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.
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.
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.”
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 (mugsyrecords.com). 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.