WASHINGTON, D.C.— STILL A BOURGEOIS TOWN

By Ross Altman, PhD

Leadbelly

White folks in Washington they know how
throw a colored man a nickel just to see him bow
it’s a bourgeois town, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues,
and I’m gonna spread the news around.

Lead Belly wrote Bourgeois Blues in 1935—in the midst of all the Jim Crow housing laws still in place. Me and Martha was standin upstairs,
heard a white man say I don’t want no colored here,
he’s a bourgeois man, in a bourgeois town,
I got the bourgeois blues
and I’m gonna spread the news around.”

Lead Belly wrote Bourgeois Blues in 1935—in the midst of all the Jim Crow housing laws still in place. Me and Martha was standin upstairs,
heard a white man say I don’t want no colored here,
he’s a bourgeois man, in a bourgeois town,
I got the bourgeois blues
and I’m gonna spread the news around.”

Six years later, December 7, 1941 to be exact, and FDR announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy.” Then eighty years later and a bunch of white racists, Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis broke into the Capitol with nooses and Confederate flags and attempted a coup to keep Trump in power.

The violent insurrection and attempted coup at the Capitol Wednesday, January 6, 2021, is another date which will live in infamy. So much for the peaceful transfer of power—that ship has sailed. To have seen the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building would have sent Linda Huf, PhD, who grew up in Arlington, Virginia—the heart of the old Confederacy— right next to Washington, D.C. into a rage.

She spent many a day listening to the Minority and Majority Leaders and other Senators in the Capitol building on class assignment from Washington-Lee High School. She was a liberal, but she enjoyed listening to them all, from Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona to John F. Kennedy (before becoming President) of Massachusetts.

And as we know, by 1963, the Times, They Were a-Changing. Linda delighted in telling me stories about Montana Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield—for his opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee—HUAC—and Everett Dirksen—the Illinois Republican Senator and Minority Leader from the Land of Lincoln—who was known as “the Wizard of Ooze”—for his flamboyant rhetoric and painstaking attention to detail. They led the fight against the poll tax (the 24th Amendment to the Constitution that outlawed it) and for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To realize that it was the President of the United States—the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice—whose treachery incited that riot would have been even more of an outrage—indeed unbearable. And on top of that to see one hundred thirty-nine Republican members of The People’s House—and eight Senators—all proclaiming their determination to refuse to certify the Electoral College results, would have been yet more outrageous. The blood of five Americans is on the President’s hands, including Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick—who survived Operation Iraqi Freedom only to die in the bloody carnage let loose by this deranged, unhinged president.

You see, Linda grew up in the heart of the old confederacy—which is why she joined and led (in her high school named for President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the Congress of Racial Equality—CORE—the major secular civil rights organization of the 1950s.

That is why Linda admired Everett Dirksen so much—even though she would come to disagree with him during the War in Vietnam—he stood tall when it came to Civil Rights and Voting Rights. Those signature pieces of legislation took place just before and after the March from Selma to Montgomery March 25, 1965—that was the march where future “Conscience of the Congress” John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of Selma, Alabama. This, on the road to Montgomery, the state capitol, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would give his “How Long? Not Long” speech to those who braved the distance. It’s the march that made John Lewis a legend. My friend, folk singer Len Chandler was one of the 3200 souls who marched all the way to Montgomery, keeping the marchers entertained with freedom songs along Highway 80.

This was also the march that Lyndon Johnson enshrined in our collective memory by adding at the end of his speech sending the Voting Rights Bill to Congress the final words We Shall Overcome—repeating them at the end—to put the extra emphasis on the song that Pete Seeger changed from “Will” to “Shall” precisely because it called for that extra stress. Upon hearing LBJ send the 1965 Voting Rights Bill to Congress with the most resonant phrase of the Civil Rights Movement ringing in his ears brought tears of joy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eyes. And who would shepherd it through Congress to become the law of the land but Senators Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen—to whom Linda Huf had been listening since high school?

Speaking of the Land of Lincoln, just a few years later I was teaching at Lincoln College in Lincoln. Illinois—the first town named for Abraham Lincoln—before he became president—because he was the town’s postmaster and had influenced the railroad to reroute their trains so they would travel through Lincoln on their way west. He literally put Lincoln on the map—so they named the town after him.

I taught English and Speech—including Reader’s Theatre—and I took my students to the Capitol for an Oral Interpretation and Reader’s Theatre Tournament during my tenure there. More than the tournament I wanted them to have a chance to see our nation’s Capitol. I wanted them to see Constitution Hall—and tell them the story of singer Marian Anderson and the DAR—as well as the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

Like Linda I was in love with the patriotic symbols of our country—and wanted my students to understand and appreciate them. When I finally left town the last thing I saw was a This Land Is Your Land bumper sticker inside a real state office—and went in to buy it. When I asked them why they were selling Woody Guthrie’s song they said they were simply using it to sell property—not the song. Then they gave it to me for free. I didn’t have the heart to sing them Woody’s anti-capitalist 4th verse, the one about private property and no trespassing, and “That side was made for you and me.”

Linda and I were leftwing idealists who felt a deep attachment to American values and institutions—and American history—from sea to shining sea. In my article Requiem for Democracy I celebrated Linda’s witness and participation in the Pentagon March of October 21, 1967 protesting the Vietnam War—and my own involvement in the Assembly of Unrepresented People at the nation’s Capitol in 1965. She got to hear protest singer Phil Ochs sing I Declare the War Is Over at the Lincoln Memorial.

We both felt compelled to go to the Capitol to protest—it wasn’t enough to go to our local marches and demonstrations—though we did that too. But we would never have considered entering the Capitol Building let alone defacing that sacred shrine to American Democracy. As angry as we were at our country’s foreign policy we respected its ideals and promise. We never felt at odds with “We the People.” That is precisely why we were there—to insist that our government live up to its ideals.

When the first modern president who refused to live up to those ideals—Richard Nixon—was about to be impeached, it was none other than Barry Goldwater who was assigned the thankless task of letting him know that his time was up and he needed to resign—the first and so far only president to do so. Unlike the current president he didn’t have to be told twice. It was Goldwater’s finest hour. A right-winger and a hawk he may have been, but unlike the president he didn’t need the Pentagon Papers to tell him right from wrong. He saved the presidency. One can only hope that today’s Democrats will find someone with as much class as Goldwater to convey that message to Donald Trump—today’s Nixon. Though calling him “today’s Nixon” obscures the fact that at least Nixon had the decency to resign “for the good of the country.”

The “Party of Lincoln” proved to be unworthy of the name at last—especially when you consider the Lincoln Memorial on Capitol Hill. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—when Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith gets to Washington the last thing he sees is the Lincoln Memorial and he’s so moved by his memory of the Gettysburg Address he has to take his hat off to absorb it all. As he looks up in awe at the statue we now have something to contrast it to—Trump and his minions who desecrated the very ground he walked on.

Today is Inauguration Day, Wednesday, January 20, 2021—an inauguration like no other. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris have just been sworn in—their hands on the Bible. Let us therefore remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, August 28, 1963, when 250, 000 people came to our nation’s Capitol in a peaceful demonstration for brotherhood and Civil Rights, for “Jobs and Freedom.” In lieu of the multitudes of people who would have been there on a normal inauguration day there were 200,000 American flags instead—and 400 lights around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool representing the 400.000 people who have now died from COVID-19. Jennifer Lopez sang This Land Is Your Land and Garth Brooks sang Amazing Grace.

In stark contrast to January 6, 2021, we remember Dr. King’s speech “I Have a Dream.” “Let freedom ring,” he said, “Until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” There was not one act of violence that blessed day—because Dr. King was committed to nonviolence—no matter what the provocation. In Dr. King’s memory we also dare not forget his final speech—“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,”—when he returned to Memphis to help the striking garbage workers and warned us of the “threats that are out there,” very much like the FBI has now warned us of the threats that are out there on 50 state capitals from Trump supporters that threatened the Inauguration itself—on the weekend to honor Dr. King’s 92nd birthday—January 15.

The Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King spoke and Joan Baez sang We Shall Overcome in 1963 is now inaccessible—The National Mall is closed, on lockdown—to protect it from violence and mayhem. To see the Lincoln Memorial is to be reminded of the ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ and how far we still have to go to get there. Linda and I looked at it with the same sense of awe and reverence that Jimmy Stewart had—that any American would have. Is it any wonder we fell in love as soon as Rosie Fine introduced us at the Socialist Community School in 1981—on the 13th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, April 4? We had both taken a long journey to get there—and what a blessing we found ourselves in the right place at the right time.

When Ms. Huf went to Washington she wasn’t alone; Mr. Smith was waiting for her.

Home of the brave, land of the free,
I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie,
it’s a bourgeois town, it’s a bourgeois town,
I got the bourgeois blues and I’m a-gonna spread the news.
Let’s hear it for Lead Belly.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); Linda Huf earned her PhD in American Literature from the University of Maryland (1981); he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); and heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; Ross writes for FolkWorks and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.