The Interview starts at about 15 minutes in …
The Interview starts at about 15 minutes in …
20170601 – The Garden
Did you ever wonder why
Jesus went to the garden?
He was probably depressed –
and sick and tired of
not just the system,
but sick of it all!
He was probably pissed
that the souls of men –
were so greedy –
he was probably pissed
that prostitution –
and poverty walked
hand in hand …
the man of few words –
in the world
of nature –
where birds sing and bees
hop flower to flower –
he went on
he stopped for
a moment …
called his Dad,
She was watching
her son die!
She was by his side
proud of her son –
worried sick –
most of the time.
his partners –
his board –
the ones who
after he was gone,
would get it wrong …
do what he told them
not to do-
build churches so big –
throw stones –
ask me –
hair is long …
are my heroes.
( – If there is a criminal element
I am of it – if there is a soul in prison – )
power and greed –
ask why when
I was a child –
i cried when they
told me Jesus
died because of me.
the holy ghosts
dancing – ask
ask me about Debs
and John Brown –
ask about the
and why i would
rather play music with
children or be a
to the ones who
everyone else warned,
( – listen to the birds they will
teach you what they know – )
ask about Rumi
ask about Sufi
ask – why I heard
( – Allah and Buddha
were singing at the savior’s feast! – )
and now –
in this moment
i and you
are here now.
and his flight
to the garden
and his river
and the mustard
seed, and science
and matter –
it’s all the same!
We are stardust…
and a reflection
is just an image.
To celebrate Mother’s’ Day, here is a draft chapter from the book I am writing that is about my Mother. The chapter sort of hints to what it was like growing up the son of a radical activist.
The Anti-Apartheid divestment battle of the 1980’s, at the University of Louisville, was organized around my kitchen table. My mother was a 30-year-old college student at the time. She opened our family home to her new-found friends at the University.
The Progressive Student League (PSL) spent many a night, meeting in my home, around our kitchen table. I was in my early teens.
Normal for me was fear of arrest. My mother didn’t talk about that fear, but thinking back on it, and thinking back on what that campaign was … my Mother and her friends were fighting monolithic power and greed. My little brother, sister and me, always in tow to an action. My step-father on call, just in case mom was hauled off to jail.
That was my teenage years. After we won that fight and U of L was forced to divest, my Mother was invited to speak at the United Nations on the issue.
Enjoy this sneak peek of my book ‘Even Further’ – The Red Diaper Diaries and
Happy Mother’s Day!
Chapter 3 – Glenda the good witch
Every year for my birthday parties in my teens, I would have all my hippie deadhead friends over and we would watch Harold and Maude, the cult movie with the Cat Stevens soundtrack. I loved watching the faces of the new attendees of my parties when the main character in the opening scene shoots himself in the face. My mom, my brother and sister were always part of this party. We were/are a tight-knit bunch. My step father was a signal maintainer for the railroad and was working six days’ home and eight days gone, so … us kids and my mother had two family situations. One when my step-dad was home and one existence that found my mother raising three kids, alone.
Glenda the “good witch,” was the youngest of 12 children – of a Lebanese immigrant who owned a bar on east Jefferson street in Louisville, Kentucky. The bar was very close to one of the oldest housing projects in town and around the corner from the Louisville Outlaws motorcycle gang clubhouse. She was a Lebanese lesbian, Buddhist political activist, who went to school late in life to become a teacher.
She married my first father when she was 19 and had my sister 3 years later and then my brother right before she divorced my beer drinking Germantown Catholic electrician father. My mother fondly would tell stories of my father. I suspect he fell in love with her ethnic beauty and her dark Lebanese eyes. She somewhat described my dad as the guy who swept her off her feet and took her from the bar to their little piece of the American Dream.
My grandfather was a chanter at the Greek orthodox church. I remember sitting in the back of the bar playing with beer caps, making large pyramids with my Grandma. That is about all I can remember. My father remembers the time when he went to meet the elders so he could ask “pop” for my mother’s hand. The old men from the church were always hanging out at grandpa’s bar and my dad tells about eating weird food, Lebanese wine and dancing and swords.
I can only imagine this Germantown catholic boy going down to the beer joint and the ceremony atmosphere of his third world experience. My mother told stories of the little ghosts that would hang in the back room of her home. Pop, Grandpa Mellick, made Feta cheese for the Lebanese community and would hang the cheese to dry in little cheese cloths on a clothes line. She told not so fond stories about as a young girl, working at the Burlap Bag company that had been contracted to make body bags for the Vietnam war.
Pops bar was a beer joint and the family home. He sold beer, rolled oysters and fish sandwiches. I remember mom telling stories about mopping the bar early in the morning and then going to school smelling like fish. Except for pictures, I can’t remember much of this place but through the pictures I have a fond thought of where I come from. Wire frame Coca Cola chairs, a big Wurlitzer juke box, a long stout wooden bar with a big phone booth out front. Grandma Catherine the big German – Baptist Swiss country woman, sitting in the back, at the family table, smoking cigarettes. Her Lebanese gold snake head bracelet wrapped around her wrist.
I can see my Lebanese bartender grandfather wearing an apron. A dark-skinned immigrant owing a bar and raising a large family in a town that was included and not so far removed from the Jim Crow South. He didn’t teach any of his kids how to speak Arabic. My mother told me several times that he didn’t want his kids treated unfairly. Hell, the civil rights war was raging and hipsterly speaking, right? My Grandma Catherine was his second wife. My mother didn’t tell fond stories of watching her mother die of cancer. She did explain to me why she stopped doing her activist work when she got a job teaching.
There is a scene in the Harold and Maude movie when Harold asks Maude about an umbrella that was hanging above a big cabinet filled with musical instruments in her railcar home. Maude tells Harold that the umbrella was something of a remembrance of an old-time when she used to frequent political rallies. The umbrella was used as a defense against thugs and police. My mom said that she, like Maude in the movie, didn’t feel a need after college, to fight the powers that be. She explained that she stopped doing her activist work publicly and continued her activist work quietly with her school kids.
Back when she did, us kids were always in tow. I grew up with her activist friends organizing around our kitchen table and with her new-found lesbian life that would become her divorce from her second beer drinkin’, pot smokin’, pool shootin’ Germantown railroad man. We sang the theme song from Harold and Maude at my mother’s wake. Not to mention we read Joe Hill’s Last Will. So, I guess, I am a red diaper baby. I guess. Hipsterly speaking, right?
I am a city boy except, however and hipsterly speaking, right? I grew up across the street from a forty something acre park that is named George Rodgers Clark Park. It was the Clark family home until the early 1900’s. I spent lots of time reading books next to a very large tree that grew next to where the Clark family situated their spring house. The spring house is gone now however, water still gathers and pools close to the large cypress tree that is majestically still there.
The tree is a massive. A 150-year-old grandfather of a tree. It was at this tree at one point at the other side mania, that I collapsed – in an early morning fog and woke up exhausted and confused. This event, my near death, vision, whatever the hell – my knowing that something was too much to deal with – somewhat spookily, I knew I was way too far out or possibly getting somewhere. I was depressed, mentally exhausted and scared.
On May Day in 2015, I had the honor of being the first musician to open the Joe Hill Roadshow tour. A tour memorializing one of the United States most important labor songwriters.
The song I selected to open the tour was a re-write of the Kentucky State song that is sung every year right before the running of the Kentucky Derby. Enjoy …
The Kentucky Derby is a corporation –
like the coal companies and Japanese
bourbon barrel barons & back in the
old days – was only a week-long festival …
– And I am sure,
Y’all are squeamishly hoping this
rant will end on a good note, like the house
slave that wants to get a good night’s rest –
comfortably in the quarters – “Y’all darkies
are supposed to be gay.” “Y’all know,
Papa gots his friends over an’ we
ain’t supposed to be talking about his
whips and all his tax breaks!”
The Kentucky Derby is as stupid
as full grown adults, waiting around
the fireplace, cookies placed and waiting
for Santa to come and leave big box warehouses
and nice new auto plants under the tree. And when
one of his beasts of burden, breaks its leg –
you wake the kids to help Santa shoot it
in the head.
The Kentucky Derby is a golden
cash cow worshipped, like the military air show
that runs up and down the Ohio river – while
the Belle of Louisville and our streets are
prostituted out to Masters of War and commerce –
we are supposed to be nice, like the bourbon
“Bonded” like the small-neighborhood family parties.
“Branded” like the jockeys exploited for profit –
like how the “green” justifies the horse shit
and the mint sprig, the alcoholism of the aggressor,
the audacity of gambling and gaudy hats of
The Kentucky Derby is a waste
of time because when this is all over,
your gonna wake up with a bad taste in your mouth,
praying that when you blacked out, you were not date
raped by your boss or fondled by one of
his frat boys, while his friends – standing
over – laughing and drunk –
money falling out of
their pockets – paid your friends
to hush up
But, don’t worry – It is what it is –
Y’all come out smelling like roses!
Making the decision to walk away from a sixteen year career at a major class one railroad was not easy. The “fragment of a speech” that is posted below was one of the turning points that greatly fueled my decision to leave a place that in some ways, was a place that I very much enjoyed working.
When I first heard this “fragment,” I was brainstorming for a conference that the organization Railroad Workers United was hosting in Richmond, California. As the national organizer, my task was to welcome many organizations, many that do not normally work together, to an environmental conference to find common ground on very complex issues of public safety, working conditions and labor.
The inspiration that I found from this “fragment” was a question that I had to ask myself over and over for about two years.
How complicit do I want to be?
After watching the video many times I wanted to find the book that the speech came from and couldn’t find it, So, from the YouTube video, I typed out the “speech” that Mr.Berry gave at Yale University word, by word and in the process, was deeply moved.
I later contacted Mr. Berry to ask him where I could find this “speech” in print, and sent the words that I had lifted from the YouTube video. He sent his book, Our Only World, with a note explaining that the Yale presentation was “fragments” found within the pages of the book.
The opening statement “that we are all complicit in its violence,” really was the haunting thought that fueled my decision to leave driving trains for a living behind. I found myself not wanting to participate in the destruction of Our Only World.
I found myself not wanting to drive military trains, fertilizers and GMO poisoned soybeans and corn. I found myself not wanting to haul coal, oil, fracking sand and waste. I also found myself not wanting to be exhausted mentally, and physically from the excessively long hours and harsh working conditions. And …
After the railroad that I was working for completely cut the union out of the safety conversation, I found myself not wanting to participate in a violent relationship that included a one-sided behavior based safety working environment.
I enjoyed my union work,
and the folks I worked with. I will miss the many wonderful people who I had the honor of working with for sixteen years of my life. I will in my music and poetry, continue to tell of my passion for the place I labored that is simply called the railroad! I will continue to care about what happens on the rails and will be inspired by what the railroad could be …
Since the California conference in 2015, I have twice had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Berry in his home. I have come to find myself deeply inspired by his work, deeply moved by his poetry and looking forward to a new life away from a haunting question rolling around in the back of my mind.
Below is the fragment of a speech that inspired me so deeply.
For more information about Wendell Berry go here.
The Industrial Economy From Agriculture To War – A Fragment Of A Speech
Wendell Berry – Introduction to the Yale Chubb Lecture Discussion. 12-07-2013
The industrial economy from agriculture to war is by far the most violent the world has ever known and we are all complicit in its violence. The history of industrialization has been violent from the start, as the Luddites quickly learned. The purpose of labor-saving technology has always been to cheapen work by displacing workers, thus increasing the flow of wealth from the less wealthy to the more wealthy.
It is a fact, one we have never adequately acknowledged or understood, that at the end of World War II, industry geared up to adapt the mechanical and chemical technologies of war to agriculture and other ways of using land. At the same time certain corporate and academic leaders known collectively as the committee for economic development decided that there were too many farmers.
The relatively self-sufficient producers on small farms needed to become members of the industrial labor force and consumers of industrial commodities. Reducing the number of farms and farmers became a devastatingly effective national policy.
The first problem of a drastic reduction of the land using population is to keep the land producing in the absence of the people. The committee for economic development and their allies were fully aware of this problem and they had a ready solution. The absent people would be replaced by the mechanical and chemical technologies developed for military use and subsisting upon a seemingly limitless bounty of natural resources mainly, ores and fuels.
Agriculture would become an industry. Farms would become factories like other factories ever more automated and remotely controlled. Industrial land use became a front in a war against the living world. And so with a few exceptions the free market was allowed to have its way.
Finally, nearly all of the land using population have left their family farms and their home places and moved or commuted into the cities to be industrially or professionally employed or unemployed and to be entirely dependent upon the ways and the products of industrialism.
This process of eliminating the too many farmers still continues. Nobody ever said how many were too many. Nobody ever said how many might be actually necessary. Even so, to remove the farmers from farming required of shift of interest from husbanding the fertility of the land to burning the fossil fuels with consequences so far less famous than terrifying.
But there was another problem that the population engineers did not recognize then and have not recognized yet. Agricultural production without land maintenance leads to exhaustion. Land that is in use, if the use is going to continue, must be used with care and
care is not and can never be an industrial product or an industrial result.
Care can come only from what we used to understand as the human heart – so-called because it is central to human being. The human heart is informed by the history of care and the need for care also by the heritage of skills of caring and of care-taking.
The replacement of our displaced rural families by technologies derived from warfare has involved inevitably a supposedly acceptable and generally accepted violence against land and people. By it we established an analogy between land use and war that has remained remarkably consistent ever since.
The common theme is a terrible pragmatism that grants an automatic predominance of the end over the means. The sacrifice of land and people, to the objective of victory, domination, security or profit. In oblivion or defiance of moral or natural law that may stand in the way. All of our prevalent forms of land use which is to say – land use minus care produces in addition to commercial products, massive waste and destruction.
War is politics minus neighborly love plus technological progress which makes it – ever more massively wasteful and destructive.
There is in fact no significant difference between the mass destruction of warfare and the massive destruction of industrial land abuse.
In order to mine a seam of coal in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, we destroy a mountain, its topsoil and its forest with no regard for the ecosystem or for the people downhill, downstream and later in time. The difference between explosion in the coal fields, and the erosion in the corn and soybean fields is only that erosion is slower. The end, the exhaustion of nature’s life supporting systems is the same.
The Ballad of Joe Hill
Pete Seeger ->
Wendell Berry –>
The Other Ones ->
Drums -> Space is the Place ->
Ken Kesey ->
Brett Eugene (hobo) Ralph ->
Uncle John Gage’s Band
enc. Anne Feeney
I am writing this chapter about two months after I quit working for the railroad. I suspect I shouldn’t leave without an EVEN FURTHER, explanation. I was inspired to write this last doo hickey of a word play because I visited with a fine man yesterday and read to him a chapter of my unfinished book. I seriously respect this man, his work, heart and writing.
He is in the greater story. At one point, back in my manic days of the 1990’s, I think in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the Kerouac event, we bumped into each other. The Rant event, the one with the crazy ride with a bone man, when I was manic as fuck, and a real burning man.
Brett Ralph. At some point, we shared a shot of bourbon at a party. I remember a hotel room and it being dark. I was sitting on the floor and this really big dude was standing above me. He was laughing like the man from lake, the Iron John of a dude, that he is. That guy. I went to his new record store Surface Noise, yesterday, and read the chapter about the crazy folks that I feel massive solidarity with. He knew some of them. The Brotherhood of Contraries.
I stole that line and chapter title from a Wendell Berry, Mad Farmer poem, rather, I borrowed it. See, hipsterly speaking, right … The first time I was invited to visit with Wendell, I had some conversation with Utah Phillip’s widow before the meeting by the river. I told her I was visiting with Mr. Berry and asked her what I should ask him. She suggested to ask him if Gary Snyder was ever in the I.W.W. I suspected this was a trick question.
When I got a chance to ask him about Mr. Snyder, Mr. Berry leaned back in his rocking chair and said, “well then,” and said he was not sure about that. We talked briefly about it and in conversation, he contemplated that he didn’t think the I.W.W was around anymore. So, I showed him my red card.
After I sang one of my songs, Mr. Berry was very entertained and happily said, “’yep, you sure can sing!” So, hipsterly speaking, right? I guess that was good enough for me? … That experience found me talking with Utah’s son Duncan Phillips again. He mentioned that he read a Wendell Berry poem at Utah’s funeral.
So, a button on your shirt, and, before I wrote this book, I had not a clue who Ed McClanahan was. I found a paperback that my father in law had of Ed’s just recently and read it. I recently read Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Except the girls and the fishing trip …been there done that and got the T-shirt.
After reading my chapter, Brett suggested that I have my voice and that he was intrigued by the story. He encouraged me to keep working on the book. I trust Brett, he teaches English at a Kentucky College! I trust that he was giving good critical voice to my chapter. Sometimes, I must wonder why I am doing this … I am a folk musician, not a writer, captin’.
I am somewhat aware that being a writer is a way of life. and, you can start sentences with and. And further and however, hipsterly speaking, right? Wallace Stegner is a chump! He got the whole Joe Hill story wrong! His research for his books on Joe Hill was, in my humble opinion, sloppy. His life works, and activism? Mind-blowing and something to not shake a stick at.
I recently made a new electronical friend in a photographer from the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. He has made it his work to prove that Mr. Stegner did Joe Hill the union organizer, a disservice. Not to mention, basically threw an academic nose up to the I.W.W when they called him out on his bullshit. So, me being the devout Sun Ra follower that I am, have this to suggest …
First, if you didn’t RFD (read the fucking directions) the first time – I suggest firing up that google machine, look up Sun Ra, then second, apply this thinking to Joe Hill, the labor myth.
“If I am telling a lie, they have to judge whether the lie is more profitable to them than the truth that they know.”
Sun Ra said that fragment of his thinking in the movie, “Make a Joyful Noise.” And, the reason I started this chapter like a Grateful Dead bootleg, was because the connective thread that seems to be my personal teaching moment from this writing experience has been – Wallace Stegner. It is more profitable to me, as a person who very much understands the power of myth, that Joe Hill remain the labor hero that he is.
It is very cool that Joe Hill’s family and the family of the man who they accused Joe Hill of shooting got a chance to meet on the 100th year after Joe was murdered. It is also very cool that my electronical friend has made this story close to his heart. I suspect one day, my photographer friend and I will meet in person. That’s exactly how Joe Hill works. The Power of the Union …
I wrote the suggestion, Even Further on my car with a boxcar moniker paint stick, a couple of years ago when I started this journey. I am not sure why I was moved to do so. I was following my bliss. I was doing what Joseph Campbell suggested. I was in my sacred place, doing what I do. I was being – in. Listening to the voices of elders. I made Anne Feeney the encore of the bootleg, for this purpose … I wanted to tell just one more story before I considered this book finished.
Once upon a time, in Chicago at a Labor Notes convention, an Appalshop Documentary by Anne Lewis & Mimi Pickering was shown. The movie is called Anne Braden: Southern Patriot. When I saw it in Chicago, it was one of, if not the first public showing of the film.
I was sitting right next to Anne Feeney for this showing. To make a long story short. I knew Anne Braden was important, but, after that film, I was blown away. Somewhere in the middle of the film, I went outside to call my mother. I walked out to the hotel parking lot to get some alone time at a very bustling convention to tell my mother that in the film they had documented the work we did back in the Anti-Apartheid days at the University of Louisville.
My mother, was tired, fighting cancer, and couldn’t talk. She wanted to … but told me that she needed to rest. She told me to have a good time and to be careful, and that we would be able to talk about it when I got home. I broke down. Cried like a baby, snot running from my nose…weeping. and then went back inside to watch the end of the film. This was the first time that I as a man, thought that my mother was going away – soon, going to be gone. That thought, killed me.
Anne Feeney, saw my tears, heard my voice when I briefly mentioned after the film, in the open discussion period, that I was from Louisville. We walked out of the presentation together and Anne said to me loudly, as she slapped my back, “we have a softy!”
When I was on the Joe Hill 100 tour, I got a chance to really meet Anne Feeney. She is an amazing woman. The point of this chapter was to find a way to mention a lot of connective thoughts. Mention, folks who I have a deep respect for. Honor. This Is the folk tradition way. We must share! It is not boasting to have a need to tell a story. It is a must to share. That is how it is done.
The list at the beginning of this chapter, is at the root of my fragmented thought that I use on my website. Railroad Music: The Thread in the Quilt That Is Americana. There are many circles to talk about, many connections. Many tracks to go down. Utah Phillip’s suggested that Anne Feeney… Well, here is the quote from her website.
Anne is “the best labor singer in North America” according to Utah Phillips.
and I agree. What else could I say?
At that same Labor Notes convention, I handed out 100 free CD Baby download cards of my then new CD, Born Union. Not one person downloaded it. So, hipsterly speaking, right? Nobody likes a complainer?
Here’s why no one downloaded the CD. I hope!
People need a face to face, authentic human experience.
Folks need to know that you’re not trying to hornswoggle em’!
Ken Kesey considered himself to be the link between the beat poets of the 1950’s and the Hippies of the 1960’s. I consider myself to be the link between the anarchists and I.W.W members of the day and the connector track between the Dead Headish cooperative hippies of the 1980’s and the folk punk, hobo train kids there-of. I am a GenXer’ and take that as a label in-kind; counterculture so be it. I’ll own it, if I must. Baltimore Red suggested that I am the unknown the poet laureate of the union. I’ll accept that.
I am not interested in being part of the folk music industry. That is why I took the word Americana back and used it in my motto. A Folk Music industry? It would be against the soul porpoise of the goal!
All puns and miss peeled words – intended.
After words …
As a seasoned railroad worker and union activist, when I first learned of John Wright’s poetry and music, I knew that I was experiencing a rare phenomenon. J.P.’s songs come from real life, from day-to-day work 24/7 on the railroad. While the old railroad classics are among my favorites, anyone can play “The Wreck of Old 97” or “The City of New Orleans”.
Brother John is taking modern day stories – from his and his co-workers experiences – and creating heartfelt, humorous and often hard-hitting songs and ballads that speak intimately – not just to “rails” – but to anyone who has ever worked for a living. There is simply no one out there doing what J.P. Wright is doing.
At a rally in San Salvador in 2002, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the bands – the “entertainment” – rather than the official speakers, who lead the show from the podium, who set the tone of the event (an international rally against the Central American Free Trade Agreement). It impressed upon me that we need more artists, musicians, poets, story-tellers and performers of all types to step up and lead at these types of gatherings.
My Fellow Worker on the railroad – John Wright – is one of those with the keen insight, creativity, and artistry to transform an everyday sterile, dry, and lackluster “political event” into an uplifting and mind expanding experience. With his stories, poems, music and humor, J.P. speaks to working people’s reality, drawing them into the fight, providing encouragement and confidence, urging them forward.
Railroad Workers United