The Centennial of Woody’s Greatest Song
Woody’s greatest song? Hmm…them’s fightin’ words. But note: I did not say most popular, or best known, or most singable, or most patriotic; for which we all know the answer. So let me make my case: this sad lament and angry outcry against what happened in Calumet, Michigan on Christmas Eve, 1913 is to my mind the most complete statement of what Woody Guthrie stood for as a songwriter and folk singer—the voice for those who could not speak for themselves—73 children murdered as a result of the greed and inhumanity of the copper mine owners who ran their lives.
It would not have fit in the program I just put on for Daniel Pearl World Music Days—presented as one of their “Harmony for Humanity” concerts; for Woody’s song strikes a discordant note in that theme; it’s a “Disharmony for Inhumanity” song if there ever was.
It did not fit in Rise Up Singing—Sing Out!’s definitive modern songbook of the best folk songs of our time. Who would want to sing it? It doesn’t even have a chorus; its ten verses would strain the limited attention span of today’s Folk Clubs and Hoots.
Well, I’ll tell who would want to sing it: America’s greatest folk singer—that’s who. Oh, but Pete Seeger never recorded it? Not even on his Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie album? Not even on his American Industrial Ballads album? Not even on his Dangerous Songs album? Or the other 97 plus albums he recorded for Folkways and Columbia? Of course not, little darlings; just imagine Pete coming to the line “and the children were smothered on the stairs by the door,” and saying to the audience, “Sing it out! Now try a little harmony!” No, this is not a Sing Along With Pete—another of Pete’s one hundred plus albums you won’t find it on—kind of song; it’s not a Weavers kind of song.
So if not Pete, who is America’s greatest folk singer? Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, that’s who. Hmm…them’s fightin’ words. But note: I did not say most popular, or best known, or most beloved, or most honored; for which we all know the answer. So let me make my case: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is the missing link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan—i.e., the man who wrote the song, and the man who borrowed its traditional tune and song structure for his first eponymous album’s Song to Woody—his first great song. But Bob didn’t learn the song from listening to Woody; he learned the song—like everyone else in Washington Square did in the halcyon days of the Greenwich Village folk revival of 1961 and 62—from listening to Jack, specifically Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie on Reprise Records.
It’s the best performance of Ramblin’ Jack’s career; a song he has come back to in virtually every live show I have seen throughout the decades, and which has grown in his interpretation through time. And as you may have noticed, no one sings along with Ramblin’ Jack; it’s impossible—his phrasing is so unpredictable, so nuanced, and so expressive no one would dare. You listen to Ramblin’ Jack—if you’re lucky enough to catch one of his increasingly rare public performances.
That’s 60% of my case right there—the other 40% being that Bob stole the tune for his own tribute to Woody. He didn’t steal This Land Is Your Land, or Pastures of Plenty, or I Ain’t Got No Home (the tune that I stole for my tribute Walking By Woody’s Side—with a nice Pete Seeger sing along chorus eschewed by Woody, Jack and Bob).
So there you have it my friends—the defining feature of every Folk Club you have ever been to—group singing—was sedulously ignored by the royal succession of America’s three greatest folk singers: Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Bob Dylan.
Why, by our lights, Woody’s 1913 Massacre is barely a song—it’s more of a dramatic monologue—it’s a story, and no one tells a story better than Woody Guthrie.
No one? Hmm…them’s fightin’ words. But don’t take my word for it; take Nobel Prize winning novelist John Steinbeck’s—who sent the following note to Woody upon hearing his Ballad of Tom Joad for the first time: “You little fucker—it took me 250 pages to tell the story of the Joads, and you did it in twelve verses.” [Well, actually 17.]
Take a trip with me in 1913
Woody starts out,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country
I’ll take you to a place called ‘Italian Hall’
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.
Who, what, when, where, why and how—the journalist’s credo—and all in the very first verse. Imagine you’re watching a movie, for that’s how Woody’s word camera moves in—from the opening distant shot to a close-up:
I’ll take you in the door and up a high stair,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance round their big Christmas tree.
You ask about work and you ask about pay,
They tell you they make less than a dollar a day,
Working the copper claims, risking their lives,
So it's fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.
There’s talking and laughing and songs in the air,
And the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know it you're friends with us all,
And you're dancing around and around in the hall.
Perhaps with the mention of Christmas the soundtrack becomes just a little ominous, to foreshadow the tragedy to come,
The copper boss thugs stick their heads in the door
One of them yelled, and he screamed, ‘there's a fire,’
A lady she hollered, ‘there's no such a thing,
In the midst of a child’s Christmas song someone else screams out
Keep on with your dancing, there's no such a thing.’
But it was too late: the panic was on—the men, women and children—miners’ families all of them—were now blindly trying to escape to the exits from the mine-owners’ ‘murderous joke.’
and here you of course expect to hear Woody close the line with the natural rhyme: “by the smoke.”
Except there wasn’t any smoke—and there wasn’t any fire. The powerful line ends with the unrhymed elliptical reference to the crime unfolding in front of them:
And the children were smothered on the stairs by the door
Just like in the Triangle Fire in NYC in 1911, only two years earlier, the exits were blocked, and even though in Calumet, Michigan there was no fire, the effect was the same: the panicked families were smothered in the narrow stairwells trying to escape through locked doors from what they had been led to believe was an out of control fire.
The town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The piano played a slow funeral tune,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
and here Woody avoids the obvious and changes the entire focus of his steely-eyed camera—speaking directly for the first time in the song to the mine-owners themselves to demonstrate the rhetorical power of a question:
‘See what your greed for money has done?.’
It’s devastating. The scene is left as bare as Hamlet’s grisly closing stage: “the children who died/there were 73.
Actually, it wasn’t only children who died—there were men, women and children—a fact which Woody knew from the source of his account—Mother Bloor’s autobiography. Indeed, Mother Bloor, an anarchist writer and activist of the early 20th century, was an eye-witness to the carnage. Not only that: according to her account it was she who cried out, “Keep on with your party/There’s no such a thing [fire].” Woody left her name out deliberately, wanting the whole story to emanate from the miners themselves.
But unlike Triangle, where there was a real fire accidentally started from cloth fragments on the cutting floor, this was no accident—this was a crime pure and simple—by bosses who thought it would be funny to start a panic among their workers on Christmas Eve. They were exercising what they took to be their 1st Amendment rights—to say whatever the hell they wanted whenever they wanted to say it, consequences be damned. And on Christmas Eve in 1913 it was not a crime.
But soon enough it became one: just six years later in a World War I case that challenged the Espionage Act of 1917 and worked its way up to the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Homes wrote his famous opinion that included the following sentence: “the First Amendment does not protect you from (falsely) yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre.”
This was the most significant ruling on the meaning of the First Amendment in the court’s history, for it established the principle of “a clear and present danger,” that defined the outer limit of freedom of speech. Today’s radicals—most notably the late Christopher Hitchens—are often offended by this principle, for they see it as invoked whenever the government wants to curb their right of offensive speech on the grounds that it may incite a riot. But yesterday’s working class, so often touted as the heroes of my generation’s middle-class radicals, would have been well-served by this principle had it been in place on Christmas Eve in 1913 one hundred years ago.
Seventy three men, women and children would have been alive to open the presents which Woody noted were “stacked around the Christmas tree.” Because of Woody’s great ballad we still remember this story and this history, just like his song Deportee (or Plain Wreck at Los Gatos) preserved the memory of the farm-workers who died in the plane crash in 1948, and who remained nameless until just this year, when the spectacularly successful forensic investigation led by LA Times reporter Tim Hernandez and one of the farm-worker’s descendants inspired by Woody’s song (with music by Martin Hoffman) finally put real names on all 28 who perished, plus the four crew members. Their thirty-two names were inscribed on a memorial stone in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California this past Labor Day, September 2, 2013.
The town of Calumet, Michigan is not cursed with historical amnesia like Los Angeles, which paves over its own collective memory every generation, and just demolished lyricist Ira Gershwin’s Beverly Hills home without a second thought—destroying the place where most of his and George Gershwin’s classic American songs were written. Calumet, Michigan recognizes and is proud of the permanent claim on labor history the Italian Hall Disaster still represents. And even when Woody was all-but-disowned by his home town of Okemah, Oklahoma for having been suspected of communist sympathies, Calumet, Michigan treasures its place in Woody’s songbook.
For without those songs, how many of us would know these stories, and be able to forge our own links on the chain. This coming Christmas Eve, on the Centennial of the 1913 Massacre, I look forward to singing Woody’s greatest song one more time.
Got to. Woody’s guitar’s World War II inscription This Machine Kills Fascists referred not only to Hitler and Mussolini, but as he eloquently said, “This war against fascism has to start right here at home.” The Calumet, Michigan copper mine owners whose hands were soaked in the blood of children were just the sort of homegrown fascists Woody had in mind. So Merry Christmas, dear Reader, but not without a look back on the 1913 Christmas Eve massacre Woody was determined we never forget.
For full transcription of the song, click here.
For the Wikipedia entry, click here
For information about the film, 1913 Massacre, that was inspired by the song, click here.
On the 50th anniversary of November 22 he will host In Memoriam JFK at The Talking Stick, 1411 Lincoln Blvd, Venice, CA 90291 from 7:00 to 10:00pm. 310- 450-6052