Labor's Punk Songman

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

Not that he hasn't written his share of love songs. His "Waltz of Time" mourns a love lost amid the New Year's Eve crowds in Times Square: "All the city one dance floor, all waltzing to a magic score/ The madcap chaos, laughter, mayhem, is causing me to dance with them/But I can only play the waltz/That time has played for both of us."

"I write about things that affect me—a romance gone bad or what corporations do to working people. These are wounds and I feel them; they affect my friends, my family. You don't have to look far to see signs of the pain it causes."

His first CD, Go Man Go, came out in 1988 on the tiny label SST, which also included the punk group Black Flag. "I was thrilled to be on there. Here I was putting out this solo acoustic guitar album. I thought, this is where folk belonged."

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

Kelly also kept knocking on the door of major record firms, and did his own dance with a large company, which in exchange for a piece of his music-publishing rights, commissioned an album in the late 1990s. Shortly before it was due to come out, however, the label went bust. "I realized then I had to do it myself. The entertainment industry is organized the same way that the old robber barons organized the railroads," he says. "There's no middle ground for alternate culture."

He issued the album on his own label, Mugsy Records ( Called New City, it included the prescient song "Hooray We Won the War," which, since the invasion of Iraq, Kelly and his trio, Paddy on the Railway, have played to acclaim at peace rallies.

There is always a call for someone to belt out the old songs of the Irish revolution around St. Patrick's Day, he says. "But I don't want to stop there. It's always amazed me that we Americans don't have more songs about our own revolution. I've got one about the patriot Nathan Hale I've been reworking since I was a teenager. It'll be on my next album."

Songs in the Key Of Strife

'Hooray, We Won the War'

The deep and ugly scars of a war-weary nation
Are borne by every race and generation.
Somewhere the paths of glory got crossed.
I'd hate to see where we'd be if we lost.
The ones who claim victory won't bear the cost.
But they're the ones that you'll hear the most, saying

Hooray, hooray, hooray, we won the war.

When you see the broken bodies lying all around,
And the buildings and bridges and schools a-tumbling down.
Just remember we did the right thing.
It's the price that you pay to let freedom ring.
So as we enjoy what victory brings
We'll all join our voices together and sing
Hooray, hooray, hooray, we won the war.

Kirk Kelly and Paddy on the Railway upcoming dates:

March 17: Michael's Restaurant (benefit for family of Michael Kelly, journalist killed in Iraq), 24 West 55th Street, 9 p.m.

March 17: Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 11 p.m.

March 19: Brecht Forum (United for Peace and Justice benefit), 122 West 27th Street, 7:30 p.m.

April 7: Bar on 11th Street, 510 East 11th Street, 8 p.m.

April 30: Tonic (Workers Arts and Media Festival), 107 Norfolk Street, 8 p.m.

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