Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In Honor Of Women’s History Month- “Big Bill” Haywood’s Nevada Jane    

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

Nevada Jane-Utah Phillips

Are the linens turned down in folds of glowing white?
Are you lying there alone again tonight?
He’s marching with the men through the cold November rain,
But you know he’ll come back home, Nevada Jane.

Have you seen the way he holds her as thought she was a bride,
Children riding on shoulders strong & wide?
She never thought to scold him or even to com-plain,
& Big Bill always loved Nevada Jane.

And when he stumbles in with blood upon his shirt,
Washing up alone, just to hide the hurt,
He will lie down by your side and wake you with your name,
You’ll hold him in your arms, Nevada Jane. (Chorus)

Nevada Jane went riding, her pony took a fall,
The doctor said she never would walk again at all;
But Big Bill could lift her lightly, the big hands rough and plain
Would gently carry home Nevada Jane.

The storms of Colorado rained for ten long years,
The mines of old Montana were filled with blood and tears,
Utah, Arizona, California hear the name
Of the man who always loved Nevada Jane. (Chorus)

Although the ranks are scattered like leaves upon the breeze,
And with them go the memory of harder times than these,
Some things never change, but always stay the same,
Just like the way Bill loved Nevada Jane. (Chorus)


Nevada Jane

I've been told that I'm wrong about this song. I don't know whether I am or not, since Bill Haywood, who was with the Western Federation of Miners and was the first Secretary-Treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World, never mentioned his wife in his autobiography except very briefly, so I can't tell whether he really loved his wife or not.

I do have stories from old-timers who tell me about when Bill Haywood was working in a mine camp, basically doing a job of de-horning. His wife, Nevada Jane, had been crippled by a fall from her pony, so she couldn't walk. Bill had a house on the edge of town, and he would carry his wife down to the railroad station every morning. She would sit there and talk to the women of the town about what they could do to help organize the town, while Bill was brawling at the bars. He'd come back at the end of the day, pick Nevada Jane up, hang one of their kids off of each shoulder, and every night you'd see him carrying the wife and kids up to the house.

Most of the songs about labor struggles are full of loud shouting and arm-waving and thunder and rhetoric. It's good for me, every now and then, to try to take a look at the human side of it, right or wrong.

The tune is by one of my favorite songwriters, Stephen Foster. I first heard "Gentle Annie" from Kate McGarrigle of Canada. The tune has too many wide-apart changes in it for me to sing the way Stephen Foster wrote it, so I changed it some –Utah Phillips

… and I will follow Utah’s lead

She knew she wanted him, knew she wanted “Big Bill” Haywood (nobody ever called him just Bill, not even his drinking companions, and certainly not his legion of lady friends who had a different take of that Big Bill notion, so Big Bill it was)  from the first time she set eyes on him. First set eyes on him in front of those Virginia City miners all hungry, sweaty, and dirty from the thankless work-a-day toil, listening intently at that meeting where he boomed out his message-his message that working men had to stick together against the damn (he used less elegant language but that conveyed the idea) bosses and their agents in and out of the government, that all working men were brothers  and that a better system, a system where the working man had a say in what the hell (again he used more salty language) was going on and how to keep from starving for starters to boot. He had more to say, spent the better part of an hour saying it with all those sweaty bodies filled with haggard eyes still following him, but she, Nevada Jane (although just Jane then, he gave her the Nevada part later, later after he had “conquered” her or that was the way he told the story) was more, uh, interested in the look of him, that big rugged man look, that take no prisoners look, that man of the West look, that had her entranced from that first moment. She had to have him, have him come hell or high water.

And she did, she did snare that man of the West by being a woman of the West, and just aiming straight for him. Oh, she used her feminine wiles for part of it, no question, but what Big Bill found interesting in her was that pioneer stock woman who asked for no more than he could give, and gave no less than she could give. Now everybody heard, hell, everybody knew, that Big Bill liked the ladies, had to have them, but even before her accident, her damn accident on that favored mare which crippled her up, she knew that when the deal went down he would always come back to her if he could. And after the accident he did, did more often than not come back, pleased to be with her back, back to his Nevada Jane.

But see Big Bill was a man of action and she knew, knew deep in her pioneer stock womanhood, that he had to do what he had to do. And so along with the joy at his sight when he showed up she had days and nights of anguish. Days and nights when he was on a miners’ organizing drive in some hellhole place like Bisbee, out in Arizona copper country, or over in the rapidly vanishing Nevada silver mines or up in Butte, up in Big Sky country where the mines stretched out over the high prairies  and hills. All places where the bosses’ had a bounty out on Big Bill’s hide.  Days and nights of worry about his health, especially that big heart that might break at any time, or that dead eye that might flare up and cause some hell. Days and nights of worry that he might drink that river of liquor, hard liquor, hard old whiskey, that he kept saying he needed to keep him fit for the work (except when he wanted to call a meeting and would literally close down every bar in some town, forcibly if he had to, to insure a proper attendance).

Mostly though she worried about the women, about some young thing, maybe a pioneer woman who was not crippled up, or maybe one of those New York society women who were all agog over him when he went East to raise money and support for the miners and for the IWW (Wobblies, Industrial Workers Of The World), but she worried. She worried and she kept his home clean and nice, pioneer simple but clean and neat, for his return. And he did return for as long as he could…

And hence this Women’s History Month contribution   

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