Posts Tagged ‘Ewan MacColl’

Vox Political on the Continuing Relevance of Kirsty MacColl

December 18, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has written a short piece, remembering how it was 16 years ago today that the world heard the sad news of the death of the singer and songwriter, Kirsty MacColl. Mike states that listening to the lyrics of her 1989 track, Free World, it seems that very little has changed, and that we need more singers like her.

See his article at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/18/kirsty-maccoll-died-16-years-ago-today-but-her-music-is-as-relevant-as-ever/#comment-92400, where there’s a video of her singing this.

I’m not surprised that MacColl was politically engaged, as I think her father was the folk musician, Communist and conscientious objector Ewan MacColl. And Mike’s right – we do need more musicians like her. The 1980s were a very bleak time, with Maggie in No. 10 shutting hospitals and schools, among too many other closures. But it was also a time of very politically engaged music by the very talented musicians that emerged in the decade. UB40 took their name from the unemployment benefit form. There was Billy Bragg, singing his ‘urban folk’ songs about the miners during the Miner’s Strike. And Joanna, one of the commenters on Mike and this blog, also notes in her comment that the Style Council’s ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is also acutely relevant, as song of resistance to everything Thatcher and the Tories represent. That had the lyrics

‘You don’t have to take this cr*p,
You don’t have to sit back and relax
You can try and change it…
Lights go out,
Walls come tumbling down’.

Here’s a video of Paul Weller explaining why he puts his politics into music, and the band playing that same track.

Advertisements

American Labour History: Film about the ‘Wobblies’

May 8, 2016

This is a fascinating film by the Women’s Film Preservation Unit about the I.W.W. The International Workers of the World, or ‘Wobblies’, as they were called, were a radical American Syndicalist trade union formed at the beginning of the 20th century. They were called ‘Wobblies’ apparently because some of the Chinese workers couldn’t pronounce the ‘R’ sound, and so when they tried saying the Union’s name, it came out sounding something like ‘Wobblies’. And the name stuck.

The film traces the union’s history, from its origins to eventual demise about the time of the First World War through the memories of a group of senior citizens – old blue collar workers – who had joined it and taken part in its struggles. The Wobblies believed in the eventual ownership and management of the means of production by the workers, and the abolition of the wage system. Beyond that, as one of these elders says, they weren’t sure. They were, however, inclusive in a way that the mainstream unions, founded by Samuel Gompers, weren’t. The American Federation of Labor was a craft union that wouldn’t take unskilled labourers. Following the racial bigotry of the time, they didn’t take Blacks either. But the Wobblies did. One of the speakers is a Black man, who tells how he joined the Union because they were the only union would take and defend Black people like himself. They also took and fought for women and immigrants. Another speaker is an elderly lady, who talks about how she joined the union, and the strikes she took part in. The Wobblies allowed their women members considerable freedom, and were pilloried for it. The lady recalls how one of the accusations was that the Wobblies pushed women to the front of the demonstrations and picket lines. She replied that they didn’t. They just didn’t keep them at the back. It was up to the women themselves where they went.

They also recruited the immigrant workers that were then flooding into America as its population expanded massively to provide labour for its expanding economy. This was the period when logging began in the great wood and the railways were still being laid down across America. Workers were needed in factories, mills and docks. And so the Wobblies recruited Italians, Poles and other nationalities. These men and women too suffered tremendous prejudice and persecution for their membership of the union during the First World War, and particularly after the Russian Revolution. The Wobblies were persecuted as a revolutionary, ‘Communist’ organisation. There was a wave of xenophobia resulting in the ‘Palmer raids’, anti-immigrant police raids in which foreign workers were rounded up and deported. This was directed at the I.W.W., but the authorities frequently couldn’t find enough of them, and so just picked up foreign workers at random. It should come as no surprise that the Fascist Right in Britain in the interwar years also wanted similar raids against suspected foreign revolutionaries, or just plain foreigners, over here.

These were men and women, who had extremely rough lives, working immensely hard for poverty wages. The Black speaker describes what it was like to be a dock worker. Further on in the film, one of the other surviving workers, a White guy, was a lumberjack. He describes the appalling conditions he and the other men worked in. They were lodged in bunkhouses with no washing facilities and no mattresses on the bunks. The result was that they were riddled with lice and bedbugs. He also says that there was saying that you could smell a lumberjack before you could hear him, and you could hear him before you could see him. And the work itself was tough and dangerous. The same guy talks about the various bones he broke in accidents, including when he was crushed by a log and his entrails ‘were pushed out my tail-end’. He also shows the stump of one of his fingers, which he lost in another accident. At the camp, the dinner plates weren’t washed properly. They were nailed to the tables to stop them being stolen by bindlestiffs – migrant workers, who preyed on other tramps. They were simply hosed down after the meals were finished. Many of the workers were also farm labourers, picking fruit.

And in addition to the work, there was brutal repression by the police and management. The speakers describe armed police coming into break up the strikes, and the extreme violence used against picketing workers. Any excuse would do to get a striker into court. One of the ladies describes how she was arrested on a charge of using obscene language against one of the cops. Fortunately, she was acquitted when she told the judge, ‘You’re honour, I don’t use such language’. A week later the same cop asked her out. She turned him down, not surprisingly.

In addition to the violence from the police, there was the threat of the scab labourers recruited by management. These also came in with guns and police protection. As a result, strikes could explode into extreme violence, including gun fights. In one strike involving the dock workers, 127 people were shot to death or otherwise killed. In another incident, striking workers, who got on a boat to get to their workplace were fired upon by the management, leading to four deaths. The government became involved in many strikes, using tactics that would now be considered ‘Fascistic’. Or should be. The army were frequently called in to shoot and arrest them. During the First World War, the union left it a matter of individual conscience whether to oppose the War or not. Many did, including one who was sent to France. The reason presented for American intervention was that Europe – France and England – owed America money. So the Wobbly went down the line of American doughboys in the trenches asking them if the Europeans owed ’em anything personally. Of course they didn’t, though he describes some of the younger, more patriotic men getting angry. When the union went on strike, they were accused by the government of being collaborators with the Kaiser and the enemy. And when the Russian Revolution broke out in October 1917, they were accused of working for the Russians to bring America down. One of the ladies describes how striking men, including her husband, were rounded up by the army, and then taken to what seems like an internment camp out in the desert, loaded into freight cars with no food or water.

Much of the Wobblies’ membership came from migrant workers. In order to get to new jobs, these frequently travelled by freight train across the country looking for work. It was extremely hazardous. One of the workers describes the sadness of passing lit homes, while himself hungry. The train crew operated a racket, in which they’d charge the workers for their journey. This stopped when the union put in its own strong arm gang, who dealt out their own rough justice to them. Then there were the hijackers, who get on to a train to rob its passengers. These particularly targeted union organisers, as they frequently carried thousands of dollars worth of union fees with them. One of the tactics used against the trade unionists was to thrown them off the train, so that they fell under the wheels of the car. Again, the union was also capable of defending its members against them. When of these guys describes how they cut the letters I.W.W. onto the forehead and cheeks of a hijacker with a razor as a lesson.

One of the workers also describes how they managed to get a free ride at management’s expense. The company hired a whole load of scab workers and was paying for them to travel by train. So the Wobblies got on too and began busily recruiting them. Those that didn’t, were thrown off, so that by the time they all arrived, nearly everyone on the train was a Wobbly. Which naturally made the management furious. The lumberjack also describes the ‘stand-up’ strikes that frequently did more harm to the company than the sit-down strikes. These were basically go-slows, or work to rules, where the workers went into the forests for work, but either vanished, or did as little as possible. And the former dockworkers describe how the union supported starving workers with soup kitchens, and that after they won the dispute, the leaders organised a banquet for the workers.

The Wobblies declined after the War as a result of police and state repression, and from ideological divisions in the union itself between Communists and Anarchists after the Russian Revolution. Many members felt that they ought to be trying to start a revolution in America. They were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, and argued that the Russians had finally done it while they talked about it. The former lumberjack describes how the debates between the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary factions got so heated, that debates would frequently end in fist fights.

Although the memories of the former workers are at the heart of this movie, this isn’t simply a staid film of rather boring talking heads. Along with the speakers themselves are contemporary archive footage, newspaper headlines, and anti-Wobblie propaganda cartoons, including an animated sequence which I think may well have been from them, rather than being a contemporary film, though I might be wrong. It also includes dramatic recitation of some of the words of the Wobblies themselves. It begins with the voice of Wobblies being questioned about their country of origin, all giving various answers which avoided ‘America’, but in line with their belief that they were all indeed the Industrial Workers of the World. It also includes some of the words of the American capitalists against whom the I.W.W. were pitched in battle, and these are very ugly. One industrialists stated that the man who did not pay his workers below the minimum wage level, robbed his shareholders. Forget Dave Cameron’s and his Republican counterparts’ in America smooth words about the Tories being ‘for hardworking people’: this is the true, brutal face of capitalism.

The film’s also enlivened considerably by the songs of the Wobblies themselves. The Union was known for its songs, and many of the workers interviewed describe keeping their song books with them, or singing during the strike to keep their spirits up. Some of these are beautiful pieces of American folk song, often with a wry humour, like ‘Hooray, I’m a Bum’. I don’t agree with some of the anti-religious sentiment in a couple of these, though I can see why they were written. They were produced at a time when many towns passed laws against street orators, with the exception of the Salvation Army. The Wobblies themselves used to set up meetings in the streets to recruit new members, with the speaker himself standing on a soapbox. The police would arrest them while leaving the Sally Ann speakers alone. And so there developed a vicious rivalry between the two organisations for speaking pitches. Looking through the music credits, I saw that one of the arrangements was sung by Peggy Seeger and England’s own Ewan MacColl, the father of British pop singer Kirsty, and writer of the classic ‘Dirty Old Town’.

It also uses paintings of some of the strikes, presumably created by the workers themselves. These are naturally na├»ve in style, but nevertheless constitute valuable pieces of folk art from one of America’s most notorious outsider groups.

This is a fascinating, harrowing, exuberant movie about a labour group that is little known over this side of the Atlantic. Looking down the list of comments on the Youtube page, one of the commenters remarked that this is the type of history that’s been removed from the official version. Indeed it is. It’s the type of history that at one time would have made it onto Channel 4 or possibly PBS in the Land of the Free. Now you’re only likely to see it either on BBC 4, or at your local arts cinema.

Romanticism, Mysticism and Utopianism in the Modern British Folk Revival

May 13, 2014

Electric Eden Pic

Electric Eden by Rob Young (London: Faber and Faber 2010) is a detailed examination of modern British folk music, going from the 19th century collectors like Cecil Sharp and Vaughn Williams to modern folk-rockers like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and non-folkies, like Julian Cope and Kate Bush, who nevertheless express the strange, esoteric spirit of much of British folk music in their strange, esoteric mysticism and utopian yearning for a Britain of myth and legend. The blurb states:

In this groundbreaking survey of more than a century of music-making in the British Isles, Rob Young investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations – song collectors, composers, Marxist revivalists, folk-rockers, psychedelic voyagers, free-festival-goers, experimental pop stars and electronic innovators. In a sweeping panorama of Albion’s soundscape that takes in the pioneer spirit of Cecil sharp; the pastoral classicism of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; the industrial folk revival of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd; the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, John Martyn and Pentangle; the bucolic psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, the Beatles and Pink Floyd; the acid-folk of Comus, Forest, Mr Fox and Trees; The Wicker Man and occult folklore; the early Glastonbury and Stonehenge festivals; and the visionary pop of Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, Electric Eden maps out a native British musical voice that reflects the complex relationship between town and country, progress and nostalgia, radicalism and conservatism. A wild combination of pagan echoes, spiritual quest, imaginative time-travel, pastoral innocence and electrified creativity, Electric Eden presents and passionate and intelligent landscape reading of this island’s music, and the spirit that informs it.

I’ve posted this up as a partial antidote to the pseudo-folksiness of the English Democrats’ election video, which I’ve reblogged from Tom Pride’s site. The good Mr Pride had put it up with the question of whether it was the worst party political broadcast ever. It isn’t, but offhand I can’t think of one. The video relies on a very few stereotypical images of England – White Cliffs of Dover, Churchill, St George, Spitfires and a monument to the war dead. It’s a very narrow, very Conservative view of English national identity. And also extremely modern – most of the imagery is that of the Second World War. English, and British folk identity is far broader and richer than that, as Electric Eden shows. Sharp, I believe, was actually a Socialist trying to recover the songs of the British working people. The folkies of the 1950s were similarly inspired by Left-wing political views. Many of them were Marxists, inspired by American folk musicians and were aficionados of Black American Blues music. This was the music of poor, Black America, and the British revivalists turned to exploring their own folk music as Blues’ British counterpart. Furthermore, many of the British folk-rockers in the 1960s were fans and pioneers of what is now World Music, and a few converted to the mystical religions of these extra-European cultures. The book mentions a couple, for example, who converted to Sufism, Islamic mysticism.

The book is a bit contentious in its claim that the British folk revival, or the folk genre, is now over. It isn’t, as you can hear by listening the folk bands that are still very much a part of the music scene, particularly in Bristol. It has to be said that it’s nowhere near as big as it was in the 1960s-70s, when Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span were at their height. It has also passed on elements and attitudes to other pop genres. There was, for example, a definite folk element in the music of the Goth rock band, All About Eve in the 80s and 90s. Electric Eden demonstrates how rich, varied and esoteric British folk, folk-rock and folk-influenced pop is, far richer than the limited, trite and reactionary images presented by the parties of the populist far Right.