Christmas Eve massacre, 1913, Michigan, USA

This music video from the USA is a song by Woody Guthrie1913 Massacre. Lyrics are here.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

‘Twas the night before Christmas

Tuesday 24th December 2013

PETER FROST tells a tragic story from Christmas Eve 1913, 100 years ago

Search a modern map of Michigan and you won’t find either Copper Island or the town of Red Jacket.

You should find the Keweenaw peninsula, part of Michigan that juts out into the mighty waters of Lake Superior.

This is the only place on Earth where volcanic activity laid down large-scale deposits of 97 per cent pure copper.

Once you could dig almost pure nuggets of the valuable metal straight out of the ground.

The most important town in the area today is called Calumet. This was originally Red Jacket – the name came from the distinctive dress of a chief of the Seneca tribe – until it legally changed its name in 1929.

Red Jacket developed due to the copper mines in the area. The huge Calumet and Hecla Mining Company produced more than half of the US’s copper here from the 1870s.

By 1900 Red Jacket had a population of 5,000 and the surrounding nearby mining towns had attracted over 25,000 immigrant workers, mostly from Finland and Poland but also from Ireland, Scandinavia and many other parts of Europe. Many of the most expert and experienced miners came from Cornwall.

This was at a time in US history when unskilled and mostly immigrant workers all over the country were fighting for the right to form unions.

And the bosses were fighting back. They battled in the sewing rooms of New York, in the textile mills of New England, in the coalfields of Pennsylvania, in steel works, shipyards, lumber camps and in every mine and mill.

Workers were not protected by law and strikers were more likely to be sacked, beaten or shot than to be invited to a bargaining table.

In the summer of 1913 the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had built a membership in the Michigan mines that allowed them to consider calling a strike for better conditions, a pay increase and the right to organise.

From the summer of 1913 the mines fell silent. The miners were out on strike. The dispute would last nearly 10 months.

The vicious mine owners – the notorious copper bosses – bought in scabs, strike-breakers and stoolpigeons to try to smash the workers but throughout the autumn and as the cold Great Lakes winter started to set in the strikers and their families remained solid in their support for the strike.

The copper bosses demanded that the state government send in the National Guard. They also organised their own army of strike-breaking thugs.

When it became clear that the striking miners threatened no violence Michigan’s governor ordered the National Guard to withdraw.

The bosses upped the ante and their armed strike-breakers shot and killed two striking miners in broad daylight.

The strikers and WFM sent out calls for help. Labour leaders like Mother Jones – one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the famous “wobblies” – came to their aid.

Progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, who would make his name in the famous Tennessee “monkey trial” against teaching evolution, also lent his support.

Ella Reeve Bloor – Mother Bloor – who would go on to be a founder of the Communist Party of the USA also came north to help the strikers.

The copper bosses reckoned they could starve the strikers back to work with the assistance of their army of scabs, private detectives and just plain thugs, along with the harsh winter weather on the Great Lakes.

Clearly strikers’ morale would be an important part in winning the dispute and that is why Anna “Big Annie” Clemenc, president of the local Women’s Auxiliary of the WMF, called her women comrades together and organised a huge Christmas party for the strikers and their families in the biggest building in Red Jacket, the Italian Hall.

The hall was on the first floor above a tea shop and a saloon. More than 600 people climbed the single staircase to pack the building for the Christmas Eve party.

A local band played on the small stage, a piano, a couple of Swedish fiddlers, a long-necked banjo, a bathtub bass and a washboard hammered out the schottisches and polkas that transported the many recent immigrant miners and their families, if only for a moment, back to the land of their birth.

Every now and again, to give the musicians a break, someone would get up on stage do their party piece.

A couple from Ireland were particularly popular. She, with a voice so sweet, sang a gentle love song. He with the gravelly accent of Galway thundered out his Bold Fenian Men.

A young girl in her Sunday best apron shyly recited James Oppenheim‘s recent socialist poem Bread and Roses, and it sparked many a conversation among the audience about another strike and another victory in the textile mills of Massachusetts earlier in the year.

A school class sang a selection of pretty carols in Finnish and the huge decorated fir tree glistened in the corner while outside as evening fell, snow started to dust the street sparkling white.

It was the perfect picture of a peaceful Christmas Eve. Silent Night, Holy Night indeed.

The only discordant note was the tiny knot of strangers at the back of the hall.

There were always strangers arriving in Red Jacket. Many rode the boxcars, avoiding the railway guards, but whether they were honest unemployed workers here to find a job in the mines, IWW activists come to support the strike or strike-breakers keen to make a fast buck it was never easy to guess.

The children lined up to receive the gifts that mums and dads had been secretly working so hard to make over the last few weeks. One miner disguised as Grandfather Frost carried in a huge sack.

The atmosphere buzzed with excitement. For a brief moment the hardships and privations of winter and the long strike were forgotten.

Then one of the strangers stepped forward, cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted “Fire!”

The badge on his lapel marked him out as a member of the Citizens’ Alliance, an anti-trade union organisation that supported and assisted the bosses’ efforts to break the strike.

The hall fell silent, but for only a second, and then the predictable panic started.

People rushed towards the only way out of the building, the steep staircase that led to the street. Screams filled the air.

Someone tripped, then another on top of them. All too soon a pile of tangled and twisted bodies filled the stairwell. The doors at the bottom appeared to be blocked.

There was no fire, there never had been. The shout was a cynical ploy, a tactic to cause just such a panic.

Seventy-three people died on the crush on the stairs, 60 of them were children. Many more were injured, some badly.

When the local leader of the WFM, Charles Moyer, sent urgent telegrams around the country demanding an investigation the local sheriff stood guard while the bosses’ thugs beat him up, shot and injured him and ran him out of town.

The local press were quick to praise the sheriff and the thugs.

Mourning strikers buried their dead. Simultaneous services were held in several churches. The long procession filed into the streets and walked to the cemetery on the edge of town.

Even as the tiny white childrens’ coffins were carried through the snowy streets the local coroner convened an inquest to start the official cover-up.

His job was to let the copper bosses and their strike-breakers off the hook and he did it well.

Witnesses who spoke only foreign languages were questioned in English and answers demanded in English.

Evidence was accepted from paid informers who were not at the hall and hadn’t seen what happened.

The official verdict was predictable. No-one knew what had happened at the hall. No-one knew who it was that had shouted: “Fire!”

But, of course, we do. Those 73 people, those 60 children were murdered by the copper bosses, their paid lackeys and their unmitigated greed.

The very same copper bosses would frame Joe Hill on a murder charge and shoot him dead just two years later in Salt Lake City.

By April the strike was over. Of their three demands, the strikers earned their eight-hour workday and a three-dollar-a-day wage increase, but the mining company insisted on keeping the dangerous one-man-drills.

It would take many more years before mines of the copper country were totally unionised.

The WFM grew in strength and became the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW-CIO).

It took 30 years before it finally gained union recognition in the Calumet and Hecla mines in 1943.

Ironically Calumet & Hecla finally closed its mines in 1969 after failing to reach an agreement with striking miners.

The last mine in Copper Island closed in 1995. Today demand for copper from China has reawakened interest in the Michigan’s metal deposits. British company Rio Tinto is planning a new mine.

Exactly 100 years later as we celebrate our own Christmas we need to take a moment to remember those children, women and men martyrs who lost their lives in the Italian Hall Massacre of Christmas Eve 1913.

They laid down their lives in the fight for trade union rights not just in the US but in the whole world.

And that fight still goes on today.

Communist balladeer Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the 1913 Italian Hall Massacre. Many others have recorded the song including Alex Campbell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, and Enoch Kent. Bob Dylan so admired Guthrie and the song that he used Woody’s tune for the Song to Woody he penned and recorded as a tribute to Guthrie himself.

This music video from the USA is called “Song to Woody” – Bob Dylan – Continental Airlines Arena 11/13/99. Lyrics are here.

One hundred years ago, a major strike by copper miners was continuing in the Keweenaw Peninsula, which protrudes into Lake Superior in northern Michigan. In the middle of the months-long battle against intransigent mine owners, at least 73 people, mostly children, were killed in a horrific incident at a celebration on Christmas Eve in 1913: here.

US singer Woodie Guthrie as novelist

This music video from the USA is called Woody Guthrie/Cisco HoustonJohn Henry.

By Karl Dallas in Britain:

House Of Earth
by Woody Guthrie (Infinitum Nihil, £14.99)

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Woody Guthrie’s novel about hard times in the Texas panhandle is gritty, demanding and verbally exuberant

Woody Guthrie was in love with words, obsessed by them.

They poured from his pen and his typewriter onto scraps of paper and pages and notebooks that have filled hundreds and thousands of boxes and filing cabinets that are still being mined for evidence that he was, and is, one of the great stylists of the American language – possibly the greatest since Walt Whitman.

This book, as far as we know – and who knows what riches still lie undiscovered in those scattered archives? – is his first and only novel. Though there were fictional elements in his two previous books, they were basically first-person memoirs, enriched but not belied by the extravagances of Guthrie’s imagination.

They were also edited and tidied up before publication by editors who felt they knew what made a good book better.

But though House Of Earth edited and with an introduction by actor Johnny Depp and the historian Douglas Brinkley, we get a stronger feeling for the unfettered richness of his creativity.

It tells the story of the struggle for survival of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, two dirt-poor sharecroppers in the Texas panhandle, who are inspired by a five-cent pamphlet distributed by Roosevelt’s New Deal government.

It gives instructions on how to build an adobe home, the “house of earth” of the book’s title, that will withstand the dustbowl winds better than their flimsy and ramshackle shanty.

But this is not just a practical solution to their residence on earth – it’s a way to tame the winds that are driving them from the land.

Ella May tells Tike how to do it, by running out into the dust storm and catching the dust in his hat: “Then you run over to the iron water tank and you stick the hat and all, dust storm and all, down under the water, and you hold it down there till it tames down and all of the wind and air goes out of it and it just turns into soil, dirt again.

“Then you go and you lay it down somewhere, anywhere you want to, and it will be your land. Your farm. Your ranch.”

When Tike agrees, she responds: “Will you, ohhh, will you really? Really? Will yooo? Ohhh. Deah. My deah. You don’t know, you just don’t know, you never will know, how it would thrill me, and fill me, and chill me and frill me and dill me and spill me and drill me and lil me and hill me and till me and bill me and jack me and jill me.

“You just don’t have any idea, any ideeeaa, my dyeahhh, to see you really do something, anything, anything, just so it was something, anything. Ohh. Ahhmm. Tikus. My little Mikus.”

You’ve just got to let such cadences wash over and through you, otherwise reading this book is hard work. There’s an audio version in which Will Patton’s voice carries them off rather well.

Much has been made by some of the more lubricious critics of the steamy sex and it’s true that it’s much more graphic than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In fact the sex provides some of the more poetic stretches but the odd quoted paragraph couldn’t give more than a taste of the glorious writing, which goes on literally for page after page.

Though it’s not really a political work like the Woody Sez columns Guthrie wrote for the US Daily Worker, the struggle for better things is always there, always implicit: “I wonder if it will ever come to an out-and-out fight,” says one character. “I sometimes hope so. I wish that the families of people that live in debt all of their lives in their trash-can houses would all get together and fight to get out of the miserable stink and mess.”

This is far from the sparse, laconic style of Woody’s singing balladry. But the book ends with a song – which could sing well to the tune of John Henry, the black steel-driving man – in which Ella May’s new-born child, whom she nicknames Grasshopper, triumphs over all adversity: “Well the Grasshopper says to that landlord/You can drive your tractor all around/You can plow, you can plant, you can take in your crop,/But you cain’t run my earth house down, down, down!/No! You cain’t run my earth house down!”

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22 protest song videos

This 2014 video is called Top 10 Protest Songs.

By Staff, Moyers & Co. in the USA [as usually on my blog, I added links; this time mainly to lyrics]:

A 21 Protest Song Salute

Wednesday, 23 May 2012 11:45

Singer and activist Tom Morello says it’s his job as a musician “to steel the backbone of people on the front lines of social justice struggles, and to put wind in sails of those struggles.” Here’s a list of 21 songs that have done just that — from Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power.

Submit your own song suggestions in the comments below. If you have protest songs of your own on YouTube, include links to them or tag them “moyersprotestsong.”

[Warning to parents and teachers: Some songs contain profanity. Also, Moyers & Company and Public Affairs Television do not endorse any advertisements or promotional links contained within the embedded videos.]

Which Side Are You On, Florence Reece (1931)

Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday (1939)

This Land Is Your Land, Woody Guthrie (1940/1944)

We Shall Overcome, sung here by Joan Baez (traditional)

Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash (1955)

A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke (1964)

Times They Are A-Changing, Bob Dylan (1964)

Compared to What? Les McCann and Eddie Harris (1969)

Fortunate Son, Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Give Peace A Chance, John Lennon (1969)

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron (1970)

Ohio; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970/1974)

What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye (1971)

Get Up, Stand Up, Bob Marley (1973)

Zombie, Fela Kuti (1977)

F— tha Police, N.W.A (1988)

Fight the Power, Public Enemy (1989/1990)

The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen, featuring Tom Morello (1995)

Clandestino, Manu Chao, (1998)

Sleep Now in the Fire, Rage Against the Machine (1999)

American Idiot, Green Day (2004)

Singing Solidarity: Video Song Collection: here.