In Tribute to Archie Green
To learn more about Green, I turned to his 2001 essay collection, Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture from the University of North Carolina Press, and the following pieces are excerpted from that book. The collection beautifully illustrates paying tribute to one’s mentors — both through Robert Cantwell’s eloquent foreword and Green’s essays. Cantwell writes:
The Backward Glimpse
Folklore, like poetry, is one of those things that we know when we see it, but which it is risky to identify too strictly with the what, rather than the wherefore, of what we’ve seen.
In looking back at four decades of writings touching vernacular culture, I have imagined myself a geologist traversing a roadcut, examining exposed strata, contorted intrusions, and metamorphosed formations. Pausing to examine particular expressions in music, speech, or art, I have likened them to gems or fossils embedded in rock. The age and circumstances of composition of a ballad, blues, tale, talisman, cabin, or canoe often remains mysterious, yet challenging. To questions of origin, I have added matters of form, use, and meaning in studies of literary and social texts.
I am not a geologist. As a folklorist, I seek metaphors to describe our terrain. We borrow variously: “melting pot,” “mulligan stew,” “patchwork quilt,” “coat of many colors,” “trails converging,” “pluralistic universe.” Six decades ago in California’s Siskiyou Range, Lawrence Roberts, a Karok Indian, taught outdoor skills to ragtailed “three-C boys”: how to work productively and safely in an environment of woodland sounds and water currents. Our spike camp rested between the fir-and-cedar-flanked Klamath River and the rainbow-tinted Marble Mountains. Roberts explained that spirits animated all nature; our task was to decode the role of salmon or serpentine. For example, this latter jade-green rock, abundant underfoot, could be carved into sacred amulets.
Roberts, too, was not a geologist. Rather, as a Forest Service/Civilian Conservation Corps foreman, he led Depression-buffeted youngsters in their work. His understated messages have served me well over the years. He would appreciate my likening of a ballad to a rock-embedded gem. In his mind’s eye, songs or stories became pebbles in the pouch of a ceremonial dancer. Fossils, in his cosmos, still lived. This distant memory is out of sequence in my backward glimpse, yet it helps situate one starting point on a journey.
All this brings home what anyone familiar with Archie and his work understands at once, which is the sheer impossibility of capturing in the written word the gorgeous rhetorical arabesques, the ever-mounting terraces, stratum upon stratum, of reference, the stunning associative leaps of his intellectual monologues. To listen to him talk is often to be, at first, confused or bewildered, as the apparently disconnected ideas and images, most of them held in the ghostly half-life of a never-completed sentence, accumulate like a crowd of restless spirits until with an almost audible orchestral swell a sense of the intricate interconnectedness of each idea to the other begins to brighten one’s intellectual sky, and Archie’s point — and it will be a point, sometimes, that one may hold onto for years to come — appears triumphantly on the horizon.
Visiting scholars invariably asked Tamony how he became interested in words, and why he turned his flat into an archive. Literally, for more than half a century, he packed hundreds of cardboard cartons with a million citations of dated examples of language in action: file cards, newspaper clippings, notes from remembered conversations, quotations from formal literature. He supplemented these holdings with an assortment of books, pamphlets — broadsides, posters, cartoons, letters, and complementary ephemera. However, word citations formed the collection’s core — a massive alphabetical-chronological treasury of raw data.
While classical etymologists trained themselves in the ancient roots of European languages, Tamony turned his etymological quest into an exploration of American experience: the Gold Rush, beat scene, sports, jazz, show-biz, stock market, labor disputes, politics, erotica. Deliberately, he sought arenas where new events shaped and re-shaped the meanings of old words. Consequently, his case-study articles on given terms drew upon the disciplines of history, literature, and popular culture.
Beyond this wide commitment to text-in-context, Tamony employed word-play, at times favoring a near Joycean style. His fondness for alliteration burst conventional bounds. I cite but one example from his paper on shill at outdoor fairs: “The shouting of spielers. The shillishealfshell of the ‘pea-and-shell game.’ The shambling shuffle of the sauntering shillagalee . . .” To a reporter puzzled by his most convoluted prose, he explained modestly, “I like to wake people up to the possibilities of their language.”
Folklore and Laborlore
[F]olklore, for Archie Green, has become the field in which the ideals to which he attached himself in youth, the men and women he admired and upon whom he modeled himself, the struggles that shaped his historical sense and the ideas surrounding them, are all alive and well in new forms and configurations: the liberal confidence in the role of government inherited from Roosevelt; the admiration for working people of every stamp and the fascination with the traditional skills they use to materially shape our world, as well as the expressions and stories from which they derive dignity and strength; the dedication to the shipwright’s trade and the trade union; the great investment in ideas and words and the ability to deliver them, especially in a workingmen’s institute or union hall; and above all an undying curiosity about what amounts to the epidemiology of culture as it moves, virus-like, from mind to mind, use to use, with its infinite capacity for self-replication and adaptation.
From what experiences are labor traditions wrought? A robust picket line chant; a tool chest lid lined with faded dues slips; a secret hand clasp in a dim entry way; an echo of John Lewis’s or Eugene Debs’s oratory; a visit to a weathered stone marker at Homestead or Ludlow — all are part of the language, belief, and customs that comprise laborlore — the special folklore of American workers within trade unions.
It is the ability to retain tension and emotion in memory linked to the need to project feelings into dramatic, musical, or linguistic form that turns everyday experience into folklore. Obviously, brutality at a plant gate is not folklore. But a mournful ballad or wry jest about the happening may enter tradition to be passed on among union men for generations.
Perhaps the best way to identify laborlore is to mention specific examples. There are well-known labor songs written and sung by such performers as Joe Glazer, Sarah Gunning, Utah Phillips, and Pete Seeger. Less well-known than the songs are short anecdotal tales told to reinforce philosophical positions and to build solidarity in times of stress. One such tale follows, a tale I heard from John Neuhaus, a San Francisco machinist and “double header” unionist (John held dual membership in the International Association of Machinists, AFL-CIO and in the Industrial Workers of the World, “Wobblies”). It is called “The Striker’s Wife.”
The iron ore miners were on strike up in Minnesota. It was a long hard strike but the men held out pretty good. A lot of them were Finns: Finns believe in solidarity. One day a striker’s wife was about without money. She went to the butcher shop to try to buy some cheap cut meat that might last the family for a week. She saw a calf’s head in the case and figured it would make lots of soup. So she asked the butcher, “How much?”
He said, “One dollar.”
This was too much, so she started to leave. But just as she got to the door, she asked, “Is this a union shop; is your meat union?”
He was surprised but replied, “Sure, I’m a member of the unit (Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers of North America). I cut my meat by union rule — see my shop card in the window.”
The lady said, “Well, I don’t want any union meat. Don’t you have a scab calf’s head?”
The butcher was stumped but he was smart. So he said, “just a minute, Ma’am,” and he took the calf’s head into the room back of the shop. Pretty soon the lady heard a lot of clatter. The butcher came out of the room and handed her the wrapped package. He said, “That’ll be seventy-five cents, ma’am.”
She was very pleased at the saving, paid up and started for the door. But she was curious, so she asked, “Isn’t this scab calf’s head the same as the union head you tried to sell me for a dollar?”
The butcher said, “Yes, Ma’am, it is. I just knocked out two bits worth of brains!”
A tale such as the one above can be told anywhere workers gather, and laborlore abounds with such stories. Ritual, however, is often confined to particular places and particular times. From my experience as a young shipwright in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, I recall, for example, the practice of the tool auction:
Shipwrights, marine joiners, boatbuilders, caulkers, and drydockers organized one of San Francisco’s earliest trade unions, for they were there to dismantle ships for needed lumber and metal parts during the Gold Rush. When I joined Local 1149, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, it was filled with immigrant mechanics from every shipbuilding center in the world: the Clyde, Belfast, Malta, Hamburg, Hong Kong. In the mid-thirties, our local was involved with the longshoremen and other maritime crafts in two waterfront strikes. Although the local was divided between radicals and conservatives, it was united on the need to preserve craft custom, to maintain solidarity, and to honor the dead. The tool auction was a unifying part of union tradition.
When an old-timer died, his tool chest was carried to the union hall. Chests were big and heavy, frequently ornate, and usually filled with handmade tools, including, perhaps, rosewood planes. (They were made of wood so that they would float if dropped overboard.) At the conclusion of the meeting, the union president would begin to auction the tools one by one and to gather a purse for the departed member’s family. The chief function of the auction appeared to be to provide an unsophisticated form of social security, but there were other functions, as well. The local was small and the mechanics worked closely. When one of them purchased a dead colleague’s tools, he kept some of his friend’s skill alive. He also kept the tools out of skid-row pawnshops and, hence, out of the hands of strangers.
As is the case of much folklore, the tool auction ritual employed elements of sympathetic magic, far older than unionism itself.
To the folklorist of Archie’s stamp, “culture” is that body of tacit and habitual ideas, understandings, and practices, enlisted by us in the appreciation of being and the performance of life, in which we recognize, communicate, and reaffirm our membership in a particular human community, our “cultural” community. These communities, of course, are many, and our affiliations multiple, but they are neither indefinitely diffuse nor hermetically concentrated. At bottom, though, the fascination of folklore — what has drawn so many of us obsessively into its vortex — is in the movement itself, because however momentary and partial our picture of it may be, that movement intimates a global information network of vast historical extent. It is this movement, and the matrix in which it occurs, that we designate when we use the word culture.
I viewed my lobbying role as that of a teacher with the entire Congress as a classroom. Not only was the substance of folklore interesting, but it had the potential to help Senators and Representatives walk the high road. I believed then, and still do, that if tax funds are allocated for cultural activity, our social charter requires an equitable, democratic distribution of those resources.
Do we ask too much by calling for equity and democracy in cultural life? The peasant fiddler is as worthy as the symphony violinist; the village cobbler more precious than a pair of boots. Poets and pamphleteers have penned odes to the people. It seems naïve to reiterate that peasants and villagers create/utilize art. Facing a time of instant and incessant mechanical talk, coupled with policies of ethnic cleansing, the truism that folk expression is valuable needs to be trumpeted.
Frances Phillips is program director, Arts and the Creative Work Fund at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, and coeditor of the GIA Reader.