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GEORGE GARRETT AND THE U.S.A

Joseph Pridmore

 

I was very greatly impressed by Garrett. Had I known before that it is he who writes under the pseudonym of Matt Low in the Adelphi and one or two other places, I would have taken steps to meet him earlier. He is a biggish hefty chap of about 36, Liverpool-Irish, brought up a Catholic but now a Communist. He says he has had about nine month's work in (I think) the last 6 years. He went to sea as a lad and was at sea about 10 years, then worked as a docker. During the war he was torpedoed on a ship that sank in 7 minutes, but they had expected to be torpedoed and had got their boats ready, and were all saved except the wireless conductor, who refused to leave his post until he had got an answer. He also worked in an illicit brewery in Chicago during prohibition, saw various hold-ups, saw Battling Siki immediately after he had been shot in a street brawl, etc. etc. All this however interests him much less than Communist politics. I urged him to write his autobiography, but, as usual, living in about two rooms on the dole with a wife (who, I gather, objects to his writing) and a number of kids, he finds it impossible to settle to any long work and can only do short stories. Apart from the enormous unemployment in Liverpool it is almost impossible for him to get work because he is blacklisted everywhere as a Communist.(l)

The words above are George Orwell's, who met with George Garrett on February the 25th 1936 while visiting Liverpool as part of his research for The Road to Wigan Pier. Garrett's name is all but unknown in literary circles today, but when his writing first appeared in the thirties it regularly received high praise from established literary figures such as Orwell. Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Lehmann and Tom Harrison were also "very greatly impressed" by the Merseyside left-wing writer and activist. It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin with Orwell's account of their meeting, partly because its detailed description of Garrett is a useful place to start for those who have not heard of him before now, and also because it contains a number of details about Garrett's travels to America which are the subject of this paper.      

There are a number of reasons why Garrett became a forgotten name in 1930s English literature. One is that the body of work he left behind is relatively small. As Orwell notes, Garrett could not escape the demands of finding work and supporting a large family (he had seven sons), and ultimately these factors kept him from producing any writing on a large scale. Just ten short stories, two pieces of reportage and a handful of articles were published in his lifetime, although since his death in 1966 some other unreleased works have been discovered. Garrett's popularity as a writer was also compromised by tensions arising following the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War. Growing paranoia surrounding the perceived threat posed by Communist Russia led to a sharp decline in the success of western proletarian writers such as Garrett, who had voiced their support of left-wing politics during the thirties. This fall from grace affected many of Garrett's contemporaries too, and such 1930s working class authors as James Hanley, Jack Hilton, Jim Phelan and Jack Common are still neglected and under-researched figures in most current studies of British writing from between the wars.

       However, the study of Garrett's work is rewarding for it reveals much about leftwing politics, labour history on Merseyside, the stylistics of resistance writing, and tactics for overcoming the implicit class domination that lies within conventional literary forms. Furthermore, and most significantly, Garrett's work also contains fascinating details concerning the interplay between British and American left-wing organisations during the 1920s and 30s. This was an immensely lively time for socialist movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and I'd like to look in particular at the various ways in which Garrett's life and writing were influenced by one of the most famous of all American labour movements: The Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW was founded in 1905 and still exists in various forms today. Key Wobblies (as its members were nicknamed) who played an active role in beginning the organisation were Daniel de Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Lucy and Albert Parsons and "Big" Bill Haywood, a former cowboy who had already experienced militant industrial action as part of the Western Federation of Miners.(2) Philip Sheldon Foner writes that the Wobblies' primary goal was to establish "one big union," which would bring together all workers, "regardless of skill, sex, colour or nationality. "(3) This union would operate through a series of strikes and passive demonstrations, which were to culminate in the abolition of the capitalist wage system and introduce a new order in which the workers would run industries themselves.(4)

       The idea of a union free of all boundaries and distinctions was a bold one, given that racial and social prejudice in America had hindered previous attempts to create similar collectives. However, the Wobblies quickly generated a huge following among poorly paid workers who suffered under the wage system, particularly those from other countries who were either unemployed or being exploited in menial jobs. Indeed, much of the Wobblies' early success as a political movement may be due to the fact that they welcomed people of all races and nationalities at a time when America was deluged with migrant workers from all across Europe and the world. Furthermore, the IWW's principles of equality could not have been more appealing to George Garrett. Perhaps the principal reason why Garrett was so well-suited to the Wobblies' politics was that he was a lifetime advocate of tolerance and acceptance, sometimes displaying attitudes that were considerably ahead of his time. Take, for example, the following segment from a speech made by Garrett at a Liverpool unemployment demonstration in 1921:

Fellow workers, it is all very well criticising the alien as one of your speakers has been doing, and telling you that he is the cause of your unemployment. It is not so. The present rotten system is the cause... All workers are slaves to the capitalists no matter what their race, colour or creed is, and there is more slavery under British Imperialism and the Union Jack than under any other flag. You Britishers, you sometimes give me a pain. I don't tell people I'm a Britisher. I had no choice in being where I was where I was born. How many of you have the guts of the Indians who are following Ghandi in India today, or following Michael Collins in Ireland? There people are only trying what we should be doing, breaking the bonds of their serfdom. (5)

       Garrett joined the Wobblies around the year 1918, on a trip to the United States taken shortly after the end of World War One. (This was not his first visit to America: in 1913 he stowed away on a tramp steamer bound for Buenos Aires and spent several years travelling "hobo-style" in South America, and after returning to sea as a ship's stoker made several other working visits to the States.) The IWW achieved its widest popularity and highest membership figures in the years leading up to 1914. By 1918 the movement was already a shadow of its former self, having suffered ruthless suppression and numerous witch-hunts during the war years. More about this later; for the moment, suffice to say that by the time Garrett joined the Wobblies, their glory days were over. Furthermore, the IWW member who had the greatest individual influence on Garrett's works was already dead. This was the most famous and best remembered Wobbly of all: songwriter and lyricist Joe Hill.

       Born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in 1879, he changed his name first to Joseph Hillstrom and then to Joe Hill after moving to America from his native Sweden in 1902. (6) In 1910 he joined the Wobblies, after working for seven years in a variety of menial jobs, and also experiencing periods of unemployment and vagrancy as Garrett and countless other immigrants to the United States had done.(7) During his time as a member of the IWW Joe Hill produced some of America's most famous protest songs, including 'Casey Jones the Union Scab', There is Power in a Union', We Will Sing One Song' and The Rebel Girl' (dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an IWW member with whom Hill had a light romantic attachment, and also with a nod to a ten-year-old named Katie Phar who wrote to Hill while he was in prison). Even those who have not heard of Joe Hill today will probably have used, at least a few times, a phrase that he coined. It may surprise some to learn that the expression "pie in the sky," now in common usage, was invented by Hill for his song The Preacher and the Slave', and originally meant a hollow, palpable promise intended to keep the masses content but which provided no material comfort in the real world. It is surely best expressed in the first verse and chorus of the song in which it originally appeared:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right,
But when asked about something to eat,
They will answer with voices so sweet: 

CHORUS
You will eat (you will eat) by and by,
In that glorious land in the sky (way up high).
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die (that's a lie).(8)

       Joe Hill was arrested on the 13th of January 1914, for the murder of ex-police officer John Morrison and his seventeen-year-old son Alving.(9) Whether Hill actually committed the crime, or whether the arrest was a frame-up intended to eliminate a man who was by that time viewed by many as a dangerous radical and rebel-rouser, has been the subject of much spirited debate in the decades since. His trial was a lengthy and extremely involved affair (Patrick Renshaw remarks that only the Sacco and Vanzetti affair of the 1920s has rivalled it for sheer complexity), but the final verdict was guilty and Hill was executed by firing squad on November the 18th 1915.(10) His last words, wired to IWW leader "Big" Bill Haywood, were: "Don't waste time in mourning. Organise""

       Although George Garrett never met Joe Hill, we know that he was a great fan of his works and owned at least one edition of Songs of the Workers, or The Little Red Songbook. This text, first released around 1912 and updated and reissued periodically, published songs by Joe Hill and other IWW activists with the intention of "fanning the flames of discontent." Garrett was forced to leave the IWW and America in 1920 after a crackdown on illegal immigrants by the US authorities, and soon afterwards he began producing protest songs himself in Liverpool, taking his cue from Hill and the other Wobbly lyricists he had encountered.

       Michael Murphy, in his introduction to The Collected George Garrett (Trent Editions, 1999), suggests a link between Garrett's lyrical works and the songs of Joe Hill. I would like to make this link clear by examining the two surviving musical numbers by Garrett, 'Marching On!' and 'Seamen Awake.' The former was one of Garrett's first published works, and was sold as a broadsheet to raise funds for the Liverpool contingent of the 1922 National March on London. This was the first of six such marches that took place between that year and 1936, and Garrett, along with a Boer War veteran friend named McMahon, organised the marchers from the Merseyside region. 'Marching On!' is set to the tune of English Transport Workers' Strike Song 'Hold the Fort', and the segments from both songs reproduced below illustrate the identical rhythm and metre: Page 4

'Hold The Fort’ verses 2-3

Look, my comrades, see the Union
Banners waving high.
Reinforcements now appearing,
Victory is nigh.

See our numbers still increasing,
Hear the bugle blow.
By our union we shall triumph
Over every foe.(13) 

'Marching On!' verses2-3

Onwards, comrades, organise,
Burst the ruthless chain
Solidarity shall prove
Our quest is not in vain

Too long we've starved in silence grim
And watched the parasite
Waste in luxury the wealth
Produced by Labour's might 

The practice among political radicals of setting new words to existing tunes was commonplace long before Garrett, Joe Hill or the Wobblies, and dates back to at least the eighteenth century. (15). Hill and the other IWW songwriters  were contributing to an existing tradition by reworking hymns and popular music, and turning their lyrics into parodies of the original words. Garrett's protest songs are part of this tradition too, and also demonstrate an awareness of popular common themes in their lyrics. If we compare 'Marching On!’ with Hill's 'Workers of the World Awaken!’, the similarities are striking:

'Marching On!' verses 2-3

Onwards, comrades, organise,
Burst the ruthless chain.
Solidarity shall prove
Our quest is not in vain.

Too long we've starved in silence grim
And watched the parasite
Waste in luxury the wealth
Produced by Labour's might

'Workers of the World Awaken!' verse 1

Workers of the world awaken!
Break your chains, demand your rights
All the wealth you make is taken
By exploiting parasites.

Shall you kneel in deep submission
From your cradles to your graves
Is the height of your ambition
To be good and willing slaves ? 

       Similarly, parts of Garrett's song 'Seamen Awake', which was probably written around the same time as 'Marching On!', recall quite strongly Hill's There is Power in a Union.' The common ground here is Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem 'The Mask of Anarchy’, written in 1819 and published 1832. This poem, which calls upon the revolutionary language emerging from France at the time, was hugely popular among radicals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for its exhortations to the working class to rise up against the capitalist system that exploited them. Many motifs popular in twenties and thirties protest songs, such as the breaking of chains, the right to be more than a simple wage-slave and the plutocrat wasting his wealth in comfort, first appeared in this piece and have been seized upon by countless proletarian songwriters since. Among the most influential stanzas are the following:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to Earth like dew,
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few- [..] 

Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell,
For the tyrants' use to dwell...

Tis to hunger for such diet
As the rich man in his riot
Casts to the fat dogs that lie
Surfeiting beneath his eye.. (16)

       Shelley's popularity among working class socialists and radicals was so great that Joe Hill and Garrett would both have heard of him, and been influenced by his works. We can see from this that Garrett's songs, while most immediately inspired by Joe Hill and the other IWW lyricists he would have come across in his Little Red Songbook, were also a part of radical and popular traditions that both he and Hill can be said to belong to. But it's not just in his protest songs that Garrett's experiences with the Wobblies emerge and are made use of. His more serious works of literature, in particular one piece of reportage, tie Garrett's life, politics and writing most closely to the Industrial Workers of the World.

       'Liverpool 1921-1922', Garrett's longest surviving work and the last one published in his lifetime, recalls classic IWW writing in two ways. Firstly, its author uses the established Wobbly technique of writing about real people but not naming them, representing them instead by certain social types. Garrett himself features as a character in two different guises, "The Young Seaman" and "The Syndicalist," and many important figures from 1920s left-wing Liverpool appear under such aliases as 'The Old Police Striker" and "The Spiritualist." Indeed, "The Man in the Stetson" and 'The Woman Organiser" are Jack Braddock and Mary "Ma" Bamber, husband and mother respectively of Garrett's close friend, Bessie Braddock M.P..

       'Liverpool 1921 -1922' is also reminiscent of Wobbly writing in that it deals with many of the same issues, problems and ambiguities that the IWW had themselves faced, and which Garrett had encountered during his time with them. By 1921 Garrett was back on Merseyside, still unemployed, and an active member of Robert Tisseyman's Liverpool's branch of the National Unemployed Worker's Movement. This organisation was founded by Wal Hannington in 1921, and was in many ways very similar to the Wobblies in that it set out to be a nationwide union and was founded on principles of non-violent protest, tolerance and passive demonstration. Its goal, to provide the British proletariat with "Work or Full Maintenance," recalls the Wobblies' quest to better the lives of the poorly-treated working class.(17) The NUWM was also similar to the IWW in that it faced many of the same types of opposition, from the government and local authorities.

       After America's entry into World War One in 1917, many Wobblies were arrested and jailed on charges of encouraging anti-war attitudes, of resisting American involvement in the conflict, and of sabotage and other subversive acts.(18 ) It was also put about that the movement was in receipt of gold from the Kaiser in order to carry out its misdeeds, which led Senator Henry F. Ashurst to suggest that the letters IWW stood for "Imperial Wilhelm's Warriors. "(19) Garrett writes in 'Liverpool 1921-1922' that the NUWM faced exactly these types of unfounded prejudice and institutionalised suppression in the early twenties. Such matters are seen most vividly in the segment of that deals with the so-called "Storming of the Walker Art Gallery" on the 12th of September 1921. On that day, Garrett and several hundred other members of the Merseyside NUWM were batoned down by troops during a nonviolent protest at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery (the speech by Garrett quoted earlier was made at that demonstration), and many were arrested, tried and accused of receiving funds from Communist Russia. There's a striking similarity between this chapter in the NUWM's history and the ordeal of the Wobblies in wartime America, and in drawing this parallel Garrett becomes able to engage with many key IWW debates in 'Liverpool 1921-1922.' At the forefront of these is the issue of non-violent protest and whether it has any value in a world where the struggle for working-class rights seems to be ruthlessly crushed time and time again by uncaring authority. This debate was eternally troubling for Garrett and the IWW, and sadly it is not easily resolved.

       There's not enough space to go into 'Liverpool 1921-1922' in the detail it deserves here, but I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in the writings of the IWW, or wants to see the ways in which creative interaction occurred between Wobblies in Britain and the United States. Bob Holton writes that this trans-Atlantic interplay was at its liveliest in the 1920s, and took place mostly in Garrett's native Liverpool. Merseyside had its own English branch of the IWW, set up by Jack Braddock during the War, which provided a refuge for American Wobblies fleeing persecution at home and also sent funds to help members facing trial in the States (via local seamen sympathetic to the cause, and surely Garrett was among them).(21) Out of this arose the creative impact that IWW politics made upon much British working class literature.

       To find the British writer who best exemplifies this influence from the USA, look no further than George Garrett. Though he belonged to many different left-wing movements in his colourful life, including among others the NUWM, the Seamen's Vigilance Committee and the Unity Theatre Network, his political self was perhaps shaped most of all by the first radical movement he ever encountered: The Industrial Workers of the World. Garrett's loyalty to the Wobblies is evident in his protest songs, in works such as 'Liverpool 1921-1922,' and also in his remarkable drama Flowers and Candles, written in New York in 1925 and sadly unpublished and unperformed to this day. What's fascinating about Flowers is that Garrett produced an English version of the play as well as an American one, keeping the same essential story but changing certain details of dialect and character origins to provide appropriate local flavour. ("Candies" becomes "chocolates," "Mom" becomes "Mam," Manuel, a Pilipino immigrant worker, becomes Charlie, an Afro-Caribbean, and so on.) Flowers and Candles is perhaps the best example of the personal politics that made Garrett an exemplary IWW member, and why he commanded the respect and admiration of those who knew him. He saw people as essentially the same, superficially diverse but motivated by common needs and plagued by similar problems. He believed that the world's workers could rise up in one big union, and put their differences aside for the mutual goal of bettering the lot of the poor and underprivileged. This was the goal that motivated his existence, and also gave life to his writing.

 

Notes

1 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier Diary, in Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, eds. George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 1.An Age Like This, 1920-1940 London :Secker & Warburg, 1968, p 187.

2 Philip Sheldon Foner, The Case of Joe Hill, New York: New World Paperbacks, 1965, pp.9-10.

3 Foner, p. 10.

4 Foner, p. 10.

5 The speech was made on the 12th of September 1921, and Garrett's words were noted by one of the CID Special Branch members monitoring the demonstration at the time. Michael Murphy, in his introduction to The Collected George Garrett (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1999, p. xxv) reproduces Garrett's words in full.

6 Dean Nolan and Fred Thompson, Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter, Sheffield: Pirate Press, no publication date given, p.2.

7 Foner, p.9.

8 All Joe Hill songs in this paper are transcribed from the 1954 Folkways Record Album The Songs of Joe Hill, Sung By Joe Glazer with Guitar.

9 Nolan and Thompson, p.2.

10 Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States, London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1967, p. 194.

11 Renshaw, p.203.

12 Michael Murphy, 'Introduction', in Garrett 1999, p. xii.

13 'Hold the Fort' (writer unknown), in Out of Work newspaper, 1:53(1922), p.4.

14 Garrett, 'Marching On!’, in Liverpool 1921-1922, Liverpool: Merseyside Unity Theatre, 1980, p. iv.

15 Charles Hobday, Two sansculotte poets: John Freeth and Joseph Mather', in John Lucas, ed. Writing and Radicalism, Harlow: Longman, 1996, p.62.

16 Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy', 1819; rpt. in Poems and Prose: Percy Bysshe Shelley, London: Everyman, 1995, pp. 154-5.

17 Tony Lane, 'Some Merseyside Militants of the 1930s', in Harold Hikins, ed. Building the Union: Studies on the Growth of the Workers'Movement, Merseyside, Liverpool: Toulouse Press, 1973, p. 156.

18 Jim Burns, 'Rebel Voices', in The Penniless Press 16 (Autumn 2002), p.25.

19 Renshaw, p.218.

20 Garrett was among the NUWM workers brought to trial after the debacle, and was accused by the prosecuting lawyer of receiving gold from a government body. Garrett immediately pleaded guilty to this. The lawyer, astonished by his willing confession, asked him to tell him which government was funding him. Garrett replied: 'The British Government. I'm on the dole." (Garrett, 'Liverpool 1921-1922', in Garrett 1999, p.211.)

21 Bob Holton, 'Syndicalism and Labour on Merseyside 1906-14', in Hikins, pp. 126-7.

 

Bibliography and suggestions for further reading

Burns, Jim. 'Rebel Voices', in The Penniless Press 16 (Autumn 2002), pp.23-32.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall be All, Quadrangle Books, New York, 1969.

Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Case of Joe Hill, New York: New World Paperbacks, 1965.

Freeman, Joseph. An America Testament A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1938.

Garrett, George (writing as James, George Oswald). Flowers and Candles, original manuscript held by The Nottingham Trent University's Raymond Williams Centre for Recovery Research, 1925.

Garrett, George. Liverpool 1921-1922, Liverpool: Merseyside Unity Theatre, 1980.

Garrett, George. Out of Liverpool: Stories of Land and Sea, Liverpool: Merseyside Writers, 1982.

Garrett, George. The Collected George Garrett, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1999.

Harold Hikins, ed. Building the Union: Studies on the Growth of the Workers'Movement, Merseyside, Liverpool: Toulouse Press, 1973.

Hobday, Charles. 'Two sansculotte poets: John Freeth and Joseph Mather, in Lucas, John, ed. Writing and Radicalism, Harlow: Longman, 1996, pp.61-83.

'Hold the Fort' (writer unknown), in Out of Work newspaper, 1:53 (1922), p.4.

Kingsford, Peter. The Hunger Marchers in Britain, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1982.

Nolan, Dean and Thompson, Fred. Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter, Sheffield: Pirate Press, no publication date given.

Orwell, George. 'The Road to Wigan Pier Diary', in Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, eds.George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940, London: Seeker & Warburg, 1968.

Renshaw, Patrick. The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States, London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1967.

Salzman, Jack and Wallenstein, Barry. Years of Protest: A Collection of American Writings of the 1930s, New York: Pegasus, 1961.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. 'The Mask of Anarchy', 1819; rpt. in Poems and Prose: Percy Bysshe Shelley, London: Everyman, 1995, pp. 150-61.

The Songs of Joe Hill, Sung by Joe Glazer with Guitar, Folkways Record Album, 1954.