all have a gooden or,

take it easy now,

Y’all come back

and see us.

The Sabbatical of the Belle.

They call me old man.

A river man now.

Who once blew

that lonesome whistle,

all the live long day.

I am a stowaway most of

the time, laughing under my

breath.

They,

my crew,

if they only knew.

Old man river.

That old man river –

he must know something.

But he don’t say nothing.

He just keeps rolling –

He keeps rolling along.

John Paul



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On Woody Guthrie’s Birthday

Oh Woody, I am thinking about you!
I have grown somewhat bitter.
I must admit!
I know you – sometimes I fancy
that I am just like you.
But maybe it is because I know too much
and have been burnt by the fire.
So, a few questions I might ask. For
I am romantically involved so as to
mention – Sarah Ogan Gunning!

Was she bitter because Aunt Molly got
to hang around all them rich folks?
Was it because Pete played for the
Rockefellers, while singing –
I don’t want, your millions mister?

Hypocrisy is a bitch!
If you point it out –
they will bury you!
How much more crap should I take
before I “die with my hammer in
my hand?”

I heard Sarah ripped your ass once –
because you did one of her songs.
She picked your little ass up and
almost ringed your neck.
Is that true?

Woody, brother, i see what you saw,
and I think I know why you wrote all
night, alone, falling asleep on your
typewriter, full ashtray …

It takes a worried man,
to sing a worried song.

I certainly am worried.

One last question:

Did you ever hear Joe Hill talking
to you? I have.He said,
Don’t mourn, Organize.
So, i organized my life.
Trying not to get bitter and
am working now as a deck
hand on a Ohio River
Steamboat built two
years after you was borned.

Brother,
I wish we could hang out!
See, I worked on the railroad.
Found a lonesome darkness
engulfing me.
I gave it all up.
Once I built a railroad ..
you know the rest.

Brother,
For your birthday –
I offer you a song.
I wrote it for Jimmie
Rodgers. I have alot
in common with him too.

When the song
gets to the part where
I sing “I think y’all knowd.”
That part is for you!

Happy Birthday.

Love,
JP “Catfish John” Wright

P.S

You wanna hear some shit?
I heard Sarah Ogan died at a
singing circle. Time came
for her to sing. She took a
deep breath, and died.

I wonder if the dress she
wore was blue?

She sure knew how to
drive that steel!


Do Re Mi – #occupyICE

Do Re Mi

#occupyICE

Original lyrics by Woody Guthrie

Rewrite by John Paul Wright

 


Well, thousands of folks all over the world

are leavin’ home everyday,

beating their way to the good ol’ U.S.A.

Lured by prosperity and that

message from Lady Liberty,

but eventually here is what they’ll find.

When the I.C.E. Agent comes a knockin’

on their door,

“we don’t need your cheap labor anymore!”

<chorus>

Oh, if you ain’t got that Do Re MI.

If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi.

Better go back to Central America, Africa

Mexico or the Middle East.

We need workers for

“our interests in the region”

Uncle Sam ain’t in the

business of Sanctuary!

So believe it or not you won’t find it

so hot, if you ain’t got the Do Re Mi.

So you want some of our diversity

or to send you kids to a university

that’s real nice, but it’s all just a dream.

We got prisoners working for free,

we made cages an industry.

Stick around just a little while

and here is what you’ll find –

that your just another wage slave

capital knows no boarders anyway!

<chorus>


Chapter 2 / Before N.Y.C

Chapter 2 – Before N.Y.C

When I posted chapter 1 on my blog, a person who I had been chatting with on Facebook showed an interest in this story. She called herself a “red diaper baby.” A red diaper baby is a kid raised by a political activist and I suspect I am one of those. She also mentioned that she thought the blogpost post showed “moral courage.” I asked her what she meant by that and she said it was courageous to be openly talking about mental health issues.

We chatted a bit and somewhere in the digital exchange, I mentioned my wife. I always mention my wife, especially if I am chatting over the internet with a woman. I also mentioned my mother, thusly the red diaper comment. My mother was my rock and moral compass. I told her that my mother was a political activist. My Facebook friend, wanted to hear more about my mom, Glenda the good witch.

My mother was the reason I ended up in the care of Central State mental hospital on a three-day self-imposed mental inquest warrant and property of the state of Kentucky. I freaked out. I yelled at her and accused her of brandishing a weapon. I left the house, I guess you could say I ran away to the loony bin by way of a teepee.

I had been living in her basement for a year, slowly slipping into a deep dark depression. I was suffering from the breakup of a two-year relationship. My life was collapsing. My girlfriend, who I had met at the food co-op where I was working several months before, cheated on me with a friend in our circle. I was also suffering heart problems.

My heart was skipping beats. Panic attacks were a daily event. Every day I walked across the park, that was my 46-acre front yard as a child, and go to the store and buy tons of junk food. I ate tons of sugar and tons of salt and then went home and slept for hours. My body was rebelling. I was getting fat and more and more in my head.

I was reading, listening to music and sleeping for hours on end. Sometimes upwards of eighteen. I was reading the Sufi books that I had been turned on to by the manager of the food co-op. I was reading Black Elk Speaks and a book with speeches from Native American Chiefs called Touch the Earth.

I was a young hippie, deadhead. The medicine man manager at the co-op, the teepee connection, had turned me onto a Sufi guru from Philadelphia named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. I was deeply getting into the Sun Ra that he had turned me on to. I was listening to Sun Ra and reading all his poetry on the CD covers and starting an impressive Sun Ra collection.

Bawa’s books are deep! The idea of killing my self was on my mind, but not that kind of killing. I was deeply thinking about who I was. My friendship with my long-haired hippie herbal Sufi manager was deep. He is a very humble person and was always saying something that I thought was something I needed to think about.

Sun Ra, well, ifin you ain’t never heard of Ra, best be firing up that Google machine. My little trip up the river of life was starting to come to a delta. All my problems seemed to be rushing in on me. Over the course of eight months I had gained one hundred pounds. Something was going to break.

One morning, after one of those long dark days and nights in the basement, I had a crazy audible hallucination. I thought I heard my mother run through the house and get her .38 and pull the trigger back. I ran up the basement steps and told her that I had had enough. Then after a short freak out. I left.

She would not let me come back. She had had enough and didn’t know what to do. I am sure she was hurt, terrified and lost as to why her little Johnny, was so sick in the head. I didn’t have a plan as to what I was going to do. I was ready for some help. Several of my friends were on the crazy check. I knew that was an option. However, I didn’t think that I was that kind of crazy, so, I phoned a friend.

The friend owned a delightful home out in the south end of Louisville, had a nice family, who were then celebrating Thanksgiving. He drove all the way across town and picked me up from the Walgreens drug store where I had called him from a payphone. I stayed in his backyard teepee overnight. He built a fire. I had a big plate of food.

We talked about me being nuts and then, after a long night rearranging all the dirt, sticks and staring at the fire burn, I knew I needed help. I was not going to get this crazy out. I got a ride downtown and somehow ended up getting ready to have the meeting with the woman who handed out gum at the co-op, who was the mother of the young woman, who set up that table on Christopher Street that you were reading about a minute ago.


 

The Cottonwood Local


The Cottonwood Local started out as a noodlin’ in the key of D on the mandolin.

When I would get off of my train, I would spend time sitting on the front porch of the Holiday Inn in Nashville playing my mandolin. Mostly people watching. I lived at the Holiday Inn in Donelson, Nashville, TN for 14 years. This was what we railroaders called the Away From Home Terminal.

One day when I was pickin’ …

A Locomotive Engineer friend of mine suggested we needed a song about a local job that we had on the CSX Mainline called the J765-J768. I already had the fiddle tune going when he made this suggestion and we sat there joking about all the crazy stuff about the job. My friend suggested the Cottonwood name because the two trainmen working the job at the time were Josh Cotton and Joe Woods, thusly, Cottonwood.

There were a host of Locomotive Engineers working the job, but mostly the ones holding the position were old heads. The job was a good one and it always went high on the seniority roster. A local is a job that does not work the entire length of the railroad. It does industry work and then either goes home, or in the case of the Cottonwood, stays overnight in a town like Bowling Green and works its way home the next day. Usually with a day off. My favorite Engineer, A.T Robb was one of the many characters who held the throttle on the local.

Artie, Atrimous Robb, RT, that’s me … had many nicknames. The reason he “tied it down in Shepheardsburg from the Main Line Friendly Local”, was because he retired and lived on some property out in Shepherdsville. He called the job the MLFL, Main Line Friendly Local and it stuck. On the engine, we called it the Main Line “Fuckin’ Local.

Mr. Robb called the railroad signal in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, Sheep Herds Burg. Why? Know body knows. We didn’t know why he would bring jugs to get what was left in the tank cars when we would pick up the empties from the Jim Beam Distillery. He said the white/clear alcohol was good with sugar and Kool-Aid, but it made his tractor run hot.

This song is somewhat a native language

that only exists in a time and place called the railroad.

In Kentucky.

It is a Kentucky folk song in a sense, that the people that are being mentioned have a place in the folk history of the people involved, now, especially, that the stories are folk tales and memory, it has slipped into history.

“Too bad Pauline’s ain’t around no more …” is bringing up Kentucky History about Bowling Green, Kentucky that is a deep legend. Not to mention history some folks do not want to talk about and would rather forget.

Pauline’s was a whore house. A bordello. A house of il’ repute. She closed her doors in the early 1970’s and moved away.. Get to talking about Pauline’s to almost any man from the region over the age of 70 and you will see a twinkle in their eye as thoughts of that place come bubbling into their blood. We had a railroad van driver out of Bowling Green who used to work for Pauline. He hated George McCubbins and the feeling was mutual. George was an Engineer on the local and either ya liked him, or ya hated him. He was the boss of the job or at least that is what he thought.

“You know, we know you got a lot of work to do,” came from another Engineer who worked the local from time to time. G.W. Haynes. Gross Weight. He was a very big man and sometimes not very nice. He came with loads of nicknames and his reputation preceded him. The song lyric means the local job will clear the mainline when trains need to get through. The working nature of the local meant that the mainline would be blocked when the local was out pulling or placing cars from the industries that it worked. Crews on the local would try and be in the clear for the “Big Boy’s.” Some just wanted to get their work done and get to the other side of the road or get the day over with and didn’t really care if mainline trains would have to wait for them to clear up … “get in the hole.”
.
“Memphis Junction,” is the name of the railyard in Bowling Green, Kentucky where the job ended its southbound work. Back in the day, the L&N had a mainline that went all the way to Memphis, TN. Toby Asher was the mainline trainmaster who worked in Bowling Green at this yard. The “only regular job” lyric comes from the job having regular start times. Having a regular start time is the perk of a local job and this job would get pulled off from time to time thusly the jab of it being the only regular job he could find.

Toby was a strange guy. He was the boss. Somewhat spookily he would be somewhere on the mainline, at all times, day and night. He is the kind of boss the railroad generally doesn’t like. He knows how to railroad. And that term railroad means many things. He lived and breathed railroading. His father was a Switchman and he grew up admiring his father’s work buddies. He loved the railroad and had respect for his “men.” Love is not an easy word to define on the railroad. Respect for craft is something the railroad seemingly has totally forgotten about.

This song is a fragment of time and place that has mostly slipped into folk history. It was an honor to work the section of rail known as the L&N, Louisville to Nashville, Main Stem. The L&N railroad at one time was the largest railroad in the eastern part of the United States. This song comes from the namesake of that railroad. The L&N, Kentucky, known today as the CSX Railroad.

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Pauline Tabor

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Me and Van Driver Jimmy. Pauline’s cab driver back in the day.

hp photosmart 720

A.T. Robb

alexmlfl

Railroad Tag

 

My new position with Railroad Workers United

Two days from now, I officially start my new position with Railroad Workers United.

I will be a contracted organizer …

 

but what they don’t know is that they have hired a KAWA.

 

From what I humbly understand, from my deep study of West African, Guinean village tradition, is that the Kawa is the person who is in contact with the ancestors. The Kawa knows the natural medicines of the area and where they are to be found and is sort of the maintainer of society.

 

Sort of like a peacekeeper.

 

When there are ceremonies and community events happening, the Kawa wanders the crowd making sure people are staying appropriate and respecting the tradition and others.

 

Kind of like the Sergeant of Arms in a union meeting.

 

The video below is one of my favorite all-time YouTube videos. It is a Kawa and his apprentice.

Fadouba Oulare the Djembe player, was a very respected musician. I never had the honor of meeting him, but one of my teachers, Bolokada Conde was very good friends with him.

I take the human side of organizing very seriously. Speaking as someone who has burned out as organizer before – One of the many problems that I see with the labor movement is that they put their apprentices into very powerful positions.

Sometimes organizations expect interns and paid organizers to do way too much internal organizational work. They put people into positions that they’re not ready to fill.

Sometimes that’s OK, however, only if there are patient and loving elders who have tons of experience. Elders who are employed to mentor and challenge strategy that is academic in nature. (that is not to say that all academic study is bad)

The native peoples for centuries solved many of the social problems that We, in the various movements that we are in, are suffering from today. Many native societies had already weeded out the organizational sicknesses that I see today that are originating from corporate thinking … i.e. metrics, performance evaluations, production goals and certain team building cultures.

Those sorts of corporate ideals are evasive and do not belong in structures that are designed to care take human conditions of exploitation, violence and intentional conditions of un-organization. Labor Unions and Community organizations are infested with academic corporate culture and language that is toxic.

In my humble opinion, that is why the AFL-CIO, the UAW and many other community organizations can’t seem to organize the south as well as they would like. They need more Kawas. The organizations need more elders who understand the community and know how to hold it.

The Kawa is sort of the police department. Sort of the internal auditor of the code of culture … the protector of the mission and vision. We need as a society, to re-evaluate and define social policing. Many native societies had already figured that out as well.

more on that later ….

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