Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Archie Green (1917-2009): Called to Labor


Archie Green and posters Jerry Telfer, San Francisco Chronicle Archie Green in 1987, at an exhibit of poster art of the Industrial Workers of the World

The smallest giant I’ve ever known is dead. Archie Green, former shipwright, Congressional lobbyist and a pioneer of American labor history and folklore studies, died Sunday, March 22, at his home on Caselli Avenue in San Francisco. He was 91.

“Many of us owe him a huge debt,” wrote filmmaker Mimi Pickering, of Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “We will not see the likes of him again.”

Archie, as he was universally known, was a scholar of what he called “laborlore” – the expressive culture of working people. For five decades he studied hillbilly music and pile-drivers’ tales. He made inventories of  “tin men” – the showpieces of sheet metal workers -- and analyzed sailors’ slang.  He recorded songs by millworkers and miners’ wives. Working on until just months before his death, he wrote countless articles, both academic and popular, and five books, including Only a Miner, his landmark study of coal-mining music.

But the debt Pickering acknowledges is not so much scholarly as personal. For Archie incited Mimi and me and scores of others to quit whatever we had been doing and join him in documenting the culture of working people. 

I met him in 1977, having just finished a Masters in English at University of Chicago and a summer of housepainting. Immersion in Old English had landed a job teaching composition to basketball players and policemen at the University of Louisville. Archie was named the visiting Bingham Professor in the Humanities that semester and offered a seminar in I can’t remember what. In thinking. In conversation. In pluralism.

O, Fates! The task of editing a memoir had just fallen on my shoulders. It was a manuscript by Jim Garland, songwriter, former coal-miner and labor activist. Garland had been a miner in Bell County, Kentucky, in the 1930s and joined the Communist Party’s National Miners Union. He later went to New York to sing and raise money for the miners’ cause.

Sarah Gunning Sarah Ogan Gunning's LP Girl of Constant Sorrow, 1965 Archie knew Jim. He knew all of Jim’s songs and had recorded Garland’s sister Sarah Ogan Gunning singing several of them, a harrowing LP called, aptly, “Girl of Constant Sorrow.” Over the next strange year, Jim died, and I – the budding Beowulf scholar who had never seen a miner’s auger or heard of Eugene Debs – inherited the responsibility of somehow shaping a manuscript and getting it published.

Mimi and Appalshop helped, as did Bill Bishop, who actually knew something about the strikes in Bell and Bloody Harlan. But it was Archie who infused this perplexing obligation with meaning and who ultimately hectored Ken Cherry of University Press of Kentucky into publishing Welcome the Traveler Home: Jim Garland’s Story of the Kentucky Mountains.
Now, imagine this same tale told by a hundred other students and curators, folklorists, and union activists – people with photographs of ironworkers to publish,  cowboy poetry festivals to organize, fishermen’s gear to display, or gandy-dancing films to edit. Archie spent his life moving all of us forward, to finish our work.

Adam, Archie and Sean Julie Ardery Archie with two of his many proteges: Adam Machado (left) and Sean Burns in Benecia, California, September 2006
While the topic of workers culture would seem to bring with it a reflexive Marxism, Archie disputed the design of base and superstructure; he found the concept of “false consciousness” hateful. “Some students assert that only militant workers in class-conscious unions produce and convey lore, and that by definition it is contestational,” he wrote. “I reject this formula, for I believe that all workers, organized or not, ideologically pure or not, create lore.”

Over time, I learned how Archie had come to his pluralism. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, his father a harnessmaker by trade. In the Afterword to a collection of his own essays, Torching the Fink Books, Archie reflected, “As children, my sisters Judy and Mitzie and I listened to our father tell of his escape from czarist Russia, where he had participated in the abortive 1905 revolution. For a few days, a coalition of young idealists governed Chernigov, a provincial center in the Ukraine. When the Cossacks recaptured the town, the rebels faced prison in Siberia or death.”

Archie’s parents fled to Canada where he was born, in Winnipeg, June 29, 1917. They then headed south and west, to Los Angeles. “What were father’s politics in 1905?” Archie would later ask. “How did he respond to the failure of revolutionary dreams? He was neither a disciplined Bolshevik nor an orthodox Marxist." Here as in other passages, Archie could be describing himself. "Rather, as a member of the Jewish minority, he gravitated to a mild socialism that stressed the cultural values of each constituent group in the polity.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Archie relished the cultural and intellectual ferment of the city. “I began riding the trolley car downtown to the main public library. Books in hand, I regularly stopped over in nearby Pershing Square to listen to the soapboxers and swamis, cultists and combatants, who bathed in the sunshine of endless debate. As Depression years gave way to the New Deal era, the square’s partisans of reform and revolution vied for attention. I accepted this rhetorical mulligan as a free-lunch gift.”

He attended UCLA, then Berkeley where “I found my parents’ values merging with those of gifted teachers and community activists." But he was not drawn to academic life. Instead, "to be a worker engaged in trade union activity appealed to me as the most desirable choice I could make.” He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, then became a shipwright on the waterfront and a member of the Carpenters Brotherhood. He and his wife Louanne started a family.

In 1959, he took up his “second calling” – scholarship. Archie studied library science at University of Illinois (training that shows throughout his immense, impeccable archives, now at the University of North Carolina). At University of Pennsylvania, he earned a folklore degree, writing the dissertation that would become Only a Miner.

Only a Miner Archie Green

In the 1970s, after grown children David, Derek and Debra had gone out on their own, Archie was called yet again, this time to Washington, D.C. Leaving the academy, he lobbied hard and successfully for the creation of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

In 2007, the Library honored him as a “Living Legend.” The wildly pluralistic gathering for that occasion included diverse presenters: a Nevada rancher, a crab-picker, an organizer for the pile-drivers union, a labor historian, musicians and folklorists from across the country. Archie, by this time too frail to travel, did not attend. His absence was strange, painful. Maybe he was preparing us for today.

Reading his description of Sarah Gunning, I see the giant again. "In a curious way," he wrote, "[Sarah] inverted the notion of culture as projection of a politico-economic base. By hanging onto her time-tested ballad style, mountain speech, and local humor, she found her way to appropriate radical positions. In Harlan's time of terror, she possessed the inner strength to stand up to coal operators' gun thugs because she was secure in all her feelings."

Astute as he was about people and the organizations they create, Archie's callings continually drew him not deeper into institutions but away from them – the union, the university, the cultural agencies of federal government. He seemed able to give complete allegiance only to work, to friends, and to the Fund for Labor Culture and History. This non-profit, based in San Francisco, has since 2000 paid out small and not so small stipends for over 50 laborlore endeavors –digitizing Mexican-American recordings, creating a traveling exhibit of I.W.W. art, helping fund a film on women seafarers....

Archie Green, Bob Cantwell, et. al Julie Ardery Archie conversing at Laborlore Conversation III, Benecia, California, Sept. 2006, with (l-r) Ellie Matus, John Robinson, Robert Cantwell, and Chris Strachwitz

Much of Archie’s energy these last five years has been devoted to “Laborlore Conversations,” meetings that bring together trade unionists, activists, scholars and artists to share their perspectives on  workers’ culture. It isn't easy to get a pile driver to address a room filled with English professors or convince a Marxist historian to keep his seat through a presentation on art photography. In fact, it had never been tried. Archie made sure these meetings would take place in a union hall one year, an academic setting the next. The 2009 gathering will be held in Chicago this May.

Judy McCulloh, Archie’s great friend and editor for many years at University of Illinois Press, reminded the Library of Congress crowd two years ago, "his goal was inclusiveness, to bring together for the enduring benefit of the American people, now and forever, the traditional wisdom, creativity and history that have shaped this great nation.”

Whose goal is inclusiveness now? Who will gather us to “bathe in the sunshine of endless debate”?



Condolences to us all

What a strong and thoughful post.  Heartfelt and inspirational, an ode to former times maybe, but I hope not.

Kudos to Archie

As a labor scholar who was lucky enough to know Archie, I can assure you that the man earned his place in American studies. He was truly a diplomat between two very different worlds - academia and labor. He was was one of the few people able to show that these two communities had something to offer each other - the academics needed grounding in working-class experience, and workers needed encouragement to take their lives seriously. He was very excited and helpful in helping out with a forthcoming book on American labor posters that a colleague and I were working on, Agitate! Educate! Organize! from Cornell University Press. His encouragement and support helped make the book happen. We'll miss you, Archie.

Oh, and he would have been the first to correct your top photo caption - the IWW is the Industrial Workers of the World.


Unsung heroes

What an inspiring piece, Julie. I studied folklore as an undergraduate and library science after that. Archie Green sounds like a scholar-activist who I'd be proud to pattern myself after.


When Julie says Archie Green was the smallest giant, she gets to the heart of the matter.

My first career was as an Appalachian arts administrator. I was just out of school and much dumber than I thought when I was hired as president of Appalshop. Soon I found myself serving as a co-convener of a national conference on arts and cultural policy. In over my head, I wrote Archie who was the Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute and asked him for help. If it takes a village, then Archie signed on to be my village that year.

The first thing he said when we met was, “that cotton mill album you guys did was the worst piece of shit I ever heard. It sounded like everyone was drunk.” The first of many teachable moments.

He wanted me to understand that working songs mattered because working people mattered. He wanted me to understand that a nation’s art mattered, because it reflected the hopes and sweat of the generations, connecting back to a time before there was a country. It mattered even in a time when that country’s elite artists were expressing themselves with canvases painted solid black.  And that even when a President says he wants no official culture and no official cultural policy, that does not mean the policy doesn’t exist. It just means the President doesn’t know what it is.

He talked about how his student days at Berkeley were framed by stories of union miners in east Kentucky fighting for their lives and, how he spent his days imagining that the college president was a coal operator and the campus towers were tipples. I grew up with George Davis, “the Singing Miner,” hanging out in my granddad’s shop, but it was Archie who taught me who George Davis was.

Years later I remember a bull session when several of us pushed Archie to talk about the time he sued the Department of Defense and a clutch of noble institutions who were trying to preserve the stories and songs that would be lost with the Army Corps of Engineer’s building of the Tenn-Tombigbee Waterway. They thought they were saving an important part of Americana. He thought they were whitewashing a scandalous and destructive act. The $2 billion canal cut through and displaced hundreds of poor and working class communities in Mississippi and Alabama. Archie sued to stop a percentage of the construction money from going toward the folkloric collection and documentation. “I’ve always loved folklore,” he said. “But I love the folk more.”

Archie Green

I cried when I read this article, as I live across the street from Mr. Green, saw him often sitting in his window and never knew what a gem of a person he was. I never saw him or his wife outside and thus had no opportunity to meet them, although I have lived here for 15 years. Sometimes our eyes met as I would walk by his house. Our interests were very similar, as I love the kind of common-man music he recorded. All these years I missed out on getting to know a wonderful, interesting person. What a loss to me.


Great job of articulating how so many of us feel Julie.

Don Zampa, Iron Workers Local 378, Benicia, CA

Archie Green


Great article about Archie's wonderful life. We will all miss him very much. Thanks for saying what so many of us feel.

John Robinson

Archie Green


What agreat job,thanks. To bad Francie missed out knowing Archie. One day Archie and I were walking down Casselli St and met three tourists who were looking at the big victorian house on the corner that had been owned by the Chief of Police and survived the 1906 earthquake. They were french tourists who's son spoke a little english. We, don't speak french and they don't speak english but Archie spent 45 minutes telling them the story of the mansion. As he's telling the story, people would walk by waving at Archie and saying hello and listening to his story.By the time we left to walk back up the hill there were eight more people there asking him questions and listening to him speak. Most people go thier whole life not having a friend who gives to them,  love , encourgaement, homework and a free education. I was fortunate to spend the day with him the saturday before he passed, and dam if he didn't give me an assignment. So, I must now go out, finish what he needs done and pass on what he gave me to someone new. My Hand in Yours

Mke Munoz



Thank you Julie for such a fine portrait of this wonderful guy. His tireless mentoring, teaching and sheperding has left a legacy of like minded folk to carry on.  Archie was a lumper, not a splitter and didn't take much stock in the tiresome and endless political disputations of secterianism  - though he loved to swap stories about the radical labor movement and the byzantine begats of the left.  Ultimately, with his union/worker roots and academic inclinations, Archie could talk the talk - but I think he prefered to walk the walk. His gift to us and the world,, what he has tasked us with, is to make sure that the songs and shouts, laments and stories, testimonies and poetry and language and genuis, not just of the "working class", but of all the poor, the landless, the immigrants and slumdogs, all the vast multitudes who create and enrich and produce so much of the wealth of this world, that the "peoples voice" always truly be heard so that history may never again be merely the past with its army and navy, and the possibilities for true transfomation may be at hand.  And Archie reaffirmed for me that the life we lead is indeed the song we sing and the song we sing is the life we lead.


Rick Gladstone

Santa Cruz

Archie Green Memorial


There will be a memorial for Archie Green on June 21, 1 to 4 pm, at

McKenna Theatre

Creative Arts Building

San Francisco State University

1600 Holloway Ave. San Francisco Ca 94132


Musical tribute will feature Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Elaine Purkey.


Hosted by the Labor Archives and Research Center

Please rsvp Derek Green at [email protected]