Archie Green (1917-2009): Called to Labor

The man taught us "laborlore" and persuaded Congress to establish a national folklife center has died.


Share This:

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 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.

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.

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….

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”?



News Briefs