The Mind of Labor’s Champion

[imgbelt img=archiethumb.jpg] Archie Green, labor historian and folklorist, advocated cultural
pluralism and shone a light on the culture of workers. A new biography
explores the life and politics of this unorthodox scholar.



Folklorist Archie Green documented the lives and songs of many rural musicians. This photo shows Green (left) and Dorsey Dixon of East Rockingham, North Carolina, 1962. Green was recording Dixon’s album “Babies in the Mill.”

Archie Green: The Making of a Working Class Hero
By Sean Burns
University of Illinois Press, 2011
232 pp. $25.00

“Imaginatively, we reach under the melting pot to retard its flame.”  This is how Archie Green (1917-2009) once described the work of public folklorists. 

Sean Burns highlights the comment in drawing his fascinating and insightful yet measured study of Green to a close. The statement is indeed key to Archie’s approach and underlies his commitments both to cultural pluralism in general and to authentic expressions of regionally specific arts in particular – music especially.

Recordings and documentation of traditional performers were among many amazing trails Archie blazed.  Now we have a book that traces his work through the dense forest of cultural politics without losing us at the first turn.

Archie’s love for the vernacular music of American folk communities in some ways goes back to the memory of “his mother, Rose, singing Yiddish and Ukrainian songs from the Old Country.”  In Archie Green: The Making of a Working Class Hero, Sean Burns skillfully charts Green’s youthful musical experience, curiosity and affections as well as the stories he pursued all his life.  The seasoned folklorist and labor historian, Burns tells us, “consistently promoted the importance of traditional rural performers”:  singer Sarah Ogan Gunning from the Appalachian coal fields, banjo player Roscoe Holcomb born in Daisy, Kentucky, Elizabeth Cotton who grew up in Carrboro, North Carolina (when it was rural), and Frank Proffitt of Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, were four of Archie’s favorites.

Burns provides an absorbing account of Archie’s experience in student politics in the early Depression years. For example, he worked with his father in the Democratic Party campaign for governor of socialist Upton Sinclair.  By his senior year at Berkeley 1938-1939, Green’s activities in the Democratic Party had begun to reflect the New Deal ethos.  But it was the conflict between San Francisco maritime labor leaders Harry Bridges and Harry Lundeberg and Archie’s work life between 1939 and 1943 that seem to have been decisive in shaping his political outlook.  It was around 1936 that what had been collaboration between “the two Harrys” became a long, vicious battle for control of maritime labor.  Graduating in 1939, Archie first spent a year in the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps but then turned to the San Francisco waterfront to look for work.  The job he found in 1941 was that of a shipwright’s apprentice under Scotsman Benny Carwardine, a waterfront veteran.  Burns documents how Carwardine, an independent socialist critic of Bridges, became Archie’s mentor: “Green fully adopted Carwardine’s anti-Communist, anti-Bridges perspective.”