John Henry died for our sins!

I am thinking back to my last

days on the rail.

Back to a final run that ended

in Cave City, KY.

My conductor and I

waiting for a van ride home.

We dogged, didn’t make it.

 

Thinking back to the train derailment

in Colesburg, Kentucky.

Thinking back to the locker room

in Nashville.

Sitting at the picnic table, in the crew room –

listening to five trainmasters

make light of an unsafe situation

that could have killed

four of my union brothers

and possibly an entire town.

 

A 16,000 plus ton train.

Two locomotives on the head-end.

Two locomotives in the middle.

The train being in total, almost two miles long.

 

Two days before, a train just like this one

came off the rail putting 20 something

cars on the ground.

 

Half of it, still sitting up on Tunnel Hill.

Rumors, as of that morning were;

that the cleanup crew while

trying to move the rest of the derailed train,

what was left of it, almost derailed again.

 

I am thinking about the day

that broke the camel’s back.

My plan was to go to work and

just do what they tell me to do.

 

The trains that we were being expected

to run, were the talk of the town.

Something was always going wrong,

numbers were being crunched,

books being cooked, and we were all

being expected to just, “run the plan.”

 

I am thinking about

a conversation

with my bosses.

The tremendous pressure that was

causing them to try and gauge

what my modus operandi would

be for that day.

 

One on the bosses, matter of fact,

the Terminal Superintendent,

suggested that he had heard,

 

“that us Louisville boys

don’t really like this train.”

 

I snapped.

 

I asked the railroad officials

the names of the people who were

almost killed the day before.

 

They didn’t know their names.

 

I am thinking about what I said,

head hot,

sweating and

pissed off more than ever before.

 

I almost marked off sick. Language, native.

A language only railroaders know.

Marking off sick,

the ace up the sleeve

that gives us a way out.

An ace.

 

I told them very sternly

to get out of my fucking face.

I told them, I would show them how

to inspect four locomotives.

 

Twenty minutes for each machine.

They knew what I was saying. Implying.

They knew I was right to be throwing this fit.

Nobody thought these new trains were, a good idea.

 

That is why I never heard

the threat of insubordination.

And to be more explicit and

somewhat to conjure another voice

that was informing my resolve –

I told my train masters to …

 

Go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut,

go take a flying fuck at the moon.

Ting a ling, and so on.

 

They didn’t mention that they would

charge me with delay of trains.

The five bosses knew that what we were

being expected to do was insane.

Greedy.

 

They mentioned that this was not their idea

and were only taking orders.

They were half drunk on kool aid –

half on my side and wanting the strength

of my union educated foot to somehow

strike out at the ass of the message maker,

not their messenger positions.

 

I am thinking about how,

for almost two years before that day in the

locker room – about how a fragment of a speech –

from a presentation at Yale University

that Wendell Berry,

the poet, family man,

seeker gave,

and how it

resonated

in my soul.

 

I am thinking about how two lines

haunted my moral convictions.

 

I am thinking back,

in hopes my hindsight is 20/20.

I am thinking about being part

of an organization that beat down

the first widespread union supported

attempt to reduce trains crews

to just one person.

 

I am thinking about the

luddites who quickly new –

 

“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”

 

I am thinking about the word,

informed and

 

how that word is used to suggest an authoritative

voice that speaks from experience.

And how that thought

takes me to this fragment.

 

I am thinking seriously about a moral.

 

A moral to a folk story and how that story,

and the fragments of a presentation from a poet,

informed my decision to walk away from a career.

A career that I was proud somewhat,

to be part of.

History.

 

John Henry died for our sins!

 

John Henry lives every day when a

human being is being asked

to conform to an unreasonable shift.

A shift to the inhumane practices

of an industrial economy.

He died with a last request.

He wanted a cool drink of water

before he died.

 

What informed my decision

to abandon my post of Locomotive Engineer

was a complicated list that stretches as long

as the trains that were being demanded of us

to operate.

 

And down a side track, I go, again.

I am also informed by another folk story

of what seems to be happening to me now

because of my decision.

 

Jumping Mouse, the fictional mouse in a well know

native peoples’ folk tale, is found to be suspicious after

his decision to leave his community.

 

After Jumping Mouse

was tricked to fall into the river –

he found himself not

trusted by his friends!

The searching –

that want to go away –

leave, find wisdom –

became a serious burden

and a long, difficult journey.

 

And what seems to me

to be a one-track pondering –

running through

most of my narrative of late is …

 

A question.

A burning question

that fuels this want

to present ideas,

what some

may call prose,

other may brand

a long read –

poetic justice.

 

Isn’t’ this enough?

The creative questions presented!

Isn’t the hook baited well enough to be

expecting further questions?

 

I have named dropped well known

contemporary thinkers, folk tales,

scary stories of possible destruction!

 

What gives?

 

I guess I am tied to John Henry

and his demise.

As many railroaders

who have not a clue

who their own

folk hero was,

there are as many

folklorists who didn’t

ever stop to think –

 

what was the moral to the story?

 

I have never heard a question

presented by any academic

accreditation that went to the

very end of the folk thesis.

 

Did John Henry ever

get his cool drink of water?

 

If I must suffer another narrative

of what is wrong with the railroad,

I also may just die before being allowed

time to vindicate the demise of my fellow

worker and brother,

John Henry.

 

I am thinking back to

the day, I walked away.

I am thinking back

to a lonely dark spring early

morning, watching leaves

blow down the street in

Cave City, Kentucky –

the day I sidetracked

my train and went home.

23275684_10215100475769458_8981381764208758591_o


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Tapestry by Donna and John Paul Wright


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.

When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,

and then went off by myself and did more

than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said

‘go and organize the International Brotherhood

of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing

everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.

Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony

thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what

I say I don’t know.

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.

From Wikipedia:

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

www.railroadmusic.org

railroadmusic333@gmail.com

2017

Special thanks to:

Wendell Berry

Will Oldham

Ron Kaminkow

Sneak Peak of the CD liner notes – Even Further – Tapestry

CD available on Bandcamp October 12th 2017 – CD release thereafter.

Tapestry

Thank You

for supporting our work.

 

The cover photo by Jonah William-Malik Wright

 


Even Further

A Hundred Flowers

Freedom

Songs Are Blue (Jason Eklund)

Dance This Waltz (Joe Hill)

She’ll Never Be Mine (Utah Phillips)

Tapestry

—————————————

The Capitalist System

Leave the Lights On For Me

They Must Be Stopped

The Vision

International Brotherhood of Contraries

The Princess That I Love

Oh, You Railroad Men

The Grandsons of Pullman Porters

Ride This Train

Old River Blues (Riley Coyote RYG)


 

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 named 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 the powerful Richie Havens took the stage. The back story 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 mean. 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 industry’s 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.

 

When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,

and then went off by myself and did more

than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said

‘go and organize the International Brotherhood

of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing

everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.

Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony

thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what

I say I don’t know.

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.

from Wikipedia:

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 non-stop about railroading, agriculture, labor unions and politics. I gave him a tour of the railyard 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

railroadmusic333@gmail.com

2017

I Got My Learnin’ From the L&N – The Best Of JP

This new release is compiling over 12 years of original songwriting that was created while I was employed on the CSX railroad as a conductor and then as a locomotive engineer. Most of the tunes on this collection started out as ideas that were transferred to the blank sides of paper work as I drove a train from Louisville to Nashville.

Railroading can be a poetically romantic job

and is truly an American experience. Writers, poets, reporters and songwriters use the rich metaphors of “the railroad” quite often. I had a wonderful career!  During my long days and lonesome nights, rolling straight down the center of Kentucky, I met some of the most wonderfully resiliant folks!

One of the first questions you get asked when get “hired on” at the railroad is

“What did you do before ya come out here?”

This question for me, was sort of difficult to answer. Well …. I was an Artistic Director of a Christian Arts organization slash Dishwasher slash African Djembe player slash community organizer. I brought all those experiences and more to a new job. Not only was this a job, I was being introduced to a way of life and

a culture that has its own music, language, history and long held traditions.

I like to say that If Americana was a quilt, then railroad themed music is the thread. The word “qwirk” is an old term used to describe a person’s unique stitch in a quilt. So trust me “the railroad” has its quirks about it.

The tunes are mostly in the folk music style of G,C and D. “I throw in an F to impress the girls,” I believe Hank Williams Sr. said that. My father Joe Wright suggests that Jimmie Rodgers tunes are supposed to be played in C, so… strum accordingly.

I wanted to throw a few tunes out there and tell the stories behind them. Please check out the tunes below individually on Bandcamp for desciptions and photos. Folk musicians are somewhat part reporter, part historian and part folklorist. That is what I love about folk music! There are big stories behind the tunes and the stories are important.
If you would like a hard copy of this CD please send 12 dollars via Paypal to railroadmusic333@gmail.com

Don’t forget to leave your address in the note section provided by PayPal

Thanks Y’all and have a goodin’

JP

How Complicit Do I Want To Be? Why I Left The Railroad …

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.

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