Says Joe

Every so often I talk back to the book I’m reading. It’s fairly similar to the movie goer who calls out to the next victim in a zombie movie. Obviously that door doesn’t lead to safety! It’s where your zombified neighbor happens to be waiting patiently (if a bit peckish). Usually my outbursts come due to glaring mistakes. The misattributed quote, the obvious attempts to convey familiarity with a geographic location the author’s never visited, the horribly misspelled name, and the incredibly wrong date (particularly when it’s an easy date to look up) have all triggered a muttered outburst of “Turn back you fool!” (More accurately a simple “Wait…what? That’s not right!”)

Everybody makes mistakes and I’m certainly no exception. This means that I hold myself to a high standard when it comes to my own work. In fact, when I do mess up I tend to feel like the zombie victim: not only am I embarrassed to be caught in the gnashing embrace of Fred T. Zombie, but I’m mortified to realize that the audience was probably rooting for the zombie since I was being dumb.

This is all a long way of getting to the real reason for my post. Today’s infraction was of the wrong date variety regarding the song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” I’m sure the zombie victim in question considered it a throwaway comment. The song was originally written by Alfred Hayes in 1925 and turned into a song by Earl Robinson in 1936. It was not performed, as the author erroneously asserts, at Hill’s funeral in 1915. It is more romantic to think that it was 1915 though. Admittedly, the book I found it in is not likely to be the first, second, or to be honest, eighteenth source anyone wanting to find out about the song would ever look up. I may have declared vigorously that the author was wrong and went straight to some books and the internet to prove it to myself, but it certainly doesn’t count as a serious infraction.

Whatever the case, I’m grateful for the mistake in the end. Besides fodder for a post here it also prompted me to listen to the song again and gain a new appreciation for the numerous versions there are of it online.

Joan Baez at Woodstock


Luke Kelly


Pete Seeger’s banjo and accompanying singers are particularly powerful given the focus of solidarity in the song. I’m also fond of the way Seeger’s version picks up tempo in the middle.


Paul Robeson’s performance of the song is in some ways my favorite. Robeson’s voice is simply incredible and I have to say that I prefer the subdued piano accompaniment here. It seems more fitting for the mournful visit from a ghost.

Natural Disasters, Unnatural People?

A few stories regarding the coal industry have caught my eye and, despite my being a few weeks late to the party, I think each deserves more attention:

Investigators apparently have evidence that Massey Energy kept fake safety records for Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. This comes from the Mine Safety and Health Administration who showed the records to families of the killed miners. Regarding the explosion, the MSHA findings point towards a small methane explosion caused by a spark from a cutting head. That explosion grew exponentially thanks to the unsafe build up of coal dust in the mine. This, of course, goes against Massey’s claim that the explosion was a natural disaster rather than something preventable through safety measures.

It stands to reason that Massey would make this claim. It is, after all, in their interest. Natural disasters through the very label become something unpreventable. They are a fact of life and the loss of life through them in turn becomes inevitable. Certainly this isn’t a new idea and I’m not the first to point out this tactic. Nevertheless, it’s important to state exactly what this rhetoric does in regards to the safety of miners and to the responsibility of Massey and the coal industry as a whole. It is, frankly, the largest cop out possible. Nothing about coal mining is “natural.” You’re digging tunnels deep into mountains to retrieve minerals to burn to produce energy. It is a thoroughly industrialized process and an intervention (for better or worse – though obviously I lean towards worse) of human beings into incredibly dangerous territory. To say that the dangers are natural then suggests that they are unpreventable, exactly what the MSHA’s findings refute.

There’s another side of this tactic and it’s one that the mining industry (or in this case a law firm representing it) has deployed recently as well. (As first reported here and picked up by Mother Jones here) In response to a recent study showing the increased chance of birth defects among populations living near mountaintop removal operations the law firm of Crowell & Moring has stated that the study did not take into account consanguinity. If you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the term consanguinity the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr.  has done us the favor of finding out: Consanguinity refers to the level of shared ancestry. In other words, the level of inbreeding.

Ward’s post about this has a excellent explanation of Crowell & Moring’s use of the term and it’s well worth a read in its entirety. Once again I want to focus on the rhetoric. There’s a clear insinuation pulling on an old and much refuted stereotype that the residents of the Appalachian coal fields are inbreeding. Hence they become “unnatural” in their behavior and the cause for their own problems. As such, if we accept this line of reasoning, the people suffering birth defects in this region are to be the subject of our collective scorn rather than MTR. This tactic pulls on an old and much refuted stereotype in an underhanded effort to refute a study pointing towards the detrimental effects of the coal industry on the region and its inhabitants.

Again, not a new tactic. Still, it’s imperative to point out these tactics whenever they crop up. The rhetoric is simply too powerful to let slip by unchallenged. They must be called out as the insidious and deceitful tactics that they are.

Best Known or Best?

Interesting discussion happening over at the Guardian about what happens to be an author’s best book vs. his or her best known book.

As a note, I can’t say I agree with Self’s description of Catch-22. Heller’s most famous book is a bit slow to get started perhaps in regards to its plot, but the novel enacts the sort of structured chaos involved in military service as well as the trauma and inexplicable chaos involved in war. While Catch-22 has its problems (quite a few in fact), I don’t think they’re the hundred pages Self mentions. I’m more than happy to believe him on Something Happened though. It’s a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for years now but I can never quite seem to make the time to get to it.

1913 Wheatland Hop Riot

IMG_0007 by Errant Ventures
IMG_0007, a photo by Errant Ventures on Flickr.

On August 3rd 1913 the small community of Wheatland California was transformed from a quiet farming community to the host of the largest uprising of agricultural workers that the state had seen up until that point in history. Under the ostensible leadership of the IWW the riot occurred on the third day of agitation by workers for improved working and living conditions. The riot wasn’t an unwarranted act of labor violence. The conditions leading up to the riot were part and parcel the result of truly deplorable conditions in the Durst Ranch in Wheatland. Durst was the largest employer of agricultural labor in California and in 1913 he advertised for 3,000 workers for the hop harvest. The large number of workers who heeded Durst’s advertisements found that Durst actually wanted to employ about half of the number he advertised. Aside from the poor pay the workers received, the large number of people, both those with jobs and those without, resulted in dire conditions in the camp. There was little clean water and only eight toilets to share between the thousands of workers. Disease was quickly becoming rampant among the families inhabiting the camp prior to the riot.

When the workers began to organize and make their demands known, Durst panicked. He immediately went to the nearby county seat of Yuba City and gathered up a posse of law enforcement and quickly deputized citizens and returned with them to the. As the posse arrived the workers were at a mass organizing meeting and singing Joe Hill’s “Mr. Block.” The Yuba County sheriff and district attorney, siding with Durst, ordered the workers to disperse. One member of the posse fired his gun into the air “to sober them” as he later put it in court.

What happened next is lost to history. Four men were killed in the resulting violence: two workers, the Yuba County district attorney, and a deputy. Numerous people were injured and immediately workers fled Wheatland in fear of more violence. When Jack London rushed north from San Francisco to write about the riot he claimed that the workers fleeing from Wheatland looked like the refugees of a natural disaster. The subsequent criminal trial found two IWW organizers guilty of murder, though no one had witnessed that they had taken part in any violence or even that they had been seen with weapons of any sort. They were sent to Folsom prison until their release in the early 1920s. While the IWW was mostly blamed for instigating the violence, a later investigation by the state found Durst’s negligence as an employer to have created a situation ripe for violence and for law enforcement to have acted recklessly. As Carleton H. Parker, the state’s investigator, put it in regards to the action of the posse, “Any romance which the far west had thrown around a sheriff’s posse was rudely stripped from the institution.”

All of this is preamble to the picture I’ve posted above and to the real impetus behind this post. The Wheatland Hop Riot figures briefly in my research and on a recent trip down to California I took the opportunity to stop in Wheatland and take a look at the historical marker for the riot in person. Who knows how many (or more likely how few) visitors come to the marker in a year or even a decade. After all, there doesn’t seem to be much to see. The idea to stop there mostly came about from the thought that it would be a nice photo to include in my dissertation. Upon reflection (and the always thoughtful insights of my wife) I’ve found that the marker and the area surrounding it to be particularly fitting for such a mostly ignored yet unforgettable episode.

When it was placed the marker looked out on an open field, or at least that’s what I can tell from old photos I found online. More recently the land immediately adjacent to the marker has been developed into an electrical substation. The marker’s is now nestled in a small alcove in the substation’s chain link fence, which has been rerouted around the marker. It’s a feature you can actually see on Google map’s satellite view. (I can’t help but note that the Google street view of the marker finds it neighbored by two portable toilets. Considering how significant poor sanitation was to the strike the picture is both fitting and a humorous sign of the marker’s insignificance.) What strikes me is the way that the marker is more prominent for its juxtaposition with the electrical substation. In the midst of electricity, that constant symbol of progress that feeds all of society’s technological wonders, sits a small stone reminder of labor, exploitation and violence. The marker disrupts the clean lines of the substation’s boundaries. It jabs into the side of the substation and metaphorically into the side of progress/industry/the community’s development.

Maybe I’m too invested in this particular historical event to keep from overemphasizing the symbolism at work here. There were far reaching ramifications from the riot for California, agricultural laborers and the IWW (and unionism in general). That history is fought over in texts with all the problems inherent to historiography in full display (indeed the marker itself since the nuance of the strike is overshadowed by the emphasis on the riot itself). Despite the problems with history, I prefer to have the past and events as inexplicable as the riot to stick out and frankly worry us through its prominence like this marker does. If nothing else, the marker’s presence now raises questions: What happened? Why here? (and even the inevitable) Who cares? Even when, like with the riot, the answers to these questions may never fully be answered (who killed whom for instance) they deserve to be asked and pondered over.


Julian Barnes at the Guardian writes a compelling article about Voltaire’s Candide. I have soft spot for that book after reading it as an impressionable undergraduate. A history professor (who I happen to owe a lot) assigned it as a means of teaching the period’s history (a function that, as Barnes points out, the book does quite well ). Despite loving the class, I don’t recall much of the historical details that we covered or their representation in the book. I do remember the lectures on Enlightenment thought and Voltaire’s scathing satirical wit though. I’ve carted Candide around for the better part of ten years now. I’ve never gone back to reread it but Barnes makes me wonder if it’s about time I do.

Bleeding Bells

Here’s the Delta Spirit performing their song “Bleeding Bells.” This song has been haunting me since it popped up on my ipod during a late trip on a shuttle between the Indiana University and  the Indianapolis airport last weekend. I was wrapping up my time at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Biennial Conference and headed home after a couple weeks of travelling (and a lingering head cold). Suffice to say I was / have been feeling a bit sapped. Nevertheless, I have some serious posts in the works! In the meantime I thought I’d go ahead and mark my current song obsession: