Saturday, July 18, 2015
The Labor Party Question In The United States- An Historical Overview-Fight For A Worker Party That Fights For A Workers Government
From The Pen Of Josh Breslin
Back in the early 1970s after they had worked out between themselves the rudiment of what had gone wrong with the May Day 1971 actions in Washington, D.C. Sam Eaton and Ralph Morris began some serious study of leftist literature from an earlier time, from back earlier in the century. Those May Day anti-Vietnam War actions, ill-conceived as they in the end turned out to be, centered on the proposition that if the American government would not close down the damn blood-sucking war then they, those thousands that participated in the actions, would close down the government. All Sam, Ralph and those thousands of others got for their efforts was a round-up into the bastinado. Sam had been picked off in the round-up on Pennsylvania Avenue as his group (his “affinity group” for the action) had been on their way to “capture” the White House. Ralph and his affinity group of ex-veterans and their supporters were rounded-up on Massachusetts Avenues heading toward the Pentagon (they had no plans to capture that five-sided building, at least they were unlike Sam’s group not that naïve, just surround it like had occurred in an anti-war action in 1967 which has been detailed in Norman Mailer’s prize-winning book Armies Of The Night). For a time RFK (Robert F. Kennedy) Stadium, the home of the Washington Redskins football team) had been the main holding area for those arrested and detained. The irony of being held in a stadium named after the martyred late President’s younger brother and lightening rod for almost all anti-war and “newer world” political dissent before he was assassinated in the bloody summer of 1968 and in a place where football, a sport associated in many radical minds with all that was wrong with the American system was lost on Sam and Ralph at the time and it was only later, many decades later, as they were sitting in a bar in Boston across from the JFK Federal Building on one of their periodic reunions when Ralph was in town that Sam had picked up that connection.
Sam, from Carver in Massachusetts, who had been a late convert to the anti-war movement in 1969 after his closest high school friend, Jeff Mullin, had been blown away in some jungle town in the Central Highlands was like many late converts to a cause a “true believer,” had taken part in many acts of civil disobedience at draft boards, including the one in hometown Carver, federal buildings and military bases. From an indifference, no that’s not right, from a mildly patriotic average young American citizen that you could find by the score hanging around Mom and Pop variety stores, pizza parlors, diners, and bowling alleys in the early 1960s, he had become a long-haired bearded “hippie anti-warrior.” Not too long though by the standards of “youth nation” of the day since he was running a small print shop in Carver in order to support his mother and four younger sisters after his father had passed away suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1965 which exempted him from military service. Not too short either since those “squares” were either poor bastards who got tagged by the military and had to wear their hair short an appearance which stuck out in towns like Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Berkeley and L.A. when the anti-war movement started embracing the increasingly frustrated and anti-war soldiers that they were beginning to run across or, worse, cops before they got “hip” to the idea that guys wearing short hair, no beard, looked like they had just taken a bath, and wore plaid short-sleeved shirts and chinos might as well have a bulls-eye target on their backs surveilling the counter-cultural crowd.
Ralph, from Troy, New York, had been working in his father’s electrical shop which had major orders from General Electric the big employer in the area when he got his draft notice and had decided to enlist in order to avoid being an 11B, an infantryman, a grunt, “cannon fodder,” although he would not have known to call it that at the time, that would come later. He had expected to go into something which he knew something about in the electrical field at least that is what the recruiting sergeant in Albany had “promised” him. But in the year 1967 (and 1968 too since he had extended his tour six months to get out of the service a little early) what the military needed in Vietnam whatever else they might have needed was “cannon fodder,” guys to go out into the bushes and kill commies. Simple as that. And that was what Ralph Morris, a mildly patriotic average young American citizen, no that is not right, a very patriotic average young American citizen that you could also find by the score hanging around Mom and Pop variety stores, pizza parlors, diners, and bowling alleys in the early 1960s, did. But see he got “religion” up there in Pleiku, up there in the bush and so when he had been discharged from the Army in late 1969 he was in a rage against the machine. Sure he had gone back to the grind of his father’s electrical shop but he was out of place just then, out of sorts, needed to find an outlet for his anger at what he had done, what had happened to buddies very close to him, what buddies had done, and how the military had made them animals, nothing less. (Ralph after his father retired would take over the electric shop business on his own in 1991 and would thereafter give it to his son to take over after he retired in 2011.)
One day he had gone to Albany on a job for his father and while on State Street he had seen a group of guys in mismatched military garb marching in the streets without talking, silent which was amazing in itself from what he had previously seen of such marches and just carrying a big sign-Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) and nobody stopped them, no cops, nobody, nobody yelled “commie” either or a lot of other macho stuff that he and his hang out guys used to do in Troy when some peaceniks held peace vigils in the square. The civilian on-lookers held their tongues that day although Ralph knew that the whole area still retained a lot of residual pro-war feeling just because America was fighting somewhere for something. He parked his father’s truck and walked over to the march just to watch at first. Some guy in a tattered Marine mismatched uniform wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers in the march called out to the crowd for anybody who had served in Vietnam, served in the military to join them shouting out their military affiliation as they did so. Ralph almost automatically blurred out-“First Air Cav” and walked right into the street. There were other First Air Cav guys there that day so he was among kindred. So yeah, Ralph did a lot of actions with VVAW and with “civilian” collectives who were planning more dramatic actions. Ralph always would say later that if it hadn’t been for getting “religion” on the war issue and doing all those political actions then he would have gone crazy, would have wound up like a lot of guys he would see later at the VA, see out in the cardboard box for a home streets, and would not until this day have supported in any way he could, although lately not physically since his knee replacement, those who had the audacity to march for the “good old cause.”
That is the back story of a relationship has lasted until this day, an unlikely relationship in normal times and places but in that cauldron of the early 1970s when the young, even the not so very young, were trying to make heads or tails out of what was happening in a world they did not crate, and were not asked about there were plenty of such stories, although most did not outlast that search for the newer world when the high tide of the 1960s ebbed in the mid-1970s. Ralph had noticed while milling around the football field waiting for something to happen, waiting to be released, Sam had a VVAW button on his shirt and since he did not recognize Sam from any previous VVAW action had asked if he was a member of the organization and where. Sam told him the story of his friend Jeff Mullin and of his change of heart about the war, and about doing something about ending the damn thing. That got them talking, talking well into the first night of their captivity when they found they had many things in common coming from deeply entrenched working-class cultures. (You already know about Troy. Carver is something like the cranberry bog capital of the world even today although the large producers dominate the market unlike when Sam was a kid and the small Finnish growers dominated the market and town life. The town moreover has turned into something of a bedroom community for the high-tech industry that dots U.S. 495.) After a couple of days in the bastinado Sam and Ralph hunger, thirsty, needing a shower after suffering through the Washington humidity heard that people were finding ways of getting out to the streets through some side exits. They decided to surreptiously attempt an “escape” which proved successful and they immediately headed through a bunch of letter, number and state streets on the Washington city grid toward Connecticut Avenue heading toward Silver Springs trying to hitchhike out of the city. A couple of days later having obtained a ride through from Trenton, New Jersey to Providence, Rhode Island they headed to Sam’s mother’s place in Carver. Ralph stayed there a few days before heading back home to Troy. They had agreed that they would keep in contact and try to figure out what the hell went wrong in Washington that week. After making some connections through some radicals he knew in Cambridge to live in a commune Sam asked Ralph to come stay with him for the summer and try to figure out that gnarly problem. Ralph did, although his father was furious since he needed his help on a big GE contract for the Defense Department but Ralph was having none of that.
So in the summer of 1971 Sam and Ralph began to read that old time literature, although Ralph admitted he was not much of a reader and some of the stuff was way over his head, Sam’s too. Mostly they read socialist and communist literature, a little of the old IWW (Wobblie) stuff since they both were enthrall to the exploits of the likes of Big Bill Haywood out West which seemed to dominate the politics of that earlier time. They had even for a time joined a loose study group sponsored by one of the myriad “red collectives” that had sprung up like weeds in the Cambridge area. Both thought it ironic at the time, and others who were questioning the direction the “movement” was heading in stated the same thing when they were in the study groups, that before that time in the heyday of their anti-war activity everybody dismissed the old white guys (a term not in common use then like now) like Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and their progeny as irrelevant. Now everybody was glued to the books.
It was from that time that Sam and Ralph got a better appreciation of a lot of the events, places, and personalities from the old time radicals. Events like the start of May Day in 1886 as an international working class holiday which they had been clueless about despite the May Day actions, the Russian Revolutions, the Paris Commune, the Chinese Revolutions, August 1914 as a watershed against war, the Communist International, those aforementioned radicals Marx, Lenin, Trostky, adding in Mao, Che, Fidel, Ho whose names were on everybody’s tongue (and on posters in every bedroom) even if the reason for that was not known. Most surprising of all were the American radicals like Haywood, Browder, Cannon, Foster, and others who nobody then, or almost nobody cared to know about at all.
As they learned more information about past American movements Sam, the more interested writer of such pieces began to write appreciation of past events, places and personalities. His first effort was to write something about the commemoration of the 3 Ls (Lenin, Luxemburg, and Liebknecht) started by the Communist International back in the 1920s in January 1972, the first two names that he knew from a history class in junior college and the third not at all. After that he wrote various pieces like the one below about the labor party question in the United States (leftist have always posed their positions as questions; the women question, the black question, the party question, the Russian question and so on so Sam decided to stick with the old time usage.) Here is what he had to say then which he had recently freshly updated. Sam told Ralph after he had read and asked if he was still a “true believer” said a lot of piece he would still stand by today:
“These notes (expanded) were originally intended to be presented as The Labor Question in the United States at a forum on the question on Saturday August 4, 1972. They were updated for a study class in 2012 recently again  for this space. As a number of radicals have noted, most particularly organized socialist radicals, after the dust from the fall bourgeois election settles , regardless of who wins, the working class will lose. Pressure for an independent labor expression, as we head into 2016, may likely to move from its current propaganda point as part of the revolutionary program to agitation and action so learning about the past experiences in the revolutionary and radical labor movements is timely.
I had originally expected to spend most of the speech at the forum delving into the historical experiences, particularly the work of the American Communist Party and the American Socialist Workers Party with a couple of minutes “tip of the hat” to the work of radical around the Labor Party experiences of the late 1990s. However, the scope of the early work and that of those radical in the latter work could not, I felt, be done justice in one forum. Thus these notes are centered on the early historical experiences. If I get a chance, and gather enough information to do the subject justice, I will place notes for the 1990s Labor party work in this space as well.
The subject today is the Labor Party Question in the United States. For starters I want to reconfigure this concept and place it in the context of the Transitional Program first promulgated by Leon Trotsky and his fellows in the Fourth International in 1938. There the labor party concept was expressed as “a workers’ party that fights for a workers’ government.” [The actual expression for advanced capitalist countries like the U.S. was for a workers and farmers government but that is hardly applicable here now, at least in the United States. Some wag at the time, some Shachtmanite wag from what I understand, noted that there were then more dentists than farmers in the United States. Wag aside that remark is a good point since today we would call for a workers and X (oppressed communities, women, etc.) government to make our programmatic point more inclusive.]
For revolutionaries these two algebraically-expressed political ideas are organically joined together. What we mean, what we translate this as, in our propaganda is a mass revolutionary labor party (think Bolsheviks first and foremost, and us) based on the trade unions (the only serious currently organized part of the working class) fighting for soviets (workers councils, factory committees, etc.) as an expression of state power. In short, the dictatorship of the proletariat, a term we do not yet use in “polite” society these days in order not to scare off the masses. And that is the nut. Those of us who stand on those intertwined revolutionary premises are few and far between today and so we need, desperately need, to have a bridge expression, and a bridge organization, the workers party, to do the day to day work of bringing masses of working people to see the need to have an independent organized expression fighting programmatically for their class interests. And we, they, need it pronto.
That program, the program that we as revolutionaries would fight for, would, as it evolved, center on demands, yes, demands, that would go from day to day needs to the struggle for state power. Today focusing on massive job programs at union wages and benefits to get people back to work, workers control of production as a way to spread the available work around, the historic slogan of 30 for 40, nationalization of the banks and other financial institutions under workers control, a home foreclosure moratorium, and debt for homeowners and students. Obviously more demands come to mind but those listed are sufficient to show our direction.
Now there have historically been many efforts to create a mass workers party in the United States going all the way back to the 1830s with the Workingmen’s Party based in New York City. Later efforts, after the Civil War, mainly, when classic capitalism began to become the driving economic norm, included the famous Terence Powderly-led Knights of Labor, including (segregated black locals), a National Negro Union, and various European social-democratic off -shoots (including pro-Marxist formations). All those had flaws, some serious like being pro-capitalist, merely reformist, and the like (sound familiar?) and reflected the birth pangs of the organized labor movement rather than serious predecessors.
Things got serious around the turn of the century (oops, turn of the 20th century) when the “age of the robber barons” declared unequivocally that class warfare between labor and capital was the norm in American society (if not expressed that way in “polite” society). This was the period of the rise the Debsian-inspired party of the whole class, the American Socialist Party. More importantly, if contradictorily, emerging from a segment of that organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies) was, to my mind the first serious revolutionary labor organization (party/union?) that we could look to as fighting a class struggle fight for working class interests. Everyone should read the Preamble to the IWW Constitution of 1905 (look it up on Wikipedia or the IWW website) to see what I mean. It still retains its stirring revolutionary fervor today.
The most unambiguous work of creating a mass labor party that we could recognize though really came with the fight of the American Communist Party (which had been formed by the sections, the revolutionary-inclined sections, of the American Socialist Party that split off in the great revolutionary/reformist division after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917) in the 1920s to form one based on the trade unions (mainly in the Midwest, and mainly in Chicago with the John Fitzgerald –led AFL). That effort was stillborn, stillborn because the non-communist labor leaders who had the numbers, the locals, and, ah, the dough wanted a farmer-labor party, a two class party to cushion them against radical solutions (breaking from the bourgeois parties and electoralism). Only the timely intervention of the Communist International saved the day from a major blunder (Go to the James P. Cannon Internet Archives for more, much more on this movement, He, and his factional allies including one William Z. Foster, later the titular head of the Communist Party, were in the thick of things to his later red-faced chagrin).
Moving forward, the American Communist Party at the height of the Great Depression (the one in the 1930s, that one, not the one we are in now) created the American Labor Party (along with the American Socialist party and other pro-Democratic Party labor skates) which had a mass base in places like New York and the Midwest. The problem though was this organization was, mainly, a left-handed way to get votes for Roosevelt from class conscious socialist-minded workers who balked at a direct vote for Roosevelt. (Sound familiar, again?) And that, before the Labor Party movement of the 1990s, is pretty much, except a few odd local attempts here and there by leftist groups, some sincere, some not, was probably the last major effort to form any kind of independent labor political organization. (The American Communist Party after 1936, except 1940, and even that is up for questioning, would thereafter not dream of seriously organizing such a party. For them the Democratic Party was more than adequate, thank you. Later the Socialist Workers Party essentially took the same stance.)
So much then for the historical aspects of the workers party question. The real question, the real lessons, for revolutionaries posed by all of this is something that was pointed out by James P. Cannon in the late 1930s and early 1940s (and before him Leon Trotsky). Can revolutionaries in the United States recruit masses of working people to a revolutionary labor party (us, again) today (and again think Bolshevik)? To pose the question is to give the answer (an old lawyer’s trick, by the way).
America today, no. Russia in 1917, yes. Germany in 1921, yes. Same place 1923, yes. Spain in 1936 (really from 1934 on), yes. America in the 1930s, probably not (even with no Stalinist ALP siphoning). France 1968, yes. Greece (or Spain) today, yes. So it is all a question of concrete circumstances. That is what Cannon (and before him Trotsky) was arguing about. If you can recruit to the revolutionary labor party that is the main ticket. We, even in America, are not historically pre-determined to go the old time British Labor Party route as an exclusive way to create a mass- based political labor organization. If we are not able to recruit directly then you have to look at some way station effort. That is why in his 1940 documents (which can also be found at the Cannon Internet Archives as well) Cannon stressed that the SWP should where possible (mainly New York) work in the Stalinist-controlled (heaven forbid, cried the Shachtmanites) American Labor Party. That was where masses of organized trade union workers were.
Now I don’t know, and probably nobody else does either, if and when, the American working class is going to come out of its slumber. Some of us thought that Occupy might be a catalyst for that. That has turned out to be patently false as far as the working class goes. So we have to expect that maybe some middle level labor organizers or local union officials feeling pressure from the ranks may begin to call for a labor party. That, as the 1990s Socialist Alternative Labor Party archives indicates, is about what happened when those efforts started.
[A reference back to the American Communist Party’s work in the 1920s may be informative here. As mentioned above there was some confusion, no, a lot of confusion back then about building a labor party base on workers and farmers, a two -class party. While the demands of both groups may in some cases overlap farmers, except for farm hands, are small capitalists on the land. We need a program for such potential allies, petty bourgeois allies, but their demands are subordinate to labor’s in a workers’ party program. Fast forward to today and it is entirely possible, especially in light of the recent Occupy experiences that some vague popular frontist trans-class movement might develop like the Labor Non-Partisan League that the labor skates put forward in the 1930s as a catch basin for all kinds of political tendencies. We, of course, would work in such formations fighting for a revolutionary perspective but this is not what we advocate for now.]
Earlier this year AFL-CIO President Trumka made noises about labor “going its own way.” I guess he had had too much to drink at the Democratic National Committee meeting the night before, or something. So we should be cautious, but we should be ready. While at the moment tactics like a great regroupment of left forces, a united front with labor militants, or entry in other labor organizations for the purpose of pushing the workers party are premature we should be ready.
And that last sentence brings up my final point, another point courtesy of Jim Cannon. He made a big point in the 1940s documents about the various kinds of political activities that small revolutionary propaganda groups or individuals (us, yet again) can participate in (and actually large socialist organizations too before taking state power). He lumped propaganda, agitation, and action together. For us today we have our propaganda points “a workers’ party that fights for a workers (and X, okay) government.” In the future, if things head our way, we will “united front” the labor skates to death agitating for the need for an independent labor expression. But we will really be speaking over their heads to their memberships (and other working class formations, if any, as well). Then we will take action to create that damn party, fighting to make it a revolutionary instrument. Enough said.
On The Nature of True Love-The Search For The Great Working-Class Love Song - With Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning, 1952 In Mind –Take Two
On The Nature of True Love-The Search For The Great Working-Class Love Song - With Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning, 1952 In Mind –Take Two
From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin:
Several years ago, maybe about eight years now that I think about it, I did a series of sketches on guys, folk-singers, folk-rockers, rock-folkers or whatever you want to call those who weened us away from the stale pablum rock in the early 1960s (Bobby Vee, Rydell, Darin, et al, Sandra Dee, Brenda Lee, et al) after the gold rush dried up in what is now called the classic age of rock and roll in the mid to late 1950s when Elvis, Jerry Lee, Buddy, Chuck, Bo and their kindred made us jump. (There were gals too like Wanda Jackson but mainly it was guys in those days.) I am referring of course to the savior folk minute of the early 1960 when a lot of guys with acoustic guitars, some self-made lyrics, or stuff from old Harry Smith Anthology times gave us a reprieve. The series titled Not Bob Dylan centered on why those budding folkies like Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Jesse Winchester and the man under review Richard Thompson to name a few did not make the leap to be the “king of folk” that had been ceded by the media to Bob Dylan and whatever happened to them once the folk minute went south after the combined assault of the British rock invasion (you know the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, hell, even Herman’s Hermits got play for a while), and the rise of acid rock put folk in the shade (you know the Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, The Doors, The Who, hell, even the aforementioned Beatles and Stones got caught up in the fray although not to their eternal musical playlist benefit). I also did a series on Not Joan Baez, the “queen of the folk minute” asking that same question on the female side but here dealing with one Richard Thompson the male side of the question is what is of interest.
I did a couple of sketches on Richard Thompson back then, or rather sketches based on probably his most famous song, Vincent Black Lightning, 1952 which dove-tailed with some remembrances of my youth and my semi-outlaw front to the world and the role that motorcycles played in that world. Additionally, in light of the way that a number of people whom I knew back then, classmates whom I reconnected on a class reunion website responded when I posed the question of what they thought was the great working-class love song since North Adamsville was definitely a working class town driven by that self-same ethos I wrote some other sketches driving home my selection of Thompson’s song as my choice.
The latter sketches are what interest me here. See Thompson at various times packed it in, said he had no more spirit or some such and gave up the road, the music and the struggle to made that music, as least professionally. Took time to make a more religious bent to his life and other such doings. Not unlike a number of other performers from that period who tired of the road or got discourage with the small crowds, or lost the folk spirit. Probably as many reasons as individuals to give them. Then he, they had an epiphany or something, got the juices flowing again and came back on the road. That fact is to the good for old time folk (and rock) aficionados like me.
What that fact of returning to the road by Thompson and a slew of others has meant is that my friend and I, (okay, okay my sweetie who prefers that I call her my soulmate but that is just between us so friend) now have many opportunities to see acts like Thompson’s Trio, his current band configuration, to see if we think they still “have it” (along with acts of those who never left the road like Bob Dylan who apparently is on an endless tour whether we want him to do so or not). That idea got started about a decade ago when we saw another come-back kid, Geoff Muldaur of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, solo, who had taken something twenty years off. He had it. So we started looking for whoever was left of the old folks acts (rock and blues too) to check out that question-unfortunately the actuarial tables took their toll before we could see some of them at least one last time like Dave Von Ronk.
That brings us to Richard Thompson. Recently we got a chance to see him in a cabaret setting with tables and good views from every position, at least on in the orchestra section, at the Wilbur Theater in Boston with his trio, a big brush drummer and an all-around side guitar player (and other instruments like the mando). Thompson broke the performance up into two parts, a solo set of six or seven numbers high-lighted by Vincent Black Lightning, and Dimming Of The Day which was fine. The second part based on a new album and a bunch of his well-known rock standards left us shaking our heads. Maybe the room could not handle that much sound, although David Bromberg’s five piece band handled it well a couple of weeks before, or maybe it was the melodically sameness of the songs and the same delivery voice and style but we were frankly disappointed and not disappointed to leave at the encore. Most tunes didn’t resonant although a few in all honesty did we walked out of the theater with our hands in our pockets. No thumbs up or down flat based on that first old time set otherwise down. However, damn it, Bob Dylan does not have to move over, now. Our only consolation that great working-class love song, Vincent Black Lightning, still intact.
Which brings us to one of those sketches I did based on Brother Thompson’s glorious Vincent Black Lightning. When I got home I began to revise that piece which I have included below. Now on to the next act in the great quest- a reunion of the three remaining active members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Jim Maria Muldaur, and of course Geoff at the Club Passim (which traces its genesis back to the folk minute’s iconic Club 47 over on Mount Auburn Street in Harvard Square. We’ll see if that gets the thumbs up.
On The Nature of True Love-In Search Of The Great Working Class Love Song- With Donna Walker, North Adamsville Class Of 1964, In Mind
The search, the everlasting search as it turned out, for the great working-class love song, was prompted by a question that Sam Lowell had been asked about a few years before from some old North Adamsville high school classmates who had contacted him to cut up old torches via a circuitous route, hell, a byzantine route, or byzantine –worthy, that he would describe some other time since to stop for it then would have snagged the question to death - what music were you listening to back in the day? Back in the early 1960s day when the music was exhausted and they, he and those inquisitive classmates were waiting, waiting impatiently, or he was, for some fresh breeze to come from somewhere after Elvis died (or might as well have died, died army died, died Hollywood movie died, squaresville died, when he retired his hips, his snarl, and his nerve and let Tin Pan Alley rather than the back street juke joint down in black night Clarksville or some honky-tonk, good old boy honky-tonk bar in back alley Memphis turn his head), Jerry Lee was busted up with some second cousin(and the hoped for mantle-passing faded after the blast promise of High School Confidential on the back of a flatbed truck turned to ashes and a corny reefer-free B-film, a premature jailbreak minute turned to ashes in our collective youthful mouths not then used to such mortalities), Chuck was out of circulation for messing with Mister’s women (a more serious lesson but what did we, white kids all, all, to a person, know of such race things, race divides, race records, miscegenation, lust , all we knew was Roll Over Beethoven a new beat was in town and we approved), and we were stuck with a batch of songs and singers who made us want to head back to mother womb 1940s music, some Inkspots, pre-doo-wopping, some Lena Horne stormy weather, or some such, that at least had good melodies.
Well, for Sam at that point at least that subject was totally exhausted. He no longer wanted to hear about how his dear AARP-enrolled classmates (distaff side, he presumed) fainted over Teen Angel (the saga of some dippy frail who was so off-center that she flipped out when she found out her boy’s class ring was back in some railroad track stalled car-and she went back, RIP angel), Johnny Angel (just some hormonal hyperbole about some side-burn corner boy with tight white tee-shirt, tight jeans, tight, but don’t tell her that), or Earth Angel (ditto on the tight, but girl tight, the only girl tight that counted, cashmere sweater, skirt tight). Christ there were more angels around then than could fit on the head of a needle or fought it out to the death in John Milton’s epic revolutionary poem from the seventeenth century , Paradise Lost.
Moreover, Sam had had enough of You're Gonna Be Sorry, I'm Sorry, and Who's Sorry Now. What was there to be sorry about, except maybe some minute hurt feelings, some teenage awkward didn’t know how to deal with some such situation or, in tune with the theme here, some mistake that reflected their working class-derived lacks, mainly lacks of enough time, energy and space to think things over without seven thousand parents and siblings breaking the stream. And a little discretionary dough would have helped(dough for Saturday night drive-ins, drive-in movies, hell, even Saturday night dance night down by the shore everything’s all right) to take some teen angel somewhere other than the damn walk to the seawall down Adamsville Beach.
And no more of Tell Laura I Love Her, Oh Donna, and I Had A Girl Her Name Was Joanne, or whatever woman's name came to mind. Sweet woman, sweet mama. sweet outlaw mama, or just waiting to be an outlaw sweet mama in some forlorn midnight Edward Hooper Nighthawk coffee shop waiting for the next best thing to show up and get the hell out of Dudsville, USA (or universe) Red Molly, all dolled up in her black leather put them all to shame, yah, she put them all to shame. And set off by her flaming red hair making every boy dream, dream restless night dreams, until James took over and then you had best not look, not if you wanted to keep your place in the sun, or breathe to find your own leather tight woman. Guys tried, guys tried and failed as guys will, so be forewarned. So it was time, boys and girls, to move on to other musical influences from more mature years, say from the post-traumatic stress high school years.
But why the search for the great working -class love song? Well, hello! The old town, old beloved North Adamsville, was (and is, as far as Sam could tell from a recent trip back to the old place) a quintessential beat down, beat around, beat six ways to Sunday working -class town (especially before the deindustrialization of America which for North Adamsville meant the closing of the shipyards that had left it as a basically low-end white collar service-oriented working -class town, dotted with ugly, faux-functional white collar office-style parks and malls to boot making a mockery of the granite origins of the place). The great majority of the tribe in those days came from working- class or working poor homes. Most songs, especially popular songs, then and now, reflected a kind of "one size fits all" lyric that could apply to anyone, anywhere. What Sam was looking for was songs that in some way reflected that working- class ethos that was still embedded in their bones, that caused their hunger even now, whether they recognized it or not.
Needless to say, since Sam had had posed the question, he had his choice already prepared. As will become obvious, if the reader has read the lyrics below, this song reflected his take on the corner boy, live for today, be free for today, male angst in the age old love problem. However, any woman was more than free to choice songs that reflected her female angst angle (ouch, for that awkward formulation) on the working- class hit parade.
And a fellow North Adamsville female classmate did proposing Bruce Springsteen’s version of Jersey Girl and here was Sam’s response to the interchange on this choice:
“Come on now, after reading these lyrics [Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning, 1952] is any mere verbal profession of undying love, any taking somebody on a ride at some two-bit carnival down on the Jersey shore going to make the cut. (Big deal, he was not going to hang with his corner boys, who he was heartily tired of anyway, or walk the streets looking for hookers to be with his honey (in the Tom Waits cover anyway). That self-denial was supposed to be something for her to appreciate, that she was better than some whore, Jesus. I am thinking here of the working class song suggested to me by a female classmate, Waits cover version of Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Girl where they go down to the Jersey seashore to some amusement park to while the night away in good working- class style, cotton candy, salt water taffy, win your lady a doll, ride the Ferris wheel, tunnel of love, hot dog, then sea breeze love , just like our Paragon Park nights, some buying of a one carat gold ring like every guy on the make is promising to do for his honey if she…, or some chintzy, faded flowers that melt away in the night, or with the morning dew going to mean anything? Hell, the guy here, the guy in Vincent Black Lightning 1952, bravo James, was giving her, his Red Molly, HIS bike, his bike, man. No Wild One, Easy Rider, no women need apply bike night. HIS bike. Case closed.”
The reader might think, well, big deal he gave her his bike as a dying declaration, taking such an action as so-so and just a guy trinket love thing, not the stuff of eternity. No way. Sam knew of at least one female, Donna, Donna of the tight cashmere sweater and tight, tight black skirt, of the raven black hair, noted above in the dedication, who might relate to this song. Who knew that her Johnny, Johnny Shine, when he came up and scooped her away from tough guy corner boy Red Radley one cloudy night and roared off into the world on his Indian that he would play the gallant for her, and when he fatally fell on some fog-bound back slick back road at one hundred and thirty miles per hour he became a local legend. And she kept his bike as a shrine to his memory.
Sam also knew at least one male, who shall remain nameless (since he is still alive and still looks to Sam like he could still break Sam in two if provoked), who snuck out the back door of old North Adamsville High with another classmate, a female classmate, to ride his bike, and a few others things, down by the secluded beach things, during school hours back in the day. It was in the air in those heroic days. So don't think Sam had forgotten his AARP-approved medication, or something, when he called this a great working class love song. Romeo and Juliet by what’s his name, Shakespeare, was nothing but down in the ditch straight punk stuff compared to this. And as Sam insisted on repeating for the slow learners here, the guy, his boy, his universal corner boy James, in the song gave her HIS bike, man. That is love, no question.
ARTIST: Richard Thompson
TITLE: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Lyrics and Chords
TITLE: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Lyrics and Chords
Said Red Molly to James that's a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat's off to you
It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I've seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride
/ A - - - D - / - - - - A - / : / E - D A /
/ E - D A - / Bm - D - / - - - - A - - - /
Said James to Red Molly, here's a ring for your right hand
But I'll tell you in earnest I'm a dangerous man
I've fought with the law since I was seventeen
I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine
Now I'm 21 years, I might make 22
And I don't mind dying, but for the love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I'll give you my Vincent to ride
Come down, come down, Red Molly, called Sergeant McRae
For they've taken young James Adie for armed robbery
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside
Oh, come down, Red Molly to his dying bedside
When she came to the hospital, there wasn't much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I'll give you my Vincent to ride
Says James, in my opinion, there's nothing in this world
Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed girl
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeveses won't do
They don't have a soul like a Vincent 52
He reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys
He said I've got no further use for these
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home
And he gave her one last kiss and died
...Oh yeah, case you forgot righteous James gave Red Molly his bike to ride...his BIKE man. Enough said
...Oh yeah, case you forgot righteous James gave Red Molly his bike to ride...his BIKE man. Enough said
I Did It My Way-With Bob Dylan’s Shadows In The Night In Mind
Recently I did a review of Bob Dylan’s latest CD brought out in 2014, Shadows In The Night, a tribute to the king of Tin Pan Alley songwriter fest Frank Sinatra. In that review I noted that such an effort was bound to happen if Dylan lived long enough. Going back to the Great Depression/World War II period that our parents, we the baby-boomers parents slogged through for musical inspiration. Going back to something, some place that when were young and immortal, young and thinking that what we had created would last forever we would have, rightly, dismissed out of hand. And since Dylan has lived long enough, long enough to go back to some bygones roots here we are talking about something that let us say in 1970 I would have dismissed as impossible, dismissed as the delusional ravings of somebody like my brother who hated almost everything about the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s, had been ready to spill blood it seemed to cut off the heads of anybody who wanted to breathe a new fresh breath not tinged with our parents’ worn out ways of doing business in civil society.
Strange as it may seem to a generation, the generation of ’68, today’s AARP generation, okay, baby-boomers who came of age with the clarion call put forth musically by Bob Dylan and others to dramatically break with the music of our parents’ pasts, the music that got them through the Great Depression and slogging through World War II, he has put out an album featuring the work of Mr. Frank Sinatra the king of that era in many our parents’ households. The music of the Broadway shows, Tin Pan Alley, Cole Porter/Irving Berlin/ the Gershwins/Jerome Kern, have I mssed anybody of important, probably, probably missed some of those Rogers and Hart Broadway show tunes teams, and so on. That proposition though, at least as it pertains to Bob Dylan as an individual, seems less strange if you are not totally mired in the Bob Dylan protest minute of the early 1960s when he, whether he wanted that designation or not, was the “voice of a generation,” catching the new breeze a lot of us felt coming through the land. (In the end he did not want it, did not want to be the voice of a generation, although he liked and wanted to be king of the hill in the music department of that generation, no question. Wanted too to be the king hell troubadour entertaining the world for as long as he drew breathe and he has accomplished that.)
What Dylan has been about for the greater part of his career has been as an entertainer, a guy who sings his songs to the crowd and hopes they share his feelings for his songs. As he is quoted as saying in a recent AARP magazine article connected with the release of his Frank Sinatra tribute what he hoped was that like Frank he sang to, not at, his audience. Just like Frank did when he was in high tide around the 1940s and 1950s. That sensibility is emphatically not what the folk protest music ethos was about but rather about stirring up the troops, stirring up the latter day Gideon’s army to go smite the dragon. Dylan early on came close, then drew back, and it is hard to think of anybody from our generation except maybe Joan Baez and Phil Ochs who wrote and sang to move people from point A to point B in the social struggles of the times.
What Dylan has also been about through it all has been a deep and abiding respect for the American songbook that he began to gather in his mind early on (look on YouTube to a clip from Don’t Look Back where he is up in some European hotel room with Joan Baez and Bob Neuwirth singing Hank Williams ballads or stuff from the Basement tapes where he runs the table on a few earlier genres). In the old days that was looking for roots, roots music from the mountains, the desolate oceans, the slave quarters, along the rivers and Dylan’s hero then was Woody Guthrie. But the American songbook is a “big tent” operation and the Tin Pan Alley that he broke from when he became his own songwriter is an important part of the overall tradition and now he has added his hero Frank Sinatra to his version of the songbook.
I may long for the old protest songs, the songs that stirred my blood to push on with the political struggles of the time like With God On Our Side which pushed me into the ranks of the Quakers, shakers, and little old ladies and men in tennis sneakers in the fight for nuclear disarmament, songs from the album pictured above, you know Blowin’ In The Wind which fit perfectly with the sense that something, something undefinable, something new as in the air in the early 1960s and The Times Are A Changin’ stuff like that, the roots music and not just Woody but Hank (including an incredible version of You Win Again, Tex-Mex (working later with George Sahms of the Sir George Quintet, the Carters, the odd and unusual like the magic lyric play in Desolation Row, his cover of Charley Patton’s Highwater Rising or his cover of a song Lonnie Johnson made famous, Tomorrow Night, but Dylan has sought to entertain and there is room in his tent for the king of Tin Pan Alley (as Billie Holiday was the queen). Having heard Dylan live and in concert over the past several years with his grating lost voice (for me it was always about the lyrics not the voice although in looking at old tapes from the Newport Folk Festival on YouTube his voice was actually far better then than I would have given him credit for) I do wonder though how much production was needed to get the wrinkles out of that voice to sing as smoothly as the “Chairman of the boards,” to run the pauses and the hushed tones Frank knew how to do to keep his audience in his clutches. What goes around comes around.
As The 100th Anniversary Of The First Year Of World War I (Remember The War To End All Wars) Comes To A Close... Some Remembrances
As The 100th Anniversary Of The First Year Of World War I (Remember The War To End All Wars) Comes To A Close... Some Remembrances
The events leading up to World War I (known as the Great War before the world got clogged up with expansive wars in need of other numbers and names and reflecting too in that period before World War II a certain sense of “pride” in having participated in such an adventure even if it did mow down the flower of European youth form all classes) from the massive military armament of almost all the capitalist and imperialist parties in Europe and elsewhere in order to stake their claims to their unimpeded share of the world’s resources had all the earmarks of a bloodbath early on once the industrial-sized carnage set in with the stalemated fronts. Also clogged, or rather thrown in the nearest bin were the supposedly eternal pledges not honored by most of the Social-Democrats and other militant leftist formations representing the historic interest of the international working-class to stop those imperialist capitalist powers and their hangers-on in their tracks in their tracks at the approach of war were decisive for 20th century history. Other than isolated groups and individuals mostly in the weaker countries of Europe the blood lust got the better of most of the working class and its allies as young men rushed to the recruiting stations to “do their duty” and prove thir manhood.
Decisive as well as we head down the slope to the last month of the first year of war although shrouded in obscurity early in the war in exile was the soon to be towering figure of one Vladimir Lenin (a necessary nom de guerre in hell broth days of the Czar’s Okhrana ready to send one and all to the Siberian frosts and that moniker business, that nom de guerre not a bad idea in today’s NSA-driven frenzy to know all, to peep at all), leader of the small Russian Bolshevik Party ( a Social-Democratic Party in name anyway adhering to the Second International under the sway of the powerful German party although not for long), architect of the theory of the “vanguard party” building off of many revolutionary experiences in Russia and Europe in the 19th century), and author of an important, important to the future communist world perspective, study on the monopolizing tendencies of world imperialism, the ending of the age of “progressive” capitalism (in the Marxist sense of the term progressive in a historical materialist sense that capitalism was progressive against feudalism and other older economic models which turned into its opposite at this dividing point in history), and the hard fact that it was a drag on the possibilities of human progress and needed to be replaced by the establishment of the socialist order. But that is the wave of the future as 1914 turns to 1915 in the sinkhole trenches of Europe that are already a death trap for the flower of the European youth.
The ability to inflict industrial-sized slaughter and mayhem on a massive scale first portended toward the end of the American Civil War once the Northern industrial might tipped the scales their way almost could not be avoided in the early 20th century when the armaments race got serious, and the technology seemed to grow exponentially with each new turn in the war machine. The land war, the war carried out by the “grunts,” by the “cannon fodder” of many nations was only the tip of the iceberg and probably except for the increased cannon-power and rapidity of the machine-guns would be carried out by the norms of the last war on the fronts (that is how the generals saw it mainly having won their promotions in those earlier wars and so held captive to the past). However the race for naval supremacy, or the race to take a big kink out of British supremacy, went on unimpeded as Germany tried to break-out into the Atlantic world and even Japan, Jesus, Japan tried to gain a big hold in the Asia seas.
The deeply disturbing submarine warfare wreaking havoc on commerce on the seas, the use of armed aircraft and other such technological innovations of war only added to the frenzy. We can, hundred years ahead, look back and see where talk of “stabs in the back” by the losers and ultimately an armistice rather than decisive victory on the blood-drenched fields of Europe would lead to more blood-letting but it was not clear, or nobody was talking about it much, or, better, doing much about calling a halt before they began among all those “civilized” nations who went into the abyss in July of 1914. Sadly the list of those who would not do anything, anything concrete, besides paper manifestos issued at international conferences, included the great bulk of the official European labor movement which in theory was committed to stopping the madness.
A few voices, voices like Karl Liebknecht (who against the party majority bloc voting scheme finally voted against the Kaiser’s war budget, went to the streets to get rousing anti-war speeches listened to in the workers’ districts, lost his parliamentary immunity and wound up honorably in the Kaiser’s prisons) and Rosa Luxemburg ( the rose of the revolution also honorably prison bound) in Germany, Lenin and Trotsky in Russia (both exiled at the outbreak of war and just in time as being on “the planet without a passport” was then as now, dangerous to the lives of left-wing revolutionaries), some anti-war anarchists like Monette in France and here in America the Big Bill Haywood (who eventually would controversially flee to Russia to avoid jail for his opposition to American entry into war), many of his IWW (Industrial Workers Of the World) comrades and the stalwart Eugene V. Debs (who also went to jail, “club fed” for speaking the truth about American war aims in a famous Cleveland speech and, fittingly, ran for president in 1920 out of his Atlanta Penitentiary jail cell), were raised and one hundred years later those voices have a place of honor in this space.
Those voices, many of them in exile, or in the deportations centers, were being clamped down as well when the various imperialist governments began closing their doors to political refugees when they were committed to clapping down on their own anti-war citizens. As we have seen in our own times, most recently in America in the period before the “shock and awe” of the decimation of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003 the government, most governments, are able to build a war frenzy out of whole cloth. At those times, and in my lifetime the period after 9/11 when we tried in vain to stop the Afghan war in its tracks is illustrative, to be a vocal anti-warrior is a dicey business. A time to keep your head down a little, to speak softly and wait for the fever to subside and to be ready to begin the anti-war fight another day.
So imagine in the hot summer of 1914 when every nationality in Europe felt its prerogatives threatened how the fevered masses, including the beguiled working-classes bred on peace talk without substance, would not listen to the calls against the slaughter. Yes, one hundred years later is not too long or too late to honor those ardent anti-war voices as the mass mobilizations began in the countdown to war, began four years of bloody trenches and death.
Over the next period as we continue the long night of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and beyond I will under this headline post various documents, manifestos and cultural expressions from that time in order to give a sense of what the lead up to that war looked like, the struggle against its outbreak before, the forlorn struggle during and the massive struggles after it in order to create a newer world out of the shambles of the battlefields.