• Join the Union, and Other Quaint Recommendations

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    I
    have always liked American folk music. I first recall hearing a
    folk song in 1950, “Goodnight, Irene,” which was performed by a
    new group, The
    Weavers
    . This song was a big hit nationally, as was its flip
    side — a rare event in pop music — “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.”
    The Weavers followed this double hit with “So Long (It’s Been Good
    to Know You”), “On Top of Old Smokey,” and others. The money rolled
    in.

    The Weavers were leftists. They ran into booking problems two years
    later when the lead male singer, Pete Seeger, was accused by Harvey
    Matusow of being a member of the Communist Party. Liberals were
    outraged at the blacklisting of The Weavers. But, as it turned out,
    Seeger really was a Communist. In the Communist Party’s official
    newspaper, People’s Daily World (April 7, 1988), a fund-raising
    appeal included a boxed article with Seeger’s photograph, banjo
    on his knee, reading the Daily World. The accompanying letter
    from Seeger said:

    It
    is about 35 years since, as a card-carrying member of the Communist
    Party, I read the Worker almost daily, in addition to reading
    several other magazines and newspapers every week. . . . And I
    urge any other citizen concerned about the future of our country
    and of the world to likewise look through this working-class newspaper;
    because if there is going to be a future for any of us, it is
    going to include all of us.

    Old
    Pete in 1988 was having a little fun at the expense of the 1950’s-era
    conservatives, who had always used the phrase, “card-carrying Communist.”
    But then, a few months later, Old Mikhail had a little fun at the
    expense of Pete: he announced that the USSR was bankrupt, and he
    allowed the Berlin Wall to be pulled down the next year. The paper’s
    fund-raiser apparently failed. I can find no trace of it on the
    Web.

    I got more deeply into folk music when I got a job at a local record
    store. (Note for young people: a “record” was a thin, circular plastic
    disk imprinted with grooves. This disk spun on a “turntable,” over
    which was suspended a “needle,” attached to a “cartridge,” at the
    end of a “tone arm.” From this implausible arrangement, sounds were
    emitted by speakers. Think of it as a CD that added authentic clicks
    and pops. The sound was accompanied by a shout from the other room,
    “Turn that thing down!” This was because commercial high fidelity
    stereo headphones did not arrive until late 1958. Ever since 1958,
    young people have been able to permanently damage their hearing
    without bothering anyone else — a basic libertarian principle:
    the right of self-inflicted stupidity.)

    PINKOS
    AND REDS

    I
    found out early that urban folk music composed after 1930 was heavily
    influenced by the trade union movement. There were exceptions, such
    as Leadbelly
    (Huddie Ledbetter)
    , whose song, “Goodnight, Irene,” launched
    the folk movement about a year after he died. But Woody Guthrie,
    Seeger, Cisco Houston, and other prominent white urban folk singers
    in the 1930’s had been Communists or far-left Democrats.

    Of all the urban folk music performers I can think of — the
    city-billies — only one was known to be a card-carrying conservative:
    John Greenway, by far the best educated of the lot. He was a professor
    of anthropology at the University of Colorado. He described himself
    on the flyleaf of his study of Australian aborigines, Down
    Among the Wild Men
    , as being to the right of Attila the
    Hun. His National Review article, “Will the Indians Get Whitey”
    (March 11, 1969), I regard as by far as the only indispensable article
    ever published in that magazine — described as “infamous” by
    Journal of American Indian Education.
    But Greenway was not a major figure in the urban folk music scene.

    Despite
    the blacklist, The
    Weavers made it to Carnegie Hall
    on Christmas Eve, 1955, and
    the concert sold out. The concert album the following year pushed
    Vanguard Records into solvency. (Vanguard’s back list — very
    different from a black list — was bought out by the Lawrence
    Welk music empire a few years ago, which is a classic example of
    the revenge of the bourgeois class.)

    Then,
    in 1958, The
    Kingston Trio
    recorded a gigantic hit of a mediocre song, “Tom
    Dooley,” which turned the folk music phenomenon into a cultural
    force, especially among my generation, who graduated from college
    before the Beatles arrived. The group could sing well, but there
    was a canard, as each Kingston Trio hit record was released, that
    you could tell which page of Seeger’s How
    to Play the 5-String Banjo
    that Dave Guard had reached.
    For five years, they got very rich. One of the group’s last big
    hits was “The New Frontier” (1962), a JFK puff piece. I recall no
    Richard Nixon puff-piece hit records.

    Throughout the period, there has been a tradition of non-political
    folk music. There are still a few urban performers who keep the
    tradition alive. Steve Gillette and Cindy
    Mangsen
    are among the best who are still on the road, still
    digging up old music (she is musicologist) and writing new music
    in the older styles. His most famous song is “Darcy Farrow,” a fine
    example of modern song writing in a traditional form. Even better
    is “Healing Hands,” the story of growing old productively. But their
    market is miniscule. His first album was released by Vanguard in
    1967, two years after the pied piper had led the children out of
    the green valley of folk music into the bright lights of the city
    of folk rock.

    The
    pied piper was Bob
    Dylan
    , whose 1962 album had featured his unaccompanied acoustic
    guitar. It was not political. He also began writing songs recorded
    by other performers, some folk (“Walkin’ Down the Line”), some political
    (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). In 1965, he went electric with the mega-hit,
    “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then, a week after it was released,
    he brought his electrified band onto the stage of the Newport Folk
    Festival. It was at that event that Seeger actually wanted to cut
    the amplifier cable with an axe — which speaks well of Seeger,
    artistically. (I recently saw a PBS documentary where Seeger talked
    about his reaction.) But Seeger’s artistic instincts were way off-base
    ideologically. Over the next five years Dylan and his amplified
    peers marched the popular music world sharply to the left. Seeger,
    like Mr. Jones, didn’t understand what was happening in 1965.

    I
    suppose the best artistic treatment of Dylan is Paul Simon’s parody,
    “A Simple Desultory Philippic.” It is a lot funnier than
    “Sounds of Silence.”

    LOST
    CAUSES

    Throughout history, folk music has been a major form of cultural
    transmission and preservation. The music focuses on the major issues
    of life: love (mainly unrequited or regretted), death, heartbreak,
    wars, and poverty. “Happy Days Are Here Again” is not a folk song.
    Folk music is also the music of lost causes. This leads me to North’s
    Law of Folk Music
    : “The winners write the history textbooks,
    and the losers write the folk songs.”

    The songs often maintain an aura of hopefulness, despite the lostness
    of the cause. One of my favorite old ballads, “Copper Kettle,” is
    a song about illegal whiskey production. It has this stirring line:
    “We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since seventeen-ninety-two.” Hope
    springs eternal. No cause is completely lost that offers an enduring
    ballad about a political principle worth pursuing and also a tax-free
    retailing network.

    For
    four decades, I have been a fan of Celtic folk music. I was introduced
    to the tradition by the Clancy
    Brothers and Tommy Makem
    . Seeger was one of their early promoters
    when they were all with Columbia Records. My middle name is Scottish,
    perhaps the most Scottish of all Scots names, the very essence of
    the Scottish tradition: Kilgore. That was what the Scots did for
    two thousand years. The Emperor Hadrian had a wall built across
    northern England to keep out the Scots. That wall marked the far
    northern edge of the Roman Empire. Beyond that wall, the costs were
    just not worth the benefits . . . and there were nasty spillover
    effects, too.

    So, Scottish music is often about wars, usually lost wars. The best-known
    musical instrument of the Scots is the bagpipe, which technically
    is the Great Highland War Pipe (capitalized, please). Its wailing
    sound announced that the crazies were coming to kill you, unless
    you could buy them off (which was not too hard). There are bag pipe
    jokes, just as there are lawyer jokes. “How is an onion different
    from a bag pipe?” “Because nobody cries when you peel a bagpipe.”
    Yet it is respected as the instrument, more than any other, that
    is associated with the funerals of men who died on active duty.

    The music is divided religiously. Irish music is Catholic, and it
    features lost Catholic causes that turned out to be nation-building
    in retrospect after 1922. Scottish music is divided: some Catholic
    (highlands, Bonnie Prince Charlie, etc.) and some Protestant (Scotch
    Irish or Northern Ireland, Western Carolinas).

    There is a Celtic music circuit. The performers, like American folk
    musicians, are divided into two main artistic camps, with some crossovers:
    the music of common people in life’s struggles that are common to
    all people, written mainly by commoners and poets, and the music
    of workers in their struggles against capitalist bosses, written
    by mainly left-wing, middle-class intellectuals. To name representative
    performers of these rival artistic positions: Alex Beaton vs. Brian
    McNeill.

    If you want the truth, the big crowds at the Celtic music festivals
    attend the Celtic rock bands, like Brother
    or Seven
    Nations
    , which are mainly loud — amplified bagpipes can
    be quite loud — and stomping, but with more melody than Anglo
    rock bands. But I digress.

    The fiddle is a featured instrument. (“A violin is a fiddle that
    went to college.” — Roy Clark.) The tradition of Celtic dancing
    runs deep, and fiddles are fairly loud instruments, suitable for
    dances. The guitar is popular, another dance instrument. There are
    other less known instruments, such as the Bouzouki, a kind of 12-string
    guitar/mandolin device.

    Because of the dancing connection, Celtic music is not big with
    Baptists. (“Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?” “If they were
    caught, word might get out that they had been dancing.”) Mountain
    music is acceptable in the rural South, and these days bluegrass
    is big, both of which are descendants of Celtic music, but the real
    stuff is suspect. So, attendees at Celtic festivals are mainly successful
    Scots in business and the professions, who come to hear songs about
    lower-class losers and their lost causes, and middle-class Irish,
    who come to hear songs about how tough things were before the Brits
    were booted out. They celebrate, side by side, by drinking a lot
    of Guinness (British).

    WE’VE
    WON!

    Brian
    McNeill
    plays the fiddle spectacularly, the guitar well, and
    the bouzouki, the mandolin, the concertina, something called the
    cittern, and the hurdy-gurdy (but not often). He is a poet. He writes
    musically compelling songs. And he is to Celtic music what Peter
    Seeger is to American folk music. He was born in 1950, so he grew
    up long after the lower classes got out of poverty. He grew up when
    their children got into drugs. He is a man of the 1970’s whose stage
    persona is that of a man in the 1930’s. As far as I can tell, he
    really believes it.

    This man of the people — by way of the electric guitar at age 18
    — is the head of Scottish music at the Royal Scottish Academy of
    Music and Drama, which pays him quite well to travel the English-speaking
    world, sing songs about joining the union, and sell his CD’s to
    his devoted upper-middle-class fans.

    As
    I understand his arrangement with the Royal Scottish Academy, it
    works like this. The government taxes people, including working
    men, and part of the money is turned over to the Royal Scottish
    Academy, which then pays Mr. McNeill to do what he was doing anyway
    — sing at Celtic festivals — and to keep any money earned.
    He maintains his emotional connection to the working men who pay
    his salary by insisting that his middle-class fans join in a chorus
    of “join the union” several times. Somehow, I don’t think this is
    what Karl Marx and Kier Hardie had in mind as the evidence of loyalty
    to the working class.

    A few years ago, he told his audience, “Do you know what musicians
    talk about after the show? Money!” This, I believe.

    His love of Scottish music is matched only by his hatred of Margaret
    Thatcher. He and other members of the political troubadours never
    tire of lambasting Mrs. Thatcher. They never say why. Most Americans
    would not remember, but I do. It was because she stood up to Arthur
    Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 when the
    union’s leaders tried, one last time, to blackmail the British with
    the threat of getting through winter with no coal. She would not
    back down. She did the unforgivable thing. She supported the miners,
    73% of whom had voted to end the strike.
    The miners went back to work. There has not been a major strike
    in Great Britain since then. She definitively broke the power of
    compulsory unionism in Great Britain.

    In 1996, Scargill quit the Labour Party because Tony Blair’s government
    had become far closer to Mrs. Thatcher’s views of the free market
    than Scargill thought proper. He now heads the insignificant Socialist
    Labour Party, which he founded in 1996. He has been consigned by
    Tony Blair to the dustbin of history. Mrs. Thatcher dumped him there
    first, in full public view. Mr. Blair simply screwed down the lid,
    good and tight. Scargill laments:

    New
    Labour has refused to repeal the Tories’ web of anti-union laws
    which helped destroy thousands upon thousands of jobs and devastate
    communities, spreading long-term unemployment with tragic social
    consequences — including increased racism and drug abuse — throughout
    entire regions of Britain.

    Firmly
    committed to the ‘free market’ of global capitalism, New Labour
    in government is incapable of creating the conditions necessary
    for a stable and prosperous Britain. New Labour’s “job creation”
    ploys such as the New Deal cannot address this crisis, but the
    government refuses to help regenerate those industries —
    ship-building, textiles, engineering, steel, coal — whose
    demise has turned Britain from a producing society to one dependent
    on imports.

    New
    Labour refuses to bring back into public ownership our railway
    network which, controlled by a host of different companies, is
    now falling apart — with terrible consequences for passengers
    and workers alike.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk_politics/2000/labour
    _centenary/642900.stm

    Mrs. Thatcher proved that trade union blackmail could be successfully
    resisted. She publicly broke the back of the socialists who ran
    the far-left trade unions, but who no longer represented the opinions
    of the members. Her re-election proved that the political power
    of compulsory trade unionism was over. Tony Blair fully understands
    this, just as Bill Clinton understood that Reagan’s breaking of
    the striking PATCO workers (the air traffic controllers’ union)
    in 1981 had accomplished the same feat in the United States.

    Brian McNeill cannot forgive her for this. So, he takes every opportunity
    to sneer at her, to American audiences who voted to elect Reagan,
    and then voted for Clinton, whose rhetoric Blair has imitated. He
    sings the old songs, like “Sell Your Labor, Not Your Soul,” with
    the chorus, “join the union, join the union.” He sings it in Texas,
    the premier “right to work” state, where hardly anyone has joined
    a union, other than the National Education Association, in four
    decades. He lives in a fantasy world. But his listeners sing along,
    because after they are forced to sing five choruses of “join the
    union,” they know he will play his fiddle again. They come to hear
    him play the fiddle. Like the evening preacher at a skid row rescue
    mission, he makes them listen to his sermon before they get their
    meal.

    My wife turned to me in the middle of one of his sermons and said,
    “I’m tired of this.” My answer: “We’ve won.” When a movement relies
    on state-funded urban folk singers to carry its message to the masses,
    and when the masses are upper-middle-class people at a music concert,
    that movement has moved into the dustbin of history. It’s right
    down there with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s revolt against King George
    II. McNeill knows that the Bonnie Prince’s rebellion was a lost
    cause for losers, but he hasn’t figured out that Arthur Scargill’s
    cause is just as lost.

    So, let Pete Seeger sing the old songs (vintage 1934), just so long
    as he plays his 12-string guitar. Let Brian McNeill sing them, too,
    preferably with his bouzouki. Every chorus reminds me, “We’ve won
    that battle.”

    Meanwhile, Guinness is doing quite well. “Another round!”

    July
    27, 2002

    Gary
    North is the author of Mises
    on Money
    . Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
    For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter,
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    .

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