Labor's Punk Songman

A Modern-Day Son of Joe Hill Keeps the Tradition of Championing Working People Alive

American labor has always had its troubadours, most of them writing and singing away in the same obscurity as the working people they've championed. Legendary songwriter and organizer Joe Hill was an itinerant laborer in the early 1900s when he turned an otherwise harmless ditty about an engineer named Casey Jones into a pro-union anthem, and transformed the pious "Sweet Bye and Bye" into a stinging satire on preachers who ignored their congregations' suffering ("You'll get pie in the sky when you die"). Hill understood that, when it came to agitating, flyers and pamphlets get tossed aside, but a good tune burrows inside the brain and won't let go.

But Hill had to become a martyr—executed in a murder frame-up—before his reputation soared. And even then, his fame was boosted by a genuine mass movement that saw songs as a weapon in class struggle.

Although there's hardly the same mass movement around today, there is still plenty of agitating going on—everything from organizing drives for janitors and sweatshop workers to hold-the-line efforts against the loss of decent-paying manufacturing jobs. And there are more than a few organizers who understand Hill's maxim about the tune-brain connection. Unfortunately, their work remains largely unheard and unseen outside of rallies and occasional pub dates.

Kirk Kelly: Musician, songwriter, organizer
photo: Jay Muhlin
Kirk Kelly: Musician, songwriter, organizer

One of the best latter-day troubadours who has made labor's cause his own and turned politics into music is Kirk Kelly, a hard-driving singer and guitar and harmonica player who has been around New York City for more than 20 years, performing his own work in the mold of the early Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Kelly, 43, who will be playing at a St. Patrick's Day benefit, is a union organizer who has brought a strong pair of lungs and a poet's sensibility to picket lines and demonstrations. But unlike a generation of activist musicians content to strum through

the chords of "Which Side Are You On?," Kelly has incorporated the backbeats of rock and roll and punk, fusing Joey Ramone with Woody Guthrie.

It's the kind of thing Britain's Billy Bragg has made a fine reputation doing. But Bragg's burning focus on social struggles also raises the question as to the whereabouts of America's own radical music makers.

The answer is they're right here, something Kelly proves every time he picks up his guitar and mounts a harmonica stand on his neck to perform an updated version of Hill's "Rebel Girl" ("It's great to fight for freedom with a Rebel Girl") at a blazing rhythm, or his own anguished, post-9-11 "American Patrol" ("I am on American patrol/Searching for survivors/Of a land that lost control").

Born on Long Island and weaned on the revolutionary songs of the Clancy Brothers, Kelly made the same trek as so many before him to pay homage to the remnants of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early '80s. But while Kelly and others were adapting the sounds of the Ramones and the Clash to their idea of modern folk music, they smacked up against the dominant ethos of those who saw them as distorters of true folk. Kelly and his friends argued that both were legitimate.

"What you had in the '60s was these people interpreting what they thought the sound of folk music was like, and they were still running things. They didn't think that the music that came later—punk, rock, hip-hop—had a right to make any other interpretations," says Kelly.

That message was clearly delivered the night Kelly was banned from the open mics at the old Gerde's Folk City for handing out flyers for a performance at an East Village venue.

Along with other like-minded young musicians, including Cindy Lee Berryhill, Roger Manning, and Lach, Kelly and his pals started calling themselves "antifolk," an idea that eventually blossomed into a small but intense movement.

But while others focused fairly exclusively on the music itself, Kelly aimed to put his sound to work in the service of the causes he believed in. "I've always wanted to use music to move people," he says. To that end, he began performing at union rallies and got many last-minute calls to show up at picket lines. The songs jibed with his own workaday world. He spent time as a fruit picker on Long Island's East End, prompting his tune "Working in the Vineyards" ("Put in an honest day's work for half a day's pay"). He later labored as a white-collar member of the machinists' union in an airline's reservation office. "I was there a month and they made me the shop steward. I was the one who couldn't keep his mouth shut when something was wrong."

He stayed at the job for several years, until the day he spotted an ad in his union's paper for an AFL-CIO organizers' training school. He applied and was accepted. For Kelly, the training was an eye-opener. It launched him on organizing campaigns around the country. "I was all over. For a while, I was on the waterfront in Seattle, organizing for a teamsters local."

He also kept churning out a steady stream of songs, offering caustic takes on everything from strikes to censorship. He even wrote an ode to the "Service Economy," bemoaning the rise of McDonald's-style employment.

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