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Ol' Pals

Historian Completes a Labor of Love -- 'The Big Red Songbook'

Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

John Neuhaus was a strapping Mission District machinist who joined the Industrial Workers of the World -- the radical unionists called the Wobblies -- in San Francisco in 1930. A passionate man who wore lumberjack shirts and had no use for doctors, lawyers and other bourgeoisie, Neuhaus became an ardent folklorist, researching and collecting the potent and piquant songs that Wobblies of many creeds and colors sang around copper mines and hobo campfires, on picket lines and in jail.

Shortly before he died of cancer in 1958 at age 54, Neuhaus gave his friend and fellow folklorist Archie Green a tin tea box containing all but one of the 29 little red Wobbly songbooks published between 1909 and 1956 (seven more have appeared since, the last in 1995) and a World War II ammunition box filled with original sheet music and other material he'd amassed with the goal of publishing a complete Wobbly songbook. Green implicitly understood the job would fall to him.

"I felt morally responsible to do something with his collection," says Green, one of the editors of "The Big Red Songbook," an engaging new anthology (Charles Kerr, $24) that's been in the works for nearly half a century.

It features the lyrics to 250 or so Wobbly songs, rich with references to job sharks, shovel stiffs, capitalist tools and plutocratic parasites. Wobbly wordsmiths such as the fabled Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim, Haywire Mac and Richard Brazier set their fighting words to popular tunes of the day, gospel hymns, old ballads and patriotic anthems. Green and his co-editors place the songs in the context of the tumultuous times in which they were written and sung.

"I put it off as long as I could," laughs Green, who turns 90 this month. "Eventually, you run out of time, and I knew that if I didn't finish it, nobody would."

A longtime San Francisco shipwright, union leader and labor historian who's a retired University of Texas folklore professor, Green is sitting in the sunny living room of the tidy upper Castro neighborhood house he and his wife, Louanne, bought for $9,000 in 1950, when the neighborhood was filled with blue-collar families. A lively storyteller with wispy white hair and amused blue eyes, he's dressed in pressed khakis and a blue-plaid shirt.

Green grew up in Los Angeles in a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants active in the Jewish socialist group called the Workmen's Circle. He soaked up live cowboy music and jazz with his friend Norman Granz, the late, great record producer. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a philosophy degree, he began working on the San Francisco waterfront in 1940, returning to the shipwright's trade after serving in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. At 22, he was elected secretary of his local union, which, unlike the Wobblies, never sang songs at meetings.

"Working on the waterfront was like going to graduate school," says Green. "The conflict was intense, with the AFL fighting the CIO or vice versa. It was a mixture of Trotskyites and socialists and New Dealers. I was immersed in the ideological controversy from day one. If you went to a meeting and talked out of line, you were likely to be thrown down the stairs. It was a good education. I was better at union politics than I was as a skilled worker."

Green became close with Neuhaus in the early 1950s. The older man passed along Wobbly lore and Green introduced him to Cal's Bancroft Library and the ways of the academic folklore world. Neuhaus was adamant that the Wobbly songs he collected should be sung -- he spent years tracking down their source melodies and talking to old Wobblies. Green disagrees.

"I'm interested in having a record of all the songs," says Green, who thinks many were never actually sung. "It's historically important to bring all the material together. But I don't think most of them will ever be sung, and I don't think they deserve to be sung, because most are unsingable." He notes in his commentary to Brazier's leaden "Come and Get Wise," set to a 1903 Anheuser-Busch beer jingle, "worthy causes do not guarantee good songs."

"How many times can you say, 'One Grand Industrial Union'? After you've said it once or twice, it's repetitive. John was obsessed with getting it correct. He dug up the original sheet music and he'd get pissed off if a guy used the wrong melody. Every progressive is somewhat of a reactionary," Green adds with a smile.

But a handful of Wobbly numbers have become classics, still sung by labor groups and folk singers. They include Hill's sardonic "The Preacher and the Slave" (sometimes known by its famous phrase "Pie in the Sky"), set to the 1868 gospel hymn "Sweet Bye and Bye"; John Brill's "Dump the Bosses off Your Back," wed to the hymn "Take It to the Lord in Prayer"; "Solidarity Forever!," which Ralph Chaplin set to the Civil War tune "John Brown's Body"; and Slim's "Mysteries of the Hobo Life," sung to the melody of "The Girl I Left Behind," a ballad and fife tune popular in colonial America.

"They're memorable tunes," Green says. "The Wobblies didn't pass out sheet music. They didn't bring a piano to the picket line. Sometimes at a meeting there might be a piano or an accordion, but guitars weren't popular then. Guitars came in when the left discovered folk music. Remember, these were not trained musicians -- they were loggers, miners, construction stiffs. They would hear a song at church, or a patriotic or vaudeville song, remember it as best they could and, out of revolutionary zeal, write a song."

Whatever the music -- "The Big Red Songbook" includes pieces set to everything from "Yankee Doodle" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the "Toreador Song" from Bizet's "Carmen" -- the songs were meant to prod and praise workers. Each piece, Green writes in his preface, "whether topical, hortatory, elegiac, sardonic or comic served to educate, agitate, and emancipate workers. Songs were intended as arrows to penetrate bourgeois (in Wobbly parlance, "scissorbill") mentality, and to anticipate a new social order: the commonwealth of toil."

The songs stressed the solidarity and power of the working class, Green says, "it wasn't about the state, or the Communist Party or the worship of Stalin, this murderer who killed more people than Hitler and became a demigod of the left. The Wobblies said no, no one is our leader."

Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Wobblies and other radicals hailed the Red Dawn, the coming emancipation of workers. In 1918, Wobblies volunteered to help build railroads and other construction projects in the emerging Soviet Union. But as soon as they got there, "they began organizing their fellow workers against the bosses, who were the commissars," Green says. "So among the first enemies of the state to be executed were Wobblies." The Wobblies rejected the communist line and there was a long-standing enmity between them and the other radical American groups. The Wobblies -- whose influence waned in the 1920s, although there's a chapter of younger Wobbly workers in Berkeley -- would have nothing to do with probably the best-known song about one of their own, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," popularized by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

The song, which immortalized the Wobbly poet executed by a Salt Lake City firing squad in 1915 after he was convicted of murder, was written at a communist camp in New York in 1936 by Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes.

"The Wobblies wouldn't sing that song because they were conscious of what they called Stalinist methods," Green says. For similar reasons, they wouldn't embrace Woody Guthrie's famed "Union Maid," which was not included in the little red songbook (often subtitled "Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent," which cost a dime) until the 34th edition in 1973. "Instead of thinking of Guthrie as a freedom singer or a freedom fighter, they thought of him as a Stalinist stooge." By the time "Union Maid" made it into the songbook, Green adds, "the song had been sung in radical circles and in labor circles, and the young Wobblies didn't know or didn't care about its historical context. They just accepted Guthrie as a working-class hero a la Walt Whitman."

Green first sang Wobbly songs at the Workmen's Circle school in the late '20s, although he wasn't aware of their origin at the time. He associates the international labor and protest songs he sang with the unsuccessful effort to stop the execution in Massachusetts of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Asked to sing one of the Wobbly songs he learned as a kid, the folklorist breaks into "The Preacher and the Slave," which Carl Sandburg included in his 1927 "American Songbag":

"Longhaired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet: You will eat bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

"Obviously that made enough of an impression on me between 1925 and '30 that it stuck with me all these years," says Green. His heart was with the Wobblies, but he never joined the Industrial Workers of the World. "Like most Americans, I'm a creature of contradiction," he says. "By the time I was ready to join a union, joining the Wobblies would've been a gesture, a good gesture, but for better or worse, the shipwright's union had jurisdiction over my trade."

After Neuhaus' death, Green -- who later made copies of his friend's little red songbooks and gave the originals to the folklore archive at the University of North Carolina, where Green once taught -- nurtured the collection. The only Wobbly songbook he never found was the second edition, a copy of which was sold to UC Riverside by the Argonaut bookstore in San Francisco in the 1950s a few days before Green wandered into the shop. The songbook was apparently stolen from the university and another copy has yet to turn up.

The labor movement is in a weakened state at the moment. But Green, whose two sons belong to the electricians' union, looks ahead. He thinks "The Big Red Songbook" will prove useful not only to those interested in labor history and lore, but to future workers. "The very fact that working people were able to compose and sing and celebrate their past," he says, "will be encouraging when we form new coalitions, if we do."

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