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.
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.”
Burns is not intimidated by the daunting complexities and varying interpretations of Bridges and the unions in these two decades. I think most readers will agree that Burns rises to the challenge by forging a lucid and fair-minded account. He is clear that “left anti-Communist diatribes can begin to take on the attributes they fervently critique in others.” He argues that this tendency helps explain why Archie was not receptive to the recent attempts of scholars such as Michael Denning to portray the anti-fascist Popular Front as a broadly conceived social movement making various pluralistic contributions to American culture. Burns shows Green invariably associating the Popular Front with the Communist Party and deploring the latter’s romanticization of “folk music.” He also situates correspondence between Green and musician Pete Seeger in this perspective.
The alert reader will note the author’s diligent labor to historicize Green’s polarization of “vernacular authenticity” and the problematic “folk music” he linked to the Popular Front.
Burns contrasts Green’s narrow view of the Popular Front with Denning’s study that emphasizes its political diversity and relative autonomy. Denning sees a movement “uniting industrial unionists, Communists, independent socialists, community activists and ‘émigré’ anti-fascists around laborist social democracy.” Countering Green’s suspicions, Burns offers the keen, ironic insight that Archie’s work actually embodied the more expansive and pluralist Popular Front sensibility and the “laboring of American culture” depicted by Denning. He goes on to flesh this out in a discerning analysis of Green’s efforts as a culture worker/organizer, for example, with the American Veterans Committee. At the same time, Burns—not taken in by how Archie could wax eloquent on Wobbly anarcho-syndicalism—stresses the New Deal’s “lasting impact on him.”
Those of us fortunate to have known Archie Green always appreciated “his tireless commitment to workers’ dignity,” his “belief in the dignity intelligence of all workers.” These are Sean Burns’s words and they are borne out in this rich, thoughtful study he has chosen to end with Nick Spitzer’s valuable interview just prior to Archie’s death in 2009. Burns may exaggerate from time to time, for instance, Green’s interest in Antonio Gramsci. But he is right on target when he claims that Archie’s Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs (1972) “became a revered founding document for the nascent field of Appalachian studies.”
In originating the first University of Kentucky course on “Appalachian Politics,” I used the book several years. For many students it was a masterpiece, helping situate themselves historically and deepen their cultural experience.
Burns manages to highlight these core commitments and concerns by probing deeply the historical origins or formative period of Green’s political views and political identity. Nevertheless, some may wonder whether Archie’s cultural values were always well-served by a New Deal/wartime-shaped thinking about a changing system of political economy, one increasingly torn by struggles over power, profit, and patriotism. In his last months of life, Archie worried with Spitzer that an America by then caught up in imagery of a “Second Gilded Age” might not be able to “decolonize” toward greater local autonomy and community control.
The resurgence of a “winner take-all” politics of inequality since 1973—and especially after 1981—has jeopardized the liberal-democratic polity invigorated by the New Deal. The post-New Deal polity, strengthened by the Civil Rights Movement, may have its lodestar of democratic aspiration in the mid-sixties Supreme Court affirmation of the principle of “one person, one vote.” The current Supreme Court, endorsing “corporate personhood” and a pernicious “money is speech” doctrine, reflects opposing trends.
Longshoreman Archie Green took his doctorate at age 52 when the sixties ended and democratic struggles began to be darkened, not by Stalinism, but by globalizing neo-liberal forms of inequality and corporate elitism magnified by the big money’s domination of politics. Burns knows the extent to which Archie embodied the New Deal spirit of democratic struggle. His study focuses on Green’s real achievements to help us see what we have been losing beyond just “staying alive,” to use Jeff Cowie’s pithy caption for the seventies.
Green’s efforts in the politics of culture led to a crucial institutional and academic consolidation of working class culture and history. If his political analysis tended to remain fixed in the earlier period, his hard work for what he termed “laborlore” clarified that a more egalitarian society is possible. Archie’s monumental work for the American Folklife Preservation Act culminated in 1976 with passage of the bill. To get that done he had to challenge in the Senate hearings a conventional academic or scholarly fear of “social causes” that has left the knowledge commons exposed to corporate privatization in the neo-liberal era of global capital’s ascendancy.
Archie asked the Senate committee: “What is the commitment of a scholar as a citizen?” Burns shows that Green’s concept of public folklore is absolutely essential if we are ever to get back on the path of organizing “society around a principle of respect for all workers.”
Archie’s question and his example still haunt all too many tenured faculty. The Occupy Wall Street Movement that has broken out in hundreds of U.S. cities, large and small, has brought the issue to the front of academic conscience. Respect for all workers in the USA and across the globe is unmistakable in the Occupy Movement’s invocation of the “99 percent.”
In much of rural America, medical care issues are now joined by threatened loss of postal and basic phone services. As Green said to Nick Spitzer in his last months of life, “how to diversify power is the big political problem of the day.” He also worried that the refusal of cultural pluralism in rural American counties sometimes can be the hanging rope used by elites wielding, for example, “Southern strategies” to prevent democratization.
Today, some of us are wondering if there is too much academic silence about the squandering of the knowledge-commons that Green’s legendary contributions served to rejuvenate. The laborlore Archie loved brings into view what some of us have theorized as the praxeomorphic roots of the knowledge commons. We refer to the practical forms and working assumptions of everyday activity from which emerge the scales of competence vital to sustainable life. What Burns thinks of as “the laboring of American culture” must include finding and refreshing these roots, reclaiming various knowledge regimes that have distanced power from people and their well-being.
Scholars truly familiar with Archie’s great work Only a Miner and his many shorter studies will know that he did not treat laborlore as a panacea. The ambit of the expressive practices reflecting the dynamic cultural pluralism within labor’s ranks was and remains the issue of workers’ empowerment. Archie Green’s living legacy to democratic politics is his illumination of the “dignity and intelligence of all workers,” as Burns shows. Today, when Americans face major questions of reconfiguring capital to assure a future for democratic equality, Archie’s conception of “workers [as] makers of culture not passive recipients” is needed as never before.
Herbert Reid is co-author with Betsy Taylor of Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice published in 2010 by the University of Illinois Press.