Saturday, November 07, 2015
Will The Circle Be Unbroken-The Music OF The Carter Family (First Generation)
From The Pen Of Bart Webber
You know it took a long time for Sam Eaton to figure out why he was drawn, seemingly out of nowhere, to the mountain music most famously brought to public, Northern public, attention by the likes of the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, Etta Baker, The Seegers and the Lomaxes back a couple of generations ago. The Carter Family famously arrived via a record contract in Bristol, Tennessee in the days when radio and record companies were looking for music, authentic American music to fill the air and their catalogs. (Jimmy Rodgers, the great Texas yodeler was discovered at that same time. In fact what the record companies were doing to their profit was to send out agents to grab whatever they could. That is how guys like Son House and Skip James got their record debuts, “race record” debut but that is a story for another time although it will be told so don’t worry). The Seegers and Lomaxes went out into the sweated dusty fields, out to the Saturday night red barn dance the winds coming down the Appalachian hollows, I refuse to say hollas okay, out to the Sunday morning praise Jehovah gathered church brethren (and many sinners Saturday wine, women and song singers as well as your ordinary blasphemous bad thought sinners, out to the juke joint(ditto on the sinning but in high fiddler on Uncle Jack’s freshly “bonded” sour mash come Saturday absolution for sins is the last thing on the brethren’s minds), down to the mountain general store to grab whatever was available some of it pretty remarkable filled with fiddles, banjos and mandolins.
As a kid, as a very conscious Northern city boy, Sam could not abide that kind of music (and I know because if I tried to even mention something Johnny Cash who was really them a rock and roll stud he would turn seven shades of his patented fury) but later on he figured that was because he was so embroiled in the uprising jail-break music of his, our generation, rock and roll, that anything else faded, faded badly by comparison. (And I was with him the first night we heard Bill Haley and the Comets blasting Rock Around The Clock in the front end of Blackboard Jungle at the Strand Theater when it was playing re-runs so you know I lived and died for the new sounds)
Later in high school, Lasalle High, when Brian Pirot would drive us down to Cambridge and after high school in college when Sam used to hang around Harvard Square to be around the burgeoning folk scene that was emerging for what he later would call the folk minute of the early 1960s he would let something like Gold Watch And Chain register a bit, registering a bit then meaning that he would find himself occasionally idly humming such a tune. (The version done by Alice Stuart at the time gleaned when he had heard her perform at the Club Nana in the Square one time when he had enough dough for two coffees, a shared pastry and money for the “basket” for a date, a cheap date. The only Carter Family song that Sam consciously could claim he knew of theirs was Under the Weeping Willow although he may have unconsciously known others from seventh grade music class when Mr. Dasher would bury us with all kind of songs and genre from the American songbook so we would not get tied down to that heathen “rock and roll” that drove him crazy when we asked him to play some for us. (“Don’t be a masher, Mister Dasher,” the implications of which today would get him in plenty of hot water if anybody in authority heard such talk in an excess of caution but which simple had been used as one more rhyming scheme when that fad hit the junior high schools in the 1960s and whose origins probably came from the song Monster Mash not the old-fashioned sense of a lady-killer) But again more urban, more protest-oriented folk music was what caught Sam’s attention when the folk minute was at high tide in the early 1960s.
Then one day not all that many years ago as part of a final reconciliation with his family which Sam had been estranged from periodically since teenage-hood, going back to his own roots, making peace with his old growing up neighborhood, he started asking many questions about how things turned so sour back when he was young. More importantly asking questions that had stirred in his mind for a long time and formed part of the reason that he went for reconciliation. To find out what his roots were while somebody was around to explain the days before he could rightly remember the early days. And in that process he finally, finally figured out why the Carter Family and others began to “speak” to him.
The thing was simplicity itself. See his father hailed from Kentucky, Hazard, Kentucky long noted in song and legend as hard coal country. When World War II came along he left to join the Marines to get the hell out of there. During his tour of duty he was stationed for a short while at the Portsmouth Naval Base and during that stay attended a USO dance held in Portland where he met Sam’s mother who had grown up in deep French-Canadian Olde Saco. Needless to say he stayed in the North, for better or worse, working the mills in Olde Saco until they closed or headed south for cheaper labor and then worked at whatever jobs he could find. All during Sam’s childhood though along with that popular music that got many mothers and fathers through the war mountain music, although he would not have called it that then filtered in the background on the family living room record player.
But here is the real “discovery,” a discovery that could only be disclosed by Sam’s parents. Early on in their marriage they had tried to go back to Hazard to see if they could make a go of it there. This was after Sam’s older brother Prescott was born and while his mother was carrying him. Apparently they stayed for several months in Hazard before they left to go back to Olde Saco before Sam was born since he had been born in Portland General Hospital. So see that damn mountain was in his DNA, was just harkening to him when he got the bug. Funny, isn’t it.
Smokestack Lightning, Indeed- With Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf In Mind
Sometimes a picture really can be worth a thousand words, a thousand words and more as in the case Howlin’ Wolf doing his Midnight creep in the photograph above taken from an album of his work but nowadays with the advances in computer technology and someone’s desire to share also to be seen on sites such as YouTube where you can get a real flavor of what that mad man was about when he got his blues wanting habits on. In fact I am a little hesitate to use a bunch of words describing Howlin’ Wolf in high gear since maybe I would leave out that drop of perspiration dripping from his overworked forehead and that salted drop might be the very thing that drove him that night or describing his oneness with his harmonica because that might cause some karmic funk. So, no, I am not really going to go on and on about his midnight creep but when the big man got into high gear, when he went to a place where he sweating profusely, a little ragged in voice and eyes all shot to hell he roared for his version of the high white note. Funny, a lot of people, myself for a while included, used to think that the high white note business was strictly a jazz thing, maybe somebody like the “Prez” Lester Young or Duke’s Johnny Hodges after hours, after the paying customers had had their fill, or what they thought was all those men had in them, shutting the doors tight, putting up the tables leaving the chairs for whoever came by around dawn, grabbing a few guys from around the town as they finished their gigs and make the search, make a serious bid to blow the world to kingdom come.
Some nights they were on fire as they blew that big high white note out in to some heavy air and who knows where it landed, most nights though it was just “nice try.” One night I was out in Frisco when “Saps” McCoy blew a big sexy sax right out the door of Chez Benny’s over in North Beach when North Beach was just turning away from be-bop “beat” and that high white note, I swear, blew out into the bay and who knows maybe all the way to the Japan seas. Well see we were all a little high so I don’t know about that Japan seas stuff but I sure know that brother blew that high white one somewhere out the door. But see if I had, or anybody had, thought about it for a minute jazz and the blues are cousins, cousins no question so of course Howlin’ Wolf blew out that high white note more than once, plenty including a couple of shows I caught him at later when he was not in his prime.
The photograph (and now video) that I was thinking of is one where he is practically eating the harmonica as he performs How Many More Years (and now like I say thanks to some thoughtful archivist you can go on to YouTube and see him doing his devouring act in real time and in motion, wow, and also berating “father” preacher/sinner man Son House for showing up drunk. Yes, the Wolf could blast out the blues and on this one you get a real appreciation for how serious he was as a performer and as blues representative of the highest order.
Howlin’ Wolf like his near contemporary and rival Muddy Waters, like a whole generation of black bluesmen who learned their trade at the feet of old-time country blues masters like Charley Patton, the aforementioned Son House who had had his own personal fight with the devil, Robert Johnson who allegedly sold his soul to the devil out on Highway 61 so he could get his own version of that high white note, and the like down in Mississippi or other southern places in the first half of the twentieth century. They as part and parcel of that great black migration (even as exceptional musicians they would do stints in the sweated Northern factories before hitting Maxwell Street) took the road north, or rather the river north, an amazing number from the Delta and an even more amazing number from around Clarksville in Mississippi right by that Highway 61 and headed first maybe to Memphis and then on to sweet home Chicago.
They went where the jobs were, went where the ugliness of Mister James Crow telling them to sit here not there, to walk here but not there, to drink the water here not there, don’t look at our women under any conditions and on and on did not haunt their every move (although they would find not racial Garden of Eden in the North, last hired, first fired, squeezed in cold water flats too many to a room, harassed, but they at least has some breathing space, some room to create a little something they could call their own and not Mister’s), went where the big black migration was heading after World War I. Went also to explore a new way of presenting the blues to an urban audience in need of a faster beat, in need of getting away from the Saturday juke joint acoustic country sound with some old timey guys ripping up three chord ditties to go with that jug of Jack Flash’s homemade corn liquor (or so he, Jack Flash called it).
So they, guys like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Johnny Shines, and James Cotton prospered by doing what Elvis did for rock and rock and Bob Dylan did for folk and pulled the hammer down on the old electric guitar and made big, big sounds that reached all the way back of the room in the Red Hat and Tip Top clubs lining the black streets of blustered America and made the max daddies and max mamas jump, make some moves. And here is where all kinds of thing got intersected, as part of all the trends in post-World War II music up to the 1960s anyway from R&B, rock and roll, electric blues and folk the edges of the music hit all the way to then small white audiences too and they howled for the blues, which spoke to some sense of their own alienation. Hell, the Beatles and more particularly the Stones lived to hear Muddy and the Wolf. The Stones even went to Mecca, to Chess Records to be at one with Muddy. And they also took lessons from Howlin’ Wolf himself on the right way to play Little Red Rooster which they had covered and made famous in the early 1960s (or infamous depending on your point of view since many radio stations including some Boston stations had banned it from the air originally).Yes, Howlin’ Wolf and that big bad harmonica and that big bad voice that howled in the night did that for a new generation, did pretty good, right.
Stand with Veterans For Peace on November 11
Veterans For Peace is calling on all our members to take a stand for peace this Armistice Day. We are calling on all our friends and allies to join us at the barricades of peace on November 11.
Over the last several years, Veterans For Peace chapters have taken the lead in celebrating Armistice Day on November 11. We are reclaiming the original intention of that day – a worldwide call for peace that was spurred by universal revulsion at the huge slaughter of World War One. In Canada and the United Kingdom, this day is known as Remembrance Day.
After World War II, the U.S. Congress decided to re-brand November 11 as Veterans Day. Who could speak against that? But honoring the warrior quickly morphed into honoring the military and glorifying war. Armistice Day was flipped from a day for peace into a day for displays of militarism.
This November 11, it is as urgent as ever to ring the bells for peace. Many Veterans For Peace chapters ring bells, and ask local churches to do the same, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as was done at the end of World War One.
There are so many reasons we must press our government
to end reckless military interventions
that endanger the entire world.
All U.S. troops, planes, drones, contractors and NATO allies must leave Afghanistan. Let the Afghan people find their own peace and determine their own future.
NATO, originally organized to confront the Warsaw Pact forces of the Soviet Union, should be dismantled, instead of being used to intimidate Russia and morphing into an international intervention force serving the aims of those who believe in U.S. and Western global hegemony.
For all of these reasons, stand with Veterans For Peace on Armistice Day, November 11, 2015
Remember to visit the Armistice Day page for ways to get involved!
Veterans For Peace, 1404 North Broadway, St. Louis, MO 63102, 314-725-6005
Veterans For Peace appreciates your generous donations.
We also encourage you to join our ranks.
The Bells Call For Peace On Armistice Day In Boston November 11th
Gassed in the Argonne 1911
Barrel Bombed in Syria 2015
There is no difference
The Bells Call For PEACE
The Smedley D. Butler Brigade of Veterans For Peace
will recognize and honor Armistice Day
this when, in 1911, the bells of peace rang out all over the world
Veterans For Peace will proudly walk behind the first parade
on Armistice / Veterans Day in Boston
We honor and celebrate the original intention for Armistice Day - A Day of Peace
We will gather between on the corner of Charles and Beacon Streets.
1st Parade steps off at - our parade will follow the same route
then will continue to Faneuil Hall for our
Armistice/Veterans Day for Peace Event
Veterans from different eras will recite original works of
Poetry, Prose and Song
Members and Friends, please join us.
There has never been a time that is more important than the present!
On The Anniversary Of The Russian Revolution Of October 1917
On The 110th Anniversary Of Russian Revolution of 1905 As We Honor Of The Three L’s –Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht-Honor An Historic Leader Of The American Labor Movement-“Big Bill Haywood
EVERY JANUARY WE HONOR LENIN OF RUSSIA, ROSA LUXEMBURG OF POLAND, AND KARL LIEBKNECHT OF GERMANY AS THREE LEADERS OF THE INTERNATIONAL WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT. DURING THE MONTH WE ALSO HONOR OTHER HISTORIC LEADERS AS WELL ON THIS SITE.
Big Bill Haywood, Melvyn Dubofsky, Manchester University Press, Manchester England, 1987
Big Bill Haywood, Melvyn Dubofsky, Manchester University Press, Manchester England, 1987
If you are sitting around today wondering, as I occasionally do, what a modern day radical labor leader should look like then one need go no further than to observe the career, warts and all, of the legendary Bill Haywood. To previous generations of radicals that name would draw an automatic response. Today’s radicals, and others interested in social solutions to the pressing problems that have been bestowed on us by the continuation of the capitalist mode of production, may not be familiar with the man and his program for working class power. Professor Dubofsky’s little biographical sketch is thus just the cure for those who need a primer on this hero of the working class.
The good professor goes into some detail, despite limited accessibility, about Haywood’s early life out in the Western United States in the late 19th century. Those hard scrabble experiences made a huge imprint on the young Haywood as he tramped from mining camp to mining camp and tried to make ends mean, any way he could. Haywood, moreover, is the perfect example of the fact that working class political consciousness is not innate but gained through the hard experiences of life under the capitalist system. Thus, Haywood moved from itinerant miner to become a leading member of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and moved leftward along the political spectrum along the way. Not a small part in that was due to his trial on trumped up charges in Idaho for murder as part of a labor crackdown against the WFM by the mine owners and their political allies there.
As virtually all working class militants did at the turn of the 20th century, Big Bill became involved with the early American socialist movement and followed the lead of the sainted Eugene V. Debs. As part of the ferment of labor agitation during this period the organization that Haywood is most closely associated with was formed-The Industrial Workers of the World (hereafter IWW, also known as Wobblies). This organization- part union, part political party- was the most radical expression (far more radical than the rather tepid socialist organizations) of the American labor movement in the period before World War I.
The bulk of Professor Dubofsky’s book centers, as it should, on Haywood’s exploits as a leader of the IWW. Big Bill’s ups and downs mirrored the ups and downs of the organization. The professor goes into the various labor fights that Haywood led highlighted by the great 1912 Lawrence strike (of bread and roses fame), the various free speech fights but also the draconian Wilsonian policy toward the IWW after America declared war in 1917. That governmental policy essentially crushed the IWW as a mass working class organization. Moreover, as a leader Haywood personally felt the full wrath of the capitalist government. Facing extended jail time Haywood eventually fled to the young Soviet republic where he died in lonely exile in 1928.
The professor adequately tackles the problem of the political and moral consequences of that escape to Russia for the IWW and to his still imprisoned comrades so I will not address it here. However, there are two points noted by Dubofsky that warrant comment. First, he notes that Big Bill was a first rate organizer in both the WFM and the IWW. Those of us who are Marxists sometimes tend to place more emphasis of the fact that labor leaders need to be “tribunes of the people” that we sometimes neglect the important “trade union secretary” part of the formula. Haywood seems to have had it all. Secondly, Haywood’s and the IWW’s experience with government repression during World War I, repeated in the “Red Scare” experience of the 1950’s against Communists and then later against the Black Panthers in the 1960’s should be etched into the brain of every militant today. When the deal goes down the capitalists and their hangers-on will do anything to keep their system. Anything. That said, read this Haywood primer. It is an important contribution to the study of American labor history.
In Defense Of The October Russian Revolution Of 1917- Comrade Markham’s Tale-Take One
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Comrade Markham had been born a “red diaper baby.” I will explain what that means in a minute but first to that Comrade Markham moniker. That name is the only name I have known him by ever since I ran into him at an anti-war planning session over in Cambridge a couple of years back, back in the fall of 2012, when we were trying, people like Comrade Markham, the guys from Veterans for Peace, guys and gals from some socialist groups and the usual Quakers, traditional peace activists who always sign on to these efforts, to organize against the latest governmental war cries. Although the previous decade or so had seen anti-war mobilizations, great and small, mainly small, this session was planning a rally to oppose President Obama’s then latest attempt to intervene in the civil war in Syria. Comrade Markham, then eighty-seven years old and still trying to change this wicked old world for the better rather than sitting in some assisted living hellhole wasting away, had introduced himself to the group under that moniker and although I had not seen him around before, had no sense of his history then, others greeted and addressed him by that name without a snicker.
Of course as I found out later that moniker was not his real name but had been the one that he had used in his long-time membership in the old American Communist Party, not the current version which is kind of out in limbo, but the one that we who came of age in the 1960s had cut our teeth on as the great “red menace,” who were taking “Moscow gold,” taking Stalin and his progeny’s gold, in order to undermine the American way of life and so we had to be ever vigilant in the red scare Cold War night. He had used the name so long that he knew no other to be called and in my associations with him as he told me his story that is what I always called him. Someday I suppose we will find out his real name but his story, an unusual American story, is what matters and what will be forever his memorial.
But back to that “red diaper baby” designation I promised to tell you about. Now I had heard that designation before, back in the late 1960s when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was cutting a big swath through the political landscape, especially among students. That was the time when even some of us who came straight from the working-classes to be the first in our families to go to college believed that students comfortably ensconced in ivory tower “red” universities had replaced the working class and oppressed of the world as the center of progressive action. A fair number of the emerging leaders, again some who also were out of working class neighborhoods in places like Chicago, Detroit, New York City and Oakland, had had parents who belonged to the Communist Party or some other left-wing organization and were not like many of us the first generation of radicals in our families. Thus the “red diaper baby” designation which in some cases gave those who had grown up in that political milieu an unwarranted standing based on some usually long past affiliation by their now bourgeois (or better for working class kids bourgeoisified) parents. What has made Comrade Markham unique in my experience is that he was a red diaper baby from parents who had helped establish the Communist Party in America back around 1920 (or one of the two that emerged from the old Socialist Party but that story of the hows and whys of the existence of two parties are beyond what I want to tell you about here except in passing).
That thread of history intrigued me, his whole story intrigued me as I pieced it together in bits and pieces, and so after a couple of those planning sessions I asked him to sit down with me wherever he liked and tell me his story. We did so in several sessions most of them held in the Boston Public Library where he liked go and check out books, magazines and newspapers about the old days, about the time of his activist political prime. What I did not expect to get was an almost chemically pure defense of the Soviet Union, of the Soviet experience, through thick and thin until the end in 1990 or so. And of a longing for the days when such questions mattered to a candid world. I admit I shared some of his nostalgia, some of his sense that while this wicked old world needs a new way of social relations to the means of production we are a bit wistful in our dreams right now. That is why his story appears here as a running personal commentary on this 97th anniversary year of the Russian October Revolution of 1917.
It is probably hard today at least three generations removed from the time of the great Russian October Revolution of 1917 to understand, to understand in depth. the strong pro-revolutionary feeling that that event brought forth in the world- the first fitful workers’ state, a state for the international working-class to call its own, to defend against all the international reaction. Of course that strong pro-revolutionary response also has its opposite effect on the international bourgeoisie which was ready to move might and main to break the back of the revolution and did so, did actively attempt, one way or another, supporting one native anti-revolutionary faction or another, or intervening directly. (The international bourgeoisie had as its allies as well some of the reformist leaderships and better off segments of the Western working class who were as fearful of revolution as any bourgeois). This was the heady atmosphere in which Comrade Markham’s parents, known in the party as Comrade Curtis and Comrade Rosa (after the late martyred Polish revolutionary liked after the failed Spartacist uprising in Germany in late 1918, Rosa Luxemburg, the rose of the revolution), moved in the early days of the party formed here in America.
See Curtis and Rosa had a long socialist past, had grown up respectively in a Kansas farm belt (him) and a Chicago steel belt (her), had worked individually to build the pre-World War I Socialist Party in their respective places of birth and had met in Chicago when Curtis moved there to work on the 1912 presidential campaign for the revered Eugene V. Debs (who amassed over one million votes that years, a watershed year for socialist votes, gathered in large part by activists like Curtis and Rosa who worked overtime for his election). They had been aligned with the left-wing of the party in most of its internal debates and votes, especially as President Woodrow Wilson and his administration started beating the war drums to go to the aid of the Allies in the utterly stalemated World War I. A war where the flower of the European youth had laid down their heads for no apparent reason and Wilson was preparing the same fate for American youth. Segments of the party wanted to support those efforts or to “duck” the issue. So they were strongly for him and his supporters when Debs decided to outright oppose the war entry publicly in 1917. Naturally they were rounded up and went to jail for a time (at this time they also had also gotten married in order to be able to visit whichever one was in jail at any given time) and became more closely associated with the left-wing that was forming to defiantly oppose American entry into the war but also a myriad of policies that the right-wing leadership (socialist right-wing not generic right-wing) had imposed on the party.
The pre-war Socialist Party in America like a lot of socialist parties around the world then had been based on the working class but had also been reliant on other classes like farmers and urban professionals, especially during electoral periods. So the American organization was a loose organization. Loose until faction fight time, or when the leadership felt some threat and pulled the hammer down on party discipline usually gunning for elements to their left but sometimes just any opposition that might vie for party power which encompassed many divergent elements. Elements that were not always on the same page. Comrades Curtis and Rosa had to laugh when the old time Socialist Party leadership used as its calling-card its looseness as against the Bolshevik iron vice. They knew first-hand that leadership did not play second fiddle to anyone where bureaucratic abuse occurred.
The biggest organizations, better to say federations, were the Midwestern farmers, those sturdy wheat and corn farmers from Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma who had moved over from the defunct Populist and Greenback parties who could not keep up with the times, the foreign language federations which included both American citizens and recent immigrants who were merely transferring their socialist loyalties from their native parties to the American one , and a smaller grouping of what I would call “natives” who had been around America for a few generations and who were city dwellers or worked in city professions like lawyering, journalism, medicine and the like. These three rather heterogeneous groups and what happened to them later are important to Comrade Markham’s parents’ story since they were both native born and his father had been a law clerk (after he left the farm and got some clerkship for a lawyer in Kansas City) and his mother a school teacher (her steelworker father working overtime to put her through Chicago Normal School as the first of her family to go to college).
A fair number of the foreign language federations were opposed to American entry into the war, as were farmers and the professionals and as noted a fair number were rounded up and went to jail (or like with the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World, Wobblies, anarchist workers were deported quickly if their immigration status was shaky). What started the big fights inside the party, what got Comrades Curtis and Rosa up in arms, was what attitude to take toward the Russian revolution. Not so much the February 1917 revolution which overthrew the useless Czar but the Bolshevik-led October revolution which its leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, proclaimed as the first victory in the international battle to make socialism the new way to produce and distribute the world’s goods. The party split into several factions over this issue but what is important is that Curtis and Rosa found themselves working with other “natives,” guys like Jim Cannon, John Reed, Earl Browder, Jack Johnstone, some of the New York union leaders, and many party writers who saw the Russian October as the new wave for humankind and were ready to move might and main to defend that revolution against all comers. That is the baptism of fire that the as yet unborn Comrade Markham had in his genes.
Some say that the events around the left-wing’s expulsion from the Socialist Party, or rather what those leftist did, or did not do, to get themselves expelled, did not bode well for those who would go on to form the American Communist parties (yes, plural as two separate parties, one based roughly on the foreign language federations, especially the Russian, Finnish, and Slavic, and the other around the “natives,” the faction Curtis and Rosa worked with as noted above). There is always a tension when great events occur and there is an impassable division of the house over the issues and so whether the split/expulsion was premature or necessary was not under the control of the ousted faction. Sure, staying in would have produced a better, clearer explanation for why a split was necessary in the post-October world. But the Russians were setting up a Communist International in which they recognized, taking their own experiences in Russian socialist politics as a guide, that in the age of imperialism, that the “party of the whole class,” the socialist “big tent” where everybody who called themselves socialists found a home was no longer adequate as a revolutionary instrument to seize state power and begin the socialist agenda. Comrades Curtis and Rosa had done yeoman’s work in Chicago and New York to round up all the supporters of the Russian revolution they could before the hammer came down. Although they were not in the first rank of left-wing leaders they were just below that and had a certain authority having served jail time for their anti-war views. Some of the few “natives” who faced that choice.
As mentioned above some of the organizations which had been affiliated with the Socialist Party were not on the same page. That fact was equally true of the groupings who would try to form an American Communist Party. This is the place where the differences between the foreign language federations and the “natives” came to the fore (again these are rough divisions of the social basis of the antagonistic groupings as there was some overlap as usual). So for a few years there were two parties, both underground at the beginning given the heat from the American bourgeoisie who were apoplectic about the revolution in Russia (including armed intervention there) and unleased the Palmer Raids to round up every red under every bed and kill them through vigilante action, deport them or jail them (named after the Attorney-General of the time). Mostly Curtis and Rosa kept a low profile, worked clandestinely (having already seen American jails they were leery of going back and one could not blame them, especially Rosa who had a hard time having been placed with the common criminal women for lack of other facilities and who had to fend off one woman who wanted to make Rosa her “girl”), tried to keep the press published and distributed, and tried to fight against all the various “theories” that basically ignorant American comrades had about the “virtues” of an underground party which the foreign language federations were in favor of. The issue of the legal/underground party finally after a few years of controversy had to be resolved by the Russians, by the Communist International, hell, by Trotsky himself. So for a time Comrades Curtis and Rosa had a very high opinion of that Russian leader, that victorious leader of the Red Army, especially after Jim Cannon came back with the favorably verdict and how it was arrived at. If anything, according to Comrade Markham’s recollections of what his parents told him about the founding days of the party they became even more fervent about defense of the Russian revolution and spent a great deal of time during the early years propagandizing for American governmental recognition of the Soviet Union.
The early 1920s say up to about 1924 were hectic for the American Communist Party, hectic until the Communist International straightened out that dispute between the “legal” party and “underground” party factions noting that the changed political climate allowed the party to act more openly (the frenzy of the red scare Palmer raid days abated in the “lost generation,” “Jazz Age ”days but where the “dog days” of political struggle of the 1920s in the labor movement were then also descending on the American landscape). The hard “under-grounders” had departed leaving those who wanted to increase the public face of the party able to do so without rancor (of course other disputes would rise up to enflame the factions but that is another story). Still the party in many ways was rudderless, had not kept pace with what was going on in the Communist International. Nowhere was this problem more apparent than the whole question of supporting a farmer-labor party in the 1924 presidential elections, in short, to support that old progressive Republican, Robert Lafollette, in his independent campaign.
The impulse was to make a big public splash on the national scene with the advantages that the exposure of a national campaign would bring. Both Comrades Curtis and Rosa having been public activists and strong supporters of the idea pushed Jim Cannon and his co-thinker, Bill Dunne, toward support for the idea. Cannon and Dunne a little more knowledgeable about American bourgeois organizations were lukewarm after the Chicago labor leaders balked and began a red-baiting campaign. Curtis and Rosa saw that campaign as a way to publicize the campaign for American recognition of the Soviet Union. The problem with support for a farmer-labor party, a two-class party is that the thing is a bourgeois formation, an early version of what in the 1930s would become the “popular front” policy. The name and reputation of Lafollette should have been the tip-off. So most of the year 1924 was spent in trying to iron out the problem of whether to support a farmer-labor party or just a labor party. The internal politics of this dispute are important. No less an authority on the early party than Cannon said later that a wrong decision (to support Lafollette or some version of that idea) would have destroyed the party right then. The CI stepped in and changed the policy not without controversy. Comrades Curtis and Rosa were not happy, certainly not happy with Cannon then but deferred to the factional leadership’s judgment. They spent most of that year doing trade union support work for William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Education League drawing closer to that leader as a result although still aligned with the Cannon faction.
Comrade Markham was a “love” baby. (He had his parents word on this when he asked some child’s question about it later when he was first learning about sex.) A “love baby” in the days when most ideas of contraception, even among knowledgeable revolutionaries connected with the Village and other places where such things might be discussed, was some variation of the old Catholic “rhythm” method dealing with a woman’s cycle (both Curtis and Rosa had been brought up as Catholics). After the hectic times around the farmer-labor question the pair decided to bring a child into the world, into their world and so Rosa stopped counting the days in her cycle. And in the fall of 1925 Markham was born, born and nurtured by two happy parents.
Part of Comrade Curtis and Rosa’s decision to have a child was determined by the low level of class struggle in America at the time (and world-wide especially after the aborted German revolution of 1923 which while they were not familiar with the details had sensed that something big had been missed). Labor strikes were few and far between, the party message was not getting much of a hearing outside the New York area, and the Coolidge administration was adamant about not recognizing “red” Russia. Moreover after the death of Lenin and the struggle for power in the Soviet party between Stalin and Trotsky (and in the Communist International where Zinoviev was in a bloc with Stalin against Trotsky) some of the wind went out of the sails for Comrade Curtis and Rosa, a not unknown phenomenon in the “dog days” of any movement. So while they remained good party members, paid their dues and sold the paper on Saturdays, remained loyal to the defense of Soviet Russia they were less active in those years when they were raising Markham over in Brooklyn after moving from Chicago looking for work where Curtis had found a job as a law clerk and started taking stenographic courses to bring some income into the household rather than depending on parents and the party dole.
Comrades Curtis and Rosa had in the first few years of Comrade Markham’s life, the late 1920s, not been as attentive to what was going on in Russia as previously. Were unaware of the details of the internal struggle started after the death of Lenin in 1924 between Stalin and Trotsky at first and then eventually the whole of the old Bolshevik Party, those who had actually made the revolution rather that those who were emerging as Stalin’s allies, those who had sat on the sidelines (or on the other side) or who were Johnny-come-latelies and had no sense of party history. Although they had adhered to various factional line-ups lashed together by the Cannon-Dunne section of the party leadership they had not been as attuned during the mid to late 1920s of the way that the changes in the political situation in Moscow was reflected in the changes in the American party. It was almost as if once they had genuflected before their duty to the defense of the Soviet Union the rest of the situation there receded into vague rumors and esoteric theory.
Although early on they had been admirers of the Red Army leader, Leon Trotsky, once he became anathema in party circles in Russia they took their cues from the newly installed Lovestone leadership in the American party (and the Cannon faction as well) and were as adamant in their ritualistic denunciations of the person of Trotsky and of the Trotskyite menace as anyone. His criticism of the Stalin regime seemed like sour grapes to them and his rantings about the failure of leadership in the British trade union crisis and second Chinese revolution did not resonate with them being in a country like America where the possibilities of revolution for the foreseeable future seemed extremely remote and therefore it was impolitic for others to speak about such matters in other countries. They would pass on these same pieces of wisdom to Comrade Markham when he came of age.
They were thus shocked, shocked but not moved, when it was discovered that one of the main leaders of their faction, Jim Cannon, who had been sent to Moscow for the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in1928 came back and proved to be, or have been all along, a closet Trotskyite “wreaker.” Here too they made their ritualistic denunciations of the counter-revolutionary Cannon and would spent the rest of their political lives denouncing him and whatever political formations he helped organize to spread Trotsky’s words. This hatred too they passed on to their son.
The late 1920s and early 1930s, the time of the great world-wide economic Depression were hard times for Comrades Curtis, Rosa and their son although not because of the direct effects of that sore (everybody needs law clerks and teachers) but because it portended a change in party doctrine as mandated by the Communist International. They had always been public activists and thus ran into other left-wing groupings in their work, especially the still influential Socialist Party (mainly with the urban labor bureaucracy and the beset farmers out in the prairies). Got along with such groups, excepting of course the now banished counter-revolutionary Trotskyites who were to be beaten down if possible and an occasional Wobblie who still hadn’t gotten over the demise of that organization.
The new policy, which came down in Communist International history as the “third period” (the first being the immediate revolutionary period after World War I and the second, the mid-1920s stabilization of world capitalism), dictated that the world-wide Depression signaled the “final conflict” with capitalism and therefore any truck with non-communist forces now deemed to be “social-fascists” was forbidden. Moreover communist trade union cadre were told to create out of whole cloth “revolutionary unions.” Since party influence except in a few cities and a few unions, mainly in New York City, was minimal those policies only added to that isolation and with the exception of some stellar labor defense work and black defense work (the Scottsboro boys) done in spite of the party dictates this was an unfruitful period. The only other bright spot was in 1933 when the newly-elected Roosevelt (himself earlier a “social-fascist” as well) formally recognized the Soviet Union.
These were trying and mainly isolated times for the party, for the comrades and, frankly, for the gullible like Comrade Curtis and Rosa who would nightly talk about the nearness of their socialist dreams. Well, no question the period was bleak but the hard reality was that those Communist International doctrines (dictated by the now all-powerful Stalin and his cronies) led in their own way to the victory of the Nazis in Germany which would within the decade cause many tough nights worrying about the fate of the Soviet Union. Here is where the gullible part came in. Instead of blaming Stalin (or Earl Browder who took charge of the party as a well-known hack ready to do anything to advance himself although in his youth he had been an ardent militant and fervent anti-war supporter) Comrades Curtis and Rosa did somersaults to blame everybody and everything on socialists, Trotskyites, anybody. They never said word one about what happened in Germany and whose policies let Hitler in. Comrade Markham heard that kind of talk around the house as he grew up, as he became a Young Pioneer when he came of age.
The early 1930s, years of party-imposed self-isolation from the main political arenas, the “third period” years mentioned above, were hard years for Comrades Curtis and Rosa. They had been used to a useful and somewhat productive political life since they had moved to New York City in the 1920s. They did not get back to that normalcy until well after the Hitler threat to the Soviet Union or, better, the perceived threat since Hitler made no bones about liquidating the “Bolshevik menace” and hence made Stalin and his coterie change course dramatically with the policy which would later be codified as the “popular front.” For all practical purposes that “third period” policy had been shelved well before, probably in America with the great Communist-led general strike in San Francisco for a goodly part of 1934.
The implications were rather dramatic. Now yesterday’s “social-fascists,” including certain bourgeois elements were to be courted and the theory of the “catastrophic” end of world capitalism put on the back burner. Of course the damn Trotskyites, who had led their own general strike in backwater Minneapolis, were still to be beaten down and no party meeting (or Young Pioneer meeting either) was complete without some ritualistic denunciation of the bastards. No question though that the “thaw” as Comrade Curtis called it was welcome to that family and no more fervent supporters of the new policy in the city rank and file could be found than that pair. They took on more party responsibilities as this decade moved on (and as Comrade Markham became older and could travel with them to paper sales, meetings, and contact sessions, sessions to gain new recruits). This new energy came in handy with the outbreak of civil war in Spain where the popular front government was besieged by an armed Army/Fascist uprising and the Soviet Union was the only country willing to send military aid to drive the reactionaries back. Those were the days when Comrade Rosa would help the young activist Ethel Greenglass (later Ethel Rosenberg martyred along with her husband Julius in the Cold War 1950s executed as heroic Soviet spies) collecting funds for Spain in Times Square while Ethel performed the tarantula. Yes those who supported the Spanish Republic were kindred in those days and the young Comrade Markham got his first taste of public communist work.
The time of the new Communist International policy, the popular front against fascism with all anti-fascist forces, including bourgeois forces, was a fruitful time for the now aging Comrades Curtis and Rosa who whatever they saw in that strategy in terms of defense of the Soviet Union also saw as a way to mix with kindred in the various committees that the party was forming with other organizations. For them it was a breath of fresh air after the “third period.” Comrade Markham also got immersed in the new milieu, mixing with members of other student organizations to fight against fascism and the threat of a new war that seemed almost imminent by 1939 with the defeat in Spain hanging over everybody.
War would come soon enough, soon enough in Europe, in September 1939 and before that Comrades Curtis and Rosa spared no efforts to rally the anti-Nazi forces and to berate the isolationists who wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe.
Then the other shoe fell, fell as it had several times before when the announcement came that Stalin and Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact, and had agreed to divide Poland up. Overnight, maybe faster, the anti-fascist front was abandoned, the new slogan was peace and non-intervention. The Communist Party could now join hands with the anti-interventions America First-ers to keep America out of a European war. Overnight as well the Comrades lost many friends who could not understand the switch in policy. Worse there was an exodus from the party of many intellectuals and others who had joined the party in the spirit of the popular front who wanted no truck with Hitler alliances. Those withdrawals would not help them later when the post-war red scare came but then reflected their disgust with Soviet foreign policy.
Comrade Curtis and Rosa having been through the previous twists and turns of the party did not question the switch in fact thought that it was a clever move by Stalin to protect the Soviet Union against the British and French imperialists. All Comrade Markham knew was that he was laughed at or scorned at school but he too although only a young teenager thought Stalin had acted correctly even if he could not have articulated that feeling as well as his parents. He would learn.
“That bastard Hitler and his damn Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union, can you believe that after all Comrade Stalin did to try to keep the socialist fatherland out of the second European conflagration which had been going on for almost two years now,” cried out Comrade Curtis to his son, his now teenage son, who would probably bear the family brunt of this new world catastrophe on that fateful June 1941 when the world, the world communist world anyway, was turned upside down.
When Rosa came home from work she was beside herself since she had stopped by the Brooklyn party headquarters to see what the latest grim news was from the quickly folding and crumbling Russian front as the Nazi troops made their familiar quick work of attacking with lightning speed leaving the totally unprepared Red Army prostrate. It would only come out later, at least Comrades Curtis and Rosa did not find out about until after Stalin’s death in 1953, that Comrade Stalin and his staff had been forewarned of the attack by the international Soviet spy network that the Nazi attack was imminent and one source had actually given exact date. The damn Trotskyists over in the Village would have a field day with that since they had been saying for years that the purge of the Red Army in the late 1930s and that failure to heed the spies warnings proved, if further proof was necessary, that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of many millions at the hands of the on-rushing Nazis.
But in June 1941, in the immediate aftermath of the debacle the comrades had no time (or inclination) to question the wisdom of Soviet foreign policy moves as the socialist fatherland was in danger, must be defended at all costs, a call that both the long time comrades had paid especial heed to. So instead of calling for vague appeals to world peace, instead of calling for the American government to stay out of the European conflict, a position the party had shared prior to June, 1941 with the American First movement which included many of the most reactionary and ant-Soviet elements in American ruling and elite circles, they were urging FDR to extend Lend-Lease to the Soviets. Their world that month had indeed turned upside down.