Posts Tagged ‘Songs’

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.

The Young Turks, the Democrat Primaries, and the War Crimes of Henry Kissinger

February 13, 2016

Oh Henry Kissinger,
Oh How we’re missing yer!

Monty Python’s Henry Kissinger song.

The hideous political ghost of Henry Kissinger reared its head the other day in the Democrat debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on PBS. Hillary was proud that Kissinger complimented her on the way she had run her department, and basked in the old politico’s compliment. Bernie Sanders, however, made it very clear what he thought of this pillar of the Nixon administration, and said he was proud that Kissinger was not his friend.

In this clip from The Young Turks, John Iadarola presents the argument that Kissinger is a war criminal, exactly as his detractors allege. Actually, on this issue, there isn’t much to ponder: the old bastard’s actions and statements speak for themselves, and indict Kissinger as one of the great monsters of the late 20th century. Iadarola sums it up by saying that he is a man no-one should want to have as a friend, and especially not someone who wants to be a presidential candidate.

Among the facts against Kissinger are the following:

* When he was in the State Department, Kissigner worked to prolong the Vietnam War as long as possible.

* He encouraged Nixon to bug and intimidate his political enemies.

* He supported the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, which killed untold thousands of people and destabilised the country, leading to the rise of a murderous regime that butchered millions.

* He also engineered the 1973 Chilean coup, and similar military interventions in Rhodesia, East Timor and Argentina.

Iadarola also gives some damning quotations from Kissinger’s own mouth. These range from the simply cynical – such as his belief that intelligence isn’t necessary for the use of power, and is sometimes an impediment, to the truly monstrous. He stated that military men were dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy, which possibly explained why he was so massively unconcerned about their deaths in the Vietnam War. In 2000 he said approvingly that he could think of no better way to unite America than behind an terrorist attack an American overseas target, and that George Dubya was the man to do this. He also asked during the Vietnam War why Americans should ‘flagellate’ themselves for what the Cambodians were doing to each other. He was also quite prepared to work with the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that he knew they were massacring ten of thousands of their own people. Indeed, he himself called them ‘murderous thugs’.

During the 1991 race riots on the West Coast, he stated that although Americans weren’t prepared to accept UN troops there today, they would tomorrow if they promised to restore order. He said people feared the unknown, and to protect themselves from it the peoples of the world would willing plead for their leaders to take power, so that individual rights would wither before the world government. He also stated that the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union was not an American concern. And if the Soviets stuffed them into gas chambers, that wasn’t an American concern either. He did, however, concede that ‘perhaps [it was] a humanitarian concern.’ This is particularly cynical, considering that Kissinger was himself Jewish. The 1970’s were the decade that saw an increasing interest in the Holocaust, including a TV series of the same name. This is particularly shocking because of the profound horror the Holocaust justifiably still evokes for Europeans and Americans.

I began this article with a quote from Monty Python’s Henry Kissinger song. And the correct answer to those lines should be ‘No. We are not ‘missing yer”. It was Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace prize after the bombing of Hanoi that made Tom Lehrer, the great satirical song writer, to give up. After all, what’s left to lampoon if reality does something that grotesque.

Fuhrer Bonehill Goes Looking for ‘Good-Looking’ Fascists

March 21, 2015

I found this piece on Hope Not Hate, and it’s about more comedy from the one-man Nazi Blitzkrieg, Joshua Bonehill. It seems the saw dust Duce has decided that the reason people don’t support, vote for and join Fascist parties is because their members are all stereotypically hideous. He has therefore released this advert, urging good-looking Nazis to join his party.

Bonehill Good Looking Fascists

If you can’t read it, it says

Activists

We want to create a force of good-looking, disciplined and effective activists.

The media are ever quick to portray us as thugs, scum and degenerates who care more about a can of beer as opposed to the future of this nation. Fascism was never about thuggery or violence. Fascism was all about caring and loving our folk. The skinhead scene worked well for the 1970s and 1980s, but those days are long since behind us, in order to appeal to a new generation, we have to adopt a new appearance.

To which the good Antifas of Hope Not Hate have added the ironic caption ‘Ever since a good-looking Nazi?’

If you look at many of the photos posted of the Nazis at their marches and protests up and down the country, many of them do resemble exactly the stereotype of the beer-bellied, skinhead thug. Nick Griffin, the former BNP leader, was himself so hideous that Private Eye put his mug on the cover as a ‘Nick Griffin fright mask’ you could make.

But even if the Fascist parties did smarten up their image, and started looking like supermodels and Hollywood stars, people still wouldn’t join them. Why? It’s not that their members are hideous, the entire party and its ideology is.

Fascism was all about thuggery and violence, ever since the Nazis and Fascists squadristi went around looking for Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, democrats and Jews to beat up in Weimar Germany and post-WW I Italy. Nice, gentle people don’t make the symbol of their movement the same clubs they use to bludgeon and beat down their opponents, as the Fascists did their mangonello. They also don’t sing songs about racial violence ending with the refrain, ‘Til the Jew lies bleeding at our feet’.

They also don’t engage in war crimes and perpetrate genocides so horrific that they have become the very byword and image of evil for the generations after them.

And the thuggery didn’t stop with the Second World War. It carried on in the post-War years, when one section of the NF deliberately recruited football hooligans and boot boys to attack Blacks, Asians and left-wingers. There is even TV footage of Martin Webster, the NF’s Fuhrer, blandly stating that ‘we are looking for robust young men to protect the country from Communism.’ This didn’t sound at all peaceful. Nor was it meant to be.

Actually, Bonehill’s appeal to find ‘good-looking’ Fascists could prove highly embarrassing, especially after his hilarious phone-in to Christo’s late night show on LBC talking about anal sex. For all their vicious hatred of homosexuals, a sizable proportion of the NF was gay. The head of the BNP before Nick Griffin was gay, and actually had it written into the party’s constitution that it recognised the right of people to enjoy the company of whoever they chose. In the 1980s the head and founder of the British Movement split off from the NF, sneering at them as ‘the gay NF’.

And apart from that, Hope Not Hate reported a little while ago a series of sex scandals in the BNP, with members betraying their partners with other stormtroopers and their partners. There was even a description of the mess left over from some of their more orgiastic meetings in the 1980s.

Bonehill probably won’t recruit many good-looking people. But he might have a few of the other Fascists querying his motives for doing so.

A Patriotic British Song from Colonists to the New World

July 4, 2013

Brown_last_of_england

I suppose I should accompany this post with a piece of music roughly on the same theme, such as Dvorak’s New World Symphony, or Rush’s New World Man. A little while ago I picked up an old songbook in one of the charity bookshops down in Bridgwater in Somerset. The book was a 1970’s edition of a collection of songs that had first been published in the middle of the First World War in 1916. Many of the songs were thus staunchly patriotic. They weren’t just British, but also included classic American songs, such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Star Spangled Banner, Irish songs, including Let Erin Remember and St. Patrick, and one from the Russian Empire of the Tsars: The Russian National Hymn. One of the British songs appears to have been written for British emigrants embarking on a new better life, in the colonies. It has the lines

‘So farewell, England, much as we may love t6hee,
We’ll dry the tears that we have shed before.
Why should we weep to sail in search of fortune?’

The chorus includes the lines

‘Cheer! boys, cheer! there’s wealth for honest labour!
Cheer! boys, cheer! for the new and happy land!’

The actual destination isn’t stated, but the lines

‘the star of empire glitters in the west’ and

‘And ours shall be the prairie and the forest,
And boundless meadows ripe with golden grain’

suggest that it is probably Canada. The song’s sentiments could also describe the attitude of many British people who went to America in search of a better life in the same period. The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw emigrants from England travelling to America. Arthur Machen’s classic tale of horror, The Three Impostors, includes one story set in the American west, told by one of the Impostors of the title. The story describes some of the other British emigrants to America. So common had it become, and so close were the connections between England and some parts of America, that one of the stories talks about English children running away from home to London, Liverpool or New York. One of the working-class protagonists in a John Galsworthy play about a miner’s strike at one point states proudly that he’s been to America, where the working class were treated better and had more opportunities than in the Britain of Galsworthy’s day.
Anyway, here below is the song:

Cheer! boys, cheer! no more of idle sorrow,
Courage, true hearts shall bear us on our way;
Hope points before and shows the bright to-morrow,
Let us forget the darkness of to-day:
So farewell, England, much as we may love thee,
We’ll dry the tears that we have shed before.
Why should we weep to sail in search of fortune?
So farewell, England, farewell for evermore!
Cheer! boys, cheer! for country, mother country,
Cheer! boys, cheer! the willing strong right hand:
Cheer! boys, cheer! there’s wealth for honest labour!
Cheer! boys, cheer! for the new and happy land.

Cheer! boys, cheer! the steady breeze is blowing,
To float us freely o’er the oceans breast.
The world shall follow in the track we’re going;
The star of empire glitters in the west.
Here we had toil and little to reward it,
But there shall plenty smile upon our pain;
And ours shall be the prairie and the forest,
And boundless meadows ripe with golden grain.
Cheer! boys, cheer! for country, mother country,
Cheer! boys, cheer! united heart and hand;
Cheer, boys, cheer! there’s wealth for honest labour!
Cheers! boys, cheer! for the new and happy land.

If anyone wants me to, I’ll put up the music to accompany the song.

The painting above is Ford Maddox Brown’s classic depiction of English emigrants for America, The Last of England.