Section 1 – Even Further
Even Further – was the working title of this project and a poem that was written on the first day of 2015. Donna renamed the project when we were reviewing the final mixes from LaLa Land Studio.
The poem somewhat was a warning to what might happen if you try to go Further than that. Especially if the folks on the “Further” bus are a nuclear family trying to transverse the winding road of American life post whatever the hell we are supposed to be post of these days.
The CD is in two sections. The first seven selections are songs that Donna and I had been working on when we could find the time to sit down for a minute. That time was not very available. The second section of the CD is why that time was not very available. I was working most of the time, 65+ hours a week as a Locomotive Engineer and on top of that, I was working as a volunteer union/community organizer. Donna was back at the house, homeschooling our son, Jonah.
We were both suffering from severe isolation and I was suffering from overwhelming occupational fatigue. The music was an escape. The CD was recorded in 3 or 4 studio sessions. Most of the second section was recorded on a day when I had already worked a train back from Nashville and had been awake for over 30 hours. The railroad life is historically lonesome and hard. When I got to the studio, I was exhausted and fatigued from a 65-hour work week. I gave the session my all.
Donna and I poured our hearts into this project.
100 Flowers – is a compilation of poems by two prominent women poets. Emily Dickinson’s “I Never Saw A Moor” is juxtaposed with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “One Hundred Flowers.” The song 100 flowers combines light and shadow, as the vibrancy of Millay’s life and poetry contrasts greatly with the somber mood of Dickinson’s. This song is a celebration of women poets in all their glory and gloom. dw
Freedom – is an honoring of one of the most memorable musical performances that I have ever seen. I saw the Woodstock movie on the screen when I was a young teenager and will never forget seeing the powerful Richie Havens. The backstory of his performance is fascinating. jw
As the opening act at Woodstock, Richie Havens was supposed to perform for only 40 minutes. But when an unexpected traffic jam delayed the other performers, organizers asked him to keep playing. Three hours into it, Havens had run out of songs, so he started to make one up to the melody of “Motherless Child,” a spiritual he’d sung as a kid. “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me,” he said. “I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person was sharing it, and so that word came out.”
Songs Are Blue – is a song that I learned while I was on the Joe Hill 100 tour. I met songwriter, Jason Eklund, in Illinois and he traveled with me for several of the performance dates. This song, to me, is very needed these days. My favorite line is – pink, is for open hands. jw
Dance This Waltz – I heard about a contest where the descendants of Joe Hill, the I.W.W. songwriting organizer, were giving away a gorgeous handmade guitar. Contestants were to take one of his two poems that were found in his apartment while he was imprisoned and facing a death sentence, and put them to music. Since putting poetry to music is my jam, I jumped on it.
I looked at the two poems and knew immediately which song I would do. As usual, I sat down and fiddled on the guitar and the song melody poured out. The words are truly beautiful and I wrote the melody and arrangement at a very lonely time in my life. My husband was working for the railroad and union organizing all the time and I felt very estranged from him.
I was deeply longing for his love and connection. It is a very hard song to sing. It’s filled with a dream of freedom and longing. Joe Hill would be executed before ever dancing that dance or experiencing the etheric magic that he describes, in what can only be a love poem to whoever held his heart at the time. dw
She’ll Never Be Mine – From U. Utah Phillips Starlight on the Rails songbook.
This song kind of sums up all these things that happened in the west after the civil war. It’s a boomers song about silver mining, about farming, about cattle ranching, with the recurring refrain, “I guess she’ll never be mine, “but with the final statement, “ I’ve won all my treasures so simple and fine, and I know one day she’ll be mine.”
That’s what union organizing or any kind of organizing is supposed to be for: to help working people, no matter what their trades, to reach out toward each other, the sit down together and define their problems, define their solutions, and then to get to work on it and begin to get back some of the wealth that they have created over the years.
This is a love song. It’s my love song for the country I come from. I’ve tried to include in it a lot of the ways I know other people feel about it too. bp
Tapestry – is a love song I wrote for John Paul at a time when I was very lonely and longing to hold him and look into a future at a beautiful life we might share together. My music is not worked on or written, instead, I get my guitar and receive the song. I usually have something on my mind or a poem before me that then takes flight of its own.
The light and overarching brightness were born when the image of the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky came into my mind as she was arching over the earth. It reminded me of being protected by an arch, like her body in the ancient paintings; an arch of light and love.
To this song is added a much-loved nursery rhyme, “Donkey, Donkey Old and Grey” that I sang to my son when he was a baby. Finally, “I Love You a Bushel and a Peck” is thrown in. Notice how much I love singing the donkey part, as I could not stop singing it in the studio. dw
Section 2 – Work Songs
The Capitalist System is a song written by Kentucky CIO era union organizer/ songwriter Sarah Ogan Gunning. I changed her original lyrics to match why I also hate the capitalist system. Sarah Gunning when asked if her song might be too radical, suggested that when she wrote it, that she wasn’t really sure because she had to look up what the Capitalist System was. After she looked it up, she said, nope, that is exactly what I meant. I wrote this tune while under a grant from the Kentucky Arts Council working with Kentucky folk musician Sue Massek.
Leave the Lights On For Me is a song that I wrote on the day that the CSX railroad announced that it was going to shut down the Clinchfield coal division section of the railroad. I started writing the tune on a train heading to Nashville and finished it up at the hotel. Many of my coworkers were being relocated due to the bust situation in the Appalachian coal regions. This tune represents what I was seeing happening to my friends. It is also an honoring of the rich folk music tradition of the Clinchfield.
How Tomorrow Moves is a CSX railroad slogan and Coal Keeps The Lights On, is the slogan of the coal industries propaganda arm, Friends of Coal. Because our Conductor and Engineer seniority districts cover almost the entire country southeast of the Ohio River, railroaders were being forced to move from places that they had lived for generations. Because of short-sighted union contracts and an aggressive employer, workers were being expected to spend 30 days working for free with the threat of not being able to “hold” a position when they were finished with their territory qualifications. Folks were being expected to “qualify” for upwards of 30 days. No pay.
They Must Be Stopped is a spoken word piece inspired by a conversation between Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry. In the conversation, Mr. Berry recites his poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”. The first line of that poem and the conversation in the video haunted my mind while I was making the decision to walk away from my career as a Locomotive Engineer.
Wendell Berry for some people in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, is kind of like a native plant. I had heard of Mr. Berry and had been around his work for years, but I had never really heard him speak until watching the video on YouTube. Hearing his voice read his work was what attracted me to it, his voice was like many I had heard before. jw
The Vision was inspired by a powerful poem written by Wendell Berry that speaks deeply to my feelings about the earth, in all of its destruction and possibility. Upon meeting Wendell two times at his farm, I was amazed at how comfortable I was sitting with him and his amazing wife Tanya. I enjoyed his simplicity and how he cuts to the quick with no hesitancy or apology.
I looked this poem over and again the words that would become a song came to me and I arranged it without much effort. I usually channel poetry arrangements, but since Wendell is alive and well, I wanted to honor him and what I perceived to be his intention as clearly as I could. I did work on it more than other poems, nonetheless, it pretty much arranged itself.
I tend to select poems, melodies, and arrangements that are complex and a bit gut-wrenching and hard to sing. This one takes a lot of air! It also takes a bit of courage to sing because of the state of the world. I love the harmonies John and I do on this one. db
One of the pictures on the back of the CD is from the visit when we presented our version to Wendell. Jonah and Wendell are standing together looking up the pasture at sheep being called in for the night. Watching Donna sing this song at Wendell’s kitchen table, looking up from my guitar at him listening to our music was wonderful. Wendell loved our version of his poem. jw
International Brotherhood of Contraries local 1 is a spoken word piece inspired by a line in Wendell Berry’s poem, “Contrariness of the Mad Farmer.” There is a section of the poem where a conversation is happening between what seems to me to be two activists having an argument.
While I was burning out as a union activist, this poem spoke to me. I can feel the frustration coming from the person who wishes the “mad farmer” wouldn’t be so stubborn. When I first read this poem, I was helping to organize a safety conference in Richmond, California. The conference included railroaders, environmentalists, oil riggers, electricians, dock workers, labor unions, native people and community groups.
The conference was organized to get many folks, who normally don’t see eye to eye on some difficult issues – get them to sit around the table and discover common ground to organize from. The conference was very successful and inspiring.
The “going against men”, seriously resonated with me because of all my work as a Teamster. As a rank and file democratic reformer. Going against men? – yup – got it. I have been the single no vote many times. I have heard that thrumming I think Mr. Berry is talking about. My poem … is taking the challenge given. Making sure that thrumming has a voice. I take the caretaking side of union organizing very seriously.
The Princess That I Love was written for Tiécoura Traoré who starred in the film Bamako produced by Danny Glover. Tiecoura was the union leader who tried to save the railroad from privatization in Mali, West Africa.
The film depicts a trial taking place in Bamako, the capital of Mali, amid the daily life that is going on in the city. In the midst of that trial, two sides argue whether the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are guided by special interest of developed nations, or whether it is corruption and the individual nations’ mismanagement, that is guilty of the current financial state of many poverty-stricken African countries as well as the rest of the poor undeveloped world.
I got an opportunity to host Tiecoura in my home for three days while he was on a speaking tour of the U.S. We talked nonstop about railroading, agriculture, labor unions and politics. I gave him a tour of the rail yard where I was working, and right when we drove into the entrance, right in the middle of a wild conversation, he saw the row of yard locomotives parked and said in his thick African accent, “now, this is the princess that I love!” We both knew what had just happened. We were railroaders. We love it. Who knows why, but we do.
Oh, You Railroad Men is me being really frustrated at my national union president. He is Casey and I am Eugene V. The membership, seemingly most of the time would like to take the radical position, however, the leadership does not. The radical position, in this case, would be to not allow for the railroad to cut the position of the conductor from the train crew and to be more serious about addressing the issues of automation of the railroad.
The Grandsons of Pullman Porters is a loose rewrite of the American folk music classic, “The City of New Orleans”. While it is romantic to speak of the railroad … I wanted to somewhat expose the railroad for what it is now; the toy of CEO’s, banks and hedge funds.
Much of the story of the railroad in culture, music, art and in railroad poetic metaphor was created by the good old American corporate media. The railroad used to be an important part of everyday life. It was the way people moved, the way agriculture moved, and the industry that built many of the small and large towns that grew up around it. It seems to me, now, being used as a tool to destroy the land, farms, people and communities that are associated with it.
Ride This Train – was written as a campaign song for the work I was doing with Railroad Workers United. We had partnered with an environmental group, The Backbone Campaign, for a conference in Richmond, California. The conference was the start of me realizing that my days were numbered at the railroad.
When I was asked to give the opening remarks at the conference, I knew the atmosphere was going to be tense. Many of the organizations that were invited, in some ways, are at odds with each other. I knew that environmentalists and their organizations have a long difficult history trying to work with labor organizations and vice versa, so, I sought out a solidarity statement from an elder from my community in Kentucky. I knew many environmentalists know who Wendell Berry is. I thought it would be welcoming if the organizer from a railroad labor organization greeted them with words from one of the most respected voices in their community.
Wendell sent via the Berry Center his poem, “The Vision”. While memorizing the poem, I was deeply moved by it. And in further exploration of Mr. Berry’s work, specifically his presentation at Yale University in 2013, I was moved into the position of wanting out of the railroad.
This song is based on the melody of Johnny Cash’s song, “Come On and Ride This Train”.
Old River Blues was written by Riley Coyote of the hobo songwriting collective, The Rail Yard Ghosts. Riley and I talk via phone frequently and collaborate whenever we get the opportunity. In one of our phone conversations, we talked about this song and what I meant to be so lonely, traveling dark places, getting caught by railroad police and then sitting on the banks of the Mississippi nursing wounds.
That is what this song is about.
I have friended many of the folks who ride the rails. It is an honor to be trusted by them; trusted to tell their story in song and verse.
John and Donna Wright
Special thanks to: