The Wobblies (members of The Industrial Workers of the World) were noted for their use of poetry and song to promote radical ideas, publicise strikes and other protests and generally present the case for what was, for a time at least, a dynamic and imaginative organisation. Much of the work produced by Wobbly activists was designed for immediate use and was deliberately kept clear and direct so that the message would be understood by those it was aimed at. I'm not intending any criticism by saying this. It seems to me that there is a place for quick and contemporary comment in poetry and for the adaptation of well-known tunes for social commentary. There certainly was in the hey-day of the Wobblies, which was before radio came into use and when people were still inclined to gather together to sing and sometimes recite poetry. The Wobblies were adept at taking hymns, music hall songs, and traditional ballads, and changing the words so that they commented on the class war, social injustice, and specific events such as strikes and free-speech fights. A look at Songs of the Workers, or The Little Red Songbook as it's often known, will show that Joe Hill, one of the most celebrated Wobbly songwriters, used religious tunes like There Is Power in the Blood and Sweet Bye and Bye and gave them new words. In his version, Sweet Bye and Bye became the wonderful The Preacher and the Slave, with its mocking line, "You'll get pie in the sky when you die." Hill wasn't the only Wobbly to do this, of course, and The Little Red Songbook has many other examples.
Some of the Wobbly songs and poems were by people who wrote only a few such things, saw them perhaps published in a Wobbly paper, and then moved on. A few are remembered by name, though little is now known about them, but many of the poets and songwriters simply have the "Anonymous" tag to mark their contributions to radical writing. My Wandering Boy, set to the tune of the popular song, Where is my Wandering Boy Tonight? dates from around 1907 and was one of four songs printed on coloured card by the I. W.W., but no-one could recall who wrote it. And the famous, Hallelujah, on the bum, has always had disputed authorship. It was around in the 1890s but a one-time Wobbly, Harry McClintock, later claimed copyright of the words, if not the tune (derived from the hymn, Hallelujah, Thine the Glory), and recorded the song in the 1920s when he was working as a singer and musician for a San Francisco radio station. McClintock, like many of the old-time Wobblies, was a colourful and energetic character, and had been a railroad worker, a mule-skinner in the Spanish-American War in Cuba (which is where he may have first heard American soldiers singing a parody of Hallelujah, Thine the Glory), and an I.W.W. organiser. He'd also spent time in China, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and Britain, working his way all the time, and became a popular figure on radio in the 1920s. When the Depression affected his earnings he went to Hollywood and appeared in a few Gene Autry Westerns. He also wrote articles and stories for pulp magazines. McClintock eventually returned to San Francisco, where he died in 1957, and it's amusing to think that he was around when the Beats were surprising everyone with their supposed radicalism. McClintock's experiences suggest that he was a far more adventurous person than most of the poets and hangers-on of the Beat Generation.
I've diverted from my original intention by talking about someone like McClintock and the grass-roots side of I.W.W. music and poetry. What I really want to do is look at some forgotten work which can probably be placed in a more orthodox framework than adaptations of hymns and popular songs. There were plenty of writers belonging to or associated with the I.W.W. who wrote poems and other material using the standard forms of the day, but many of them were hardly prolific. The three writers I'll deal with did, however, produce some work which did point to them having literary intentions beyond the immediate. Ralph Chaplin, Charles Ashleigh, and Arturo Giovannitti, are not usually referred to in literary histories, and it's doubtful if they're much read now, but they each wrote some things that deserve to be acknowledged.
Ralph Chaplin was born in Kansas in 1887 and grew up in Chicago. He got to know Big Bill Haywood, one of the leading lights of the I.W.W., in 1907 and joined the organisation in 1911. Prior to that he'd been in Mexico during the Revolution and had reported on strikes in America for radical publications. He was editor of Solidarity, the Wobbly paper, and was rounded up with hundreds of other activists when the Government decided to break the I.W.W. by accusing it of opposing American entry into the First World War, campaigning against conscription, and advocating sabotage and other criminal acts. Chaplin was sentenced to twenty years in prison but was released in 1923 when the wartime and post-war anti-radical hysteria had died down and the imprisoned Wobblies were offered amnesties. Chaplin's autobiography, Wobbly, is a well-written account of his experiences. He stayed with the I.W.W. after his release from prison, working to have other radicals freed, and editing The Industrial Worker. He finally left in 1936, by which time the I.W.W. was a shadow of its former self, but remained active in labour journalism, though he lost one job when he dashed with communists. Quite a few Wobblies had joined the American Communist Party, swayed by the impact of the Russian Revolution and what seemed to be a tightly organised and disciplined policy for bringing about change in America, but Chaplin and others remained suspicious of communist motives.
Chaplin had always thought of himself as an artist and poet and his work appeared in well-known literary magazines as well as in Wobbly publications. I have an anthology, May Days, published in 1925 and featuring poetry from The Masses and its successor, The Liberator. The contents pages are an astonishing display of what might be called the radical bohemian poets active in America at that time. Chaplin's name crops up several times, alongside Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, Floyd Dell, E.E.Cummings, Claude McKay, and many more.
In 1922, when Chaplin was still in prison, a small collection of his poems appeared under the title, Bars and Shadows. They were described as "prison poems" written either while Chaplin was on trial or serving his sentence, and most of them do relate to those experiences. It has to be said that, on the evidence of these poems and others in Wobbly publications, Chaplin seemed unaware of or uninterested in modernist developments in literature. This could be because he thought that using traditional forms was the best way to reach the audience he had in mind. I'm never sure about this, and it can be seen as suggesting that the audience hasn't the intelligence to appreciate anything different or difficult. On the other hand, it can be argued that most people probably do prefer poetry that rhymes and says simple things. Chaplin's poem to his son would likely appeal to a lot of people:
And so on for several similar verses which would probably be viewed as sentimental, even trite, by many contemporary readers of poetry. But I donít want to waste time by attacking Chaplin for what he didn't do. Some of his poems made good points, as in The West is Dead, which laments the passing of the open spaces of the American West, "fenced and settled far and near." The "blanket-stiff, the wandering Wobbly who followed the harvests and didn't adhere to fixed times and places, is on the way out:
In another poem, Salaam!, the lines spit with bitterness and anger at the way in which people allow themselves to be manipulated by leaders of one kind or another:
If some of Chaplin's poems now seem naive to our jaded and supposedly sophisticated tastes then it's perhaps because we've lost the things - belief, hope, optimism - that kept him alive.
Sentenced along with Chaplin was Charles Ashleigh, another poet whose work was in the May Days anthology. Ashleigh was born in London in 1892 and moved to America in 1910 His autobiographical novel, Rambling Kid, gives a lively picture of his early days in England and his wanderings in the United States, where his awareness of radical politics, literature, and the I.W.W. developed. In the following passage, "Joe"(the character based on Ashleigh) remembers discovering various writers:
Ashleigh had spent some time in South America and spoke fluent Spanish. He published poems in The Masses and The Liberator and in Margaret Andersen's The Little Review, one of the leading literary magazines of the period. He knew Greenwich Village bohemians like Eugene O'Neill but also worked hard for the I.W.W. and was particularly active in the organising drives in the wheat fields. Rambling Kid gives a good picture of the kind of life led by many Wobblies, but it may be useful to point out that its overall political opinions may have been affected by the fact that Ashleigh had linked up with the communists while in prison. He was deported from America in 1923 and became a member of the British Communist Party on his return to London, so by the time his novel was published in 1930 he would have been inclined to follow the communist line that the I.W.W. failed because of its lack of organisation and specific political and economic theories. But the book does show how the First World War divided the Wobblies and the sometimes near-criminal activities of individuals left the I.W.W. open to attack by the authorities.
The handful of Ashleigh's poems that have survived indicate that he was, like Chaplin, a conventional poet in terms of technique, and unlike the character in the novel doesn't appear to have been influenced by Whitman's free verse. In Vespers, written during his prison years, he creates a mood of peace:
The poem ends with him returning to his cell almost refreshed by this brief encounter with nature, something that more than one of Chaplin's poems also refer to. But what are possibly the most striking of Ashleigh's lines are in Everett, November Fifth, a poem which refers to the deaths of several Wobblies during a free-speech fight in Everett, a town in Washington on the West Coast of America:
Ashleigh was still alive in the 1960s, a member of the British Communist Party, and, he said, "a worker in the cause of British-Soviet friendship," as well as a contributor to The Daily Worker. But his reputation in radical literature rests firmly on the work he produced during and about his days as a Wobbly.
Arturo Giovannitti wasn't among the I.W.W. members caught up in the great Chicago trial that saw Chaplin and Ashleigh imprisoned, but he had known the inside of prison in 1912 when he was arrested and charged with murder during the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, A young striker was killed during a demonstration, most probably by a police bullet, and Giovannitti and fellow strike leader, Joe Ettor, were arrested and charged because they were held responsible for the demonstration, despite not being present at it. The arrests were clearly meant to break the strike by destroying the leadership. Giovannitti and Ettor spent a year in prison but were eventually found not guilty by a jury.
Giovannitti was born in Italy in 1884, emigrated to Canada when he was a teenager, and moved to New York in 1904. He was a socialist at first but soon converted to revolutionary syndicalism and, in 1911, was the editor of an Italian-language newspaper published by the I.W.W. Following his arrest and trial in Lawrence he continued to associate with the Wobblies and also became part of the Greenwich Village bohemia of those days, mixing with John Reed, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, and Michael Gold, among others. His poetry appeared in The Masses, The Liberator, and Atlantic Monthly, usually known as a conservative publication. In the 1920s he was involved with the mainstream labour movement and was active in cultural circles, but after 1930 or so he more or less disappeared into union bureaucracy and was secretary of a Labour Education Bureau.
As a poet Giovannitti was far more interesting than Chaplin and Ashleigh. Some commentators have noted that he always maintained "a certain religious temperament, which manifested itself particularly in his poetry," and it may be that the long-lined declamatory style he favoured did reflect some biblical influence. But another source could have been Walt Whitman. Giovannitti wouldn't have been alone in being influenced by Whitman and poets like Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Michael Gold, all followed the populist line pioneered by him. There were, it's true, even earlier examples of poets using a long-lined style derived from the Bible. Christopher Smart springs to mind, though it's difficult to say if Giovannitti had read his work.
The poem by Giovannitti which attracted attention, not just in radical circles but in the wider literary context, was The Walker, a long meditation on prison life which Louis Untermeyer, who included it in his Modern American Poetry anthology, described as "remarkable, not only as art-work, but as a document; it is a twentieth-century Ballad of Reading Gaol, but with an intensity and social power of which Wilde was incapable."
It's difficult to extract from The Walker to illustrate its power because to do so reduces the effect of the language and the rhythm, but the opening lines may give an indication of how the poem works:
The Walker was printed in full in the Atlantic Monthly and so reached a wider audience than that which read radical magazines. There were other Giovannitti poems in the same style. When the cock crows is a hymn of praise to Frank Little, a Wobbly organiser who was lynched in Butte, Montana, after making a speech opposing involvement in the First World War. And The Senate of the Dead is a long poem in which a group of dead revolutionary heroes are assembled to assess the admission of Karl Liebnecht to their company. Spartacus, Louise Michel, Marat, John Brown, and Francisco Ferrer, all appear, and the list may well have something to say about Giovannitti's own concerns. But it's a powerful piece, even if, as with Chaplin and Ashleigh, the sentiments expressed seem naive to our cynical and irony-laden eyes.
Giovannitti's poems have lasted better as poems, as opposed to political statements or personal reflections, than either Chaplin's or Ashleigh's. They can be seen as of their time and place but they still read powerfully, perhaps because of their long-lined sweeping movement. As an aside, it always struck me that Alien Ginsberg's poetic approach, especially in Howl, may have been affected by Giovannitti, whose work was in the left-wing magazines that Ginsberg read in his youth. He never mentioned Giovannitti when asked about influences, usually preferring to refer to Smart, Whitman, and sometimes Ben Maddow, who himself may have known Giovannitti's work. But when I asked Ginsberg about Giovannitti he certainly knew his work and quoted from one of his poems.
I've not tried to be complete in this short survey of the work of the three poets concerned. Each of them led a rich and varied enough life to warrant an individual article, but it may have been useful to set them in context by dealing with them together. My main aim has been to draw attention to their existence. Most literary histories ignore writers like these, seeing their work as limited in scope and achievement, though many other minor poets are written about at undue length. But it's perhaps worth quoting Ralph Chaplin on the subject of being a poet. His comments may be slightly defensive, because I think he did see himself as a poet, but they may also indicate why he never became accepted in literary circles: "Above all things, I don't want anyone to try to make me out a 'poet' - because I'm not. I donít think much of these aesthetic creatures who condescend to stoop to our level that we may have the blessings of culture. Well manage to make our own - do it our own way, and stagger through somehow. These are tremendous times, and sooner or later someone will come along big enough to sound the right note, and it will be a rebel note." Chaplin knew his limitations as a poet and it's more than likely that his autobiography, Wobbly, will be his lasting literary legacy, just as Ashleigh's autobiographical novel, Rambling Kid, will be his, assuming even those books are remembered. Giovannitti may have a greater claim to poetic fame, though I wouldn't place any faith in the possibility of most academics and literary critics doing much to ensure that his claim is acknowledged. It's easier to play it safe and stick to talking and writing about the known and accepted than to attempt to revive the work of the unfairly forgotten.
Obviously, a lot of the literature referred to is difficult to find. I used the following books when writing this piece: Wobbly by Ralph Chaplin, published by the University of Chicago Press, 1948, reprinted by Da Capo, New York, 1972. Bars and Shadows by Ralph Chaplin, published by Allen and Unwin, 1922. Rambling Kid by Charles Ashleigh, published by Faber, London, 1930. Poems by Arturo Giovannitti, published by El Como Emplumado, Mexico, 1965.
Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology, edited by Joyce L. Kombluh, published by the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1954, is an invaluable collection of songs, poetry, and prose, which shows how humorous and pointed the Wobblies (including all those anonymous and forgotten writers) could be. May Days, edited by Genevieve Taggard, published by Boni and Liveright, New York, 1925, sets Chaplin, Ashleigh, and Giovannitti in context. Modern American Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer, published by Cape, London, 1932 (revised edition) is also useful. It has work by many now-forgotten poets and, like May Days, gives a context for the Wobbly writers.
Two of the most readable histories of the Wobblies are We Shall Be All by Melvyn Dubofsky, published by Quadrangle Books, New York, 1969, and The Wobblies by Patrick Renshaw, published by Eyre and Spottiswood, London, 1967.
Songs of the Workers or The Little Red Songbook has been circulated by the I.W.W. in a variety of editions over the years. The one I have to hand was published in 1955 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the I.W.W.
There are few academic studies of Wobbly and other radical poets. One exception is Carey Nelson's Repression and Recovery Modem American poetry and the Politics of Cultural memory 1910-1945, published by Wisconsin University Press, Madison, 1989. Chaplin and Giovannitti are mentioned in this book.
I referred to Giovannitti's poem, When the cock crows, and Frank Little, the Wobbly lynched in Butte. Readers with a taste for literary curiosities might like to look at Zane Grey's The Desert of Wheat, which was published in New York in 1919 (my English edition, published by Hodder and Stoughton is undated). Grey was a popular author of Western novels but this book is set during the First World War and is about defeating the Wobbly "threat" in the wheat fields. The I.W.W. is referred to as "Imperial Wilhelm's Warriors" because strikes are seen as working against the war effort and, it is suggested, are financed by German money. A lynching takes place in the novel and is based on what happened to Frank Little. Grey gloatingly describes the actions of the vigilantes and expresses his approval of them.
This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications