Wednesday, January 05, 2011

U. P. tragedy sparked Guthrie

Folk singer Woody Guthrie memorialized
Calumet's Italian Hall disaster in
his song "1913 Massacre."


Folk singer Woody Guthrie, famous for "This Land Is Your Land," sang about the Upper Peninsula in one of his compositions.

Titled "1913 Massacre," the song is about a Christmas Eve tragedy in Calumet on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Written about 1941, Guthrie's number memorializes the Italian Hall disaster in which 73 people, including 59 children, died when someone yelled "fire" at a holiday party held for striking copper miners and their families.

Guthrie read about the catastrophe in "We Are Many," the autobiography of Ella Reeve "Mother" Bloor, who witnessed the horrendous scene.

An East Coast-based labor organizer and socialist, Bloor was in Calumet to work with the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners.

The ill-fated Christmas party was held on the second floor of the building, accessed by a steep staircase. An estimated 500 people were in attendance when someone shouted "fire."

The casualties occurred when people rushed the stairs and were crushed in the stampede.

Compounding the tragedy was the fact there was no fire. One theory blames the Citizens Alliance, funded by Calumet and Hecla Mining Co. management, for the disaster.

The subject matter of "1913 Massacre" fit squarely into Guthrie's songbook.

Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie used folk songs as social commentary and to protest injustice. His guitar carried the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists."

A prolific songwriter, Guthrie's repertoire contained hundreds of political, union and anti-fascism songs.

Known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," Guthrie also wrote about western subjects like outlaws and cowboys and sang frontier and country ballads.

In "1913 Massacre," Guthrie claimed that the doors to the Italian Hall were held shut by "copper-boss thug-men."

"The gun-thugs they laughed at their murderous joke; while the children were smothered on the stair by the door," Guthrie sang in the mournful lyrics.

Guthrie's studio recording of "1913 Massacre" was made for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. The folk singer didn't have an exclusive contract, however, and also recorded for the Victor label.

Guthrie sang "1913 Massacre" during a 1949 concert captured on a wire recording.

An audience of about 25 people heard the Guthrie performance at Fuld Hall in Newark, N. J.

He talked about Mother Bloor and sang "1913 Massacre" as part of the evening's program.

Engineers restored the rare recording which was released in 2007 as "The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949."

The folk singer's only known live recording, the compact disc was awarded a Grammy for Best Historical Recording.

"1913 Massacre" did not become a folk music standard, but it has proven to have considerable staying power.

Guthrie proteges Bob Dylan, known as a folk-rock innovator, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott both performed the song.

An iconic singer and songwriter, Dylan included "1913 Massacre" in his program when he played at New York's Carnegie Hall on Nov. 4, 1961.

Just weeks later, when he recorded his first album, Dylan used the melody from Guthrie's tune for his own composition, "Song For Woody."

Guthrie was one of Dylan's major influences at this time and is said to have imitated his mentor's voice on some songs.

Born in 1931, Elliott travelled around the western U. S. with Guthrie before the elder folk singer became ill.

Elliott released his version of "1913 Massacre" on his "Jack Elliott" LP released on the Vanguard label in 1964. Guthrie's composition opened side two of the long-player.

Among the record's guest musicians was Dylan, who performed on harmonica under the name Tedham Porterhouse for contractual reasons.

By the time Elliott's version of "1913 Massacre" was released, Guthrie was in the final years of his life. He died of Huntington's disease in 1967 after spending years in hospitals.

On Jan 20, 1968, Elliott performed "1913 Massacre" at a Carnegie Hall tribute concert for Guthrie. Also performing were Pete Seeger, Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son.

At age 19 in 1966, Arlo made the decision to follow in his father's musical footsteps.

The young musician learned his craft from Elliott, since his father was too sick with the neurological disorder to teach him.

Arlo may be best-known for his masterpiece "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," released on Reprise Records in 1967.

Paying tribute to his father and the victims of the Italian Hall disaster, the young Guthrie recorded his take on "1913 Massacre" in 1972.

The song is contained on "Hobo's Lullaby," produced by Lenny Waronker and John Pilla.

Woody Guthrie never visited the Upper Peninsula site of his "1913 Massacre" song, but his son Arlo has.

In fact, Arlo has played quite often at the historic Calumet Theater, which first opened in 1900 when Calumet was a thriving copper mining community.

Located at 340 Sixth St., the theater is just a few blocks from where the Italian Hall once stood.

During his visit on Sept. 23 and 24, 2004, Guthrie played two shows and taped an interview for a film being made about the tragedy.

Guthrie played another local concert during his "Solo Reunion Tour-Together At Last" stop on Oct. 16, 2007.

His most recent appearance came during his "Journey On" Tour on Oct. 29, 2010. At that time, Guthrie performed what one audience member described as an "almost spooky" version of "1913 Massacre."

Despite much local opposition, the Italian Hall was demolished in 1984. The 401 Seventh St. location is now a park with only an archway left standing.

Although the building is gone, Woody Guthrie's lyrics for "1913 Massacre" continue to echo through the years.

"The piano played a slow funeral tune, And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon. The parents they cried and the miners they moaned, 'See what your greed for money has done.'"


Anonymous said...

Hey, Arlo, Already wrote this to you and your staff. I've gotta brick from the hall for you, free as far as I'm concerned. Heard your song and went to see. It was true! Thank's for your "real" Life. Moe

b.f. said...

There's a biographical folk song about Mother Bloor, "Mother Bloor" (We Are Many) that was recently posted at the following protestfolk youtube channel link which contains a reference to her presence at 1913 Calumet Massacre that might also interest readers: