Joe Hill and the promise of Art and Politics
It's odd I suppose, given tonightís program, but I have always had an aversion to the
marriage of music and politics. Leaving the discussion of instrumental music aside, I
have always admired songwriters, wished I could have been one myself. I love a song
that tells a story, and when it tells of a manís suffering or a womanís hopelessness or
dreams, one can certainly argue the case for political meaning, and in fact I would.
But when people start telling me how to change the world over a G-major chord, thatís when I
generally leave the room. With all due respect, I always felt Joan Baezís I Dreamed
I saw Joe Hill was the moment in the movie Woodstock to go out and get popcorn.
It's a long movie after all. I was waiting for Sly and the Family Stone (and I
still am - "I want to take you higher - baby, baby, baby light my fire" - now
thereís a message!)
So, why Joe Hill? Well, certainly historical context makes a difference.
Unlike 2004, in 1904 songs were one of only a few ways to disseminate critical ideas and
information. This however, may make them of historical interest, but not necessarily
aesthetic. By way of example, take two songs from this piece. Chairs to
Mend, with a total of 9 words, leaves me breathless and often on the verge of tears.
By contrast, There Is Power in A Union does a great job making a point, but
emotionally little more. So again, why Joe Hill?
I was drawn to the story of Joe Hill, or more accurately the legend, not because of the
party line, the dogma, or an interest in inspiring the movement or converting the
undecided. Rather, I was drawn to him as an American myth, an immigrantís tale, a
loner, a martyr, maybe a criminal, a victim of the media and the system, and a manipulator of
it as well. But this piece has caused in me a transformation of sorts. I may not
have changed my feelings about music and politics much, but it surely has about the politics
American history is one of my few hobbies. I am a rank amateur, but from the time I
could read I have had a continuous fascination with the story of this nation, and especially
the Civil War, the "unsettling" of the west, and the story of industrialization in
the early part of the of the 20th century. In approaching this piece, I brought to the
table certain assumptions about the IWW and its story. That they were oppressed, that
they had big hearts, that they were often fearless, but also that they were naive,
simplistic, and hopelessly out of touch with the realities of their goals. I have also
realized that I, like many on the left, have bought into the new party line. That
capitalism has its problems, but that socialism is a failed experiment, somehow thrown away
like an old coat that doesnít fit this brave new world.
Before going further, I should state the obvious; the current political climate has
certainly affected my perception, and concurrently by studying further the history of IWW
those nagging questions began to surface again. About a year ago I was fascinated by an
article in the NY Times book review section about the life of Bayard Rustin, the great civil
rights activist and a principal organizer of the famous march on Washington. As an
American, Rustin had three strikes against him. In 1964 he was African-American,
homosexual, and believed passionately in something called "economic justice."
It dawned on me that 40 years later, we could have a political candidate, let's say
running for congress, who is African-American, even gay, and those things might be
liabilities, but it wouldnít throw him (or her) out of the ring. But start talking
about 'economic justice,' and things get dicey, and perilously close to the "S"
and "C" words. But what do we mean by that to begin with?
As Paul Magid, my collaborator on this project has consistently pointed out, the question
was and still is, "What is fair?" Even if we, for the sake of argument,
want to say that Marx didnít solve the problem, it is still important to remember how well
he asked the question. Everyone agrees that there is such a thing as too little money,
but is there such a thing as too much money? If we believe in checks and balances as
it applies to power, and money is power, then what kind of culture reveres and aspires
almost universally to those that have the most? In many ways this is more prevalent
today than in Joe Hillís time. If you asked most Americans in his day what they
desired, I imagine many would say, "A home, a living wage, and a decent work day
". Now many citizens, even at the lowest ends of the economy, might just say
they want to be rich - very rich - with no conception that one personís gain has to be
anotherís loss at least to some extent. This line of thinking brought me back to
something Gregory Bateson said in a lecture class I took in college. Not an economist
or a political scientist, Bateson was a pioneer in combining cybernetics, anthropology,
biology, and the early field of "ecology." He also made a major contribution
to the understanding of schizophrenia with his "double-bind" theory. (That
sure is apt right about now!) One day he turned to the class and simply said, "
All properly functioning systems have a concept of too much and too little. Too hot/too
cold; too dry/too wet; too empty/too full; even (in art, let's say,) too clever/not clever
enough." So, how balanced a culture can we have that has no concept of "too
Now I know the ironies. Just for starters, this piece was funded first and foremost
by the Rockefeller Foundation, and I am eternally grateful to them. In fact, the list
goes on. That is how it works - some people make a whole lot more money than others
and some of them are generous with it, or their children are or whatever. But the big
questions remain, does anyone really think the system isnít stacked, that anyone can just
work hard and get the same success or access as anyone else, that all you need to do is "
Believe I can Fly," that anyone can grow up to be president. Why do cops and
teachers get paid crap in a country whose greatest concerns are supposed to be security and
no child left behind? Why is "taxes" the dirtiest word in the English
language while people complain when an ambulance takes more than 2 minutes to arrive or
there are potholes in their streets? (Excuse me, I digress!) Does not, in fact,
the structure itself have plenty to do with the course of peopleís lives?
Which brings me back to Joe Hill and the IWW. In my copy of the 19th Edition of
the Little Red Book, on pg. 53, right below Joe Hillís Last Will are the following 2
Why should any worker be without the necessities of life when ten men can
produce enough for a hundred?
Why does a short work day and a long pay always go together?
Well I admit, 3 years ago when I set out on this journey, I appreciated these remarks,
but I also viewed them with the sophisticated eye of the cynic. I was too smart to
think it was that simple.
Not any more. Here is what I feel now. "Goddamn good questions, Iíd sure
wish someone could give me a straight answer for once."
I hope you enjoy the music.