Labor Paeans

Jody Kolodzey

John McCutcheon (Photo by Jody Kolodzey)
Musician John McCutcheon will sometimes challenge rally organizers to name two speeches from the civil rights movement.

“Everyone can name one, but it’s amazing how almost no one can name two. And then I say, ‘OK, let’s start naming all the songs from the civil rights movement that we remember.’ ”

And their names are legion.

“I think that, in general, progressive movements have lost their sense of culture as an organizing tool,” he says. “All you have to do is witness, even an antiwar rally these days, where everything is built around speakers. Musicians and other kinds of cultural workers are almost viewed as punctuation between the real work that’s being done—by speakers.

“I don’t think this is done maliciously; I don’t even think it’s done knowingly. But anybody who’s ever done any work like that, be they a poet or a theater group, a musician, whatever, has certainly recognized that it’s absolutely the case.”

McCutcheon presides over the 400-member Local 1000 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) AFL-CIO. Most AFM members play for big orchestras and enjoy regular paychecks, but Local 1000 is the traveling musicians’ union, whose members work primarily in folk and other acoustic genres, in coffeehouses and other small venues where passing the hat is all too common. Local 1000 set a wage scale for clubs, house concerts, festivals and so forth; it also has a pension plan, a rarity for this kind of a union.

Minimum scale for a solo performer is $60 for an opening act. Add another 10 percent or so for the pension fund contribution. Most promoters are already paying scale, and some 500 single-engagement contracts are signed for individual artists each year, although only two organizations have negotiated long-term agreements with the union.

Local 1000 began in a lunch conversation “about 17 or 18 years ago” between McCutcheon and fellow activist-musicians Charlie King, John O’Connor and Len Wallace. “We were sharing war stories about playing on picket lines and so on, and someone happened to make the comment, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to feel about our own union the way that many of the meatpackers or the flight attendants or the coal miners that we’ve played for feel about theirs,’ and a sort of collective light bulb went off.” It took until 1994 to get the Local charter approved by the AFM.

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Today, Local 1000’s membership roster reads like a who’s who of the political folk world, from stalwarts such as Joe Glazer, U. Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger to relative newcomers such as Ani DiFranco, Pat Humphries, Joe Jencks and Laura Love.

In some ways, McCutcheon says, Local 1000 is “the most telling thing that’s happening in labor music today. I mean, everybody that’s involved in labor music, number one, is a member, and at least as important is the difference it has made in people who never knew or thought about labor unions at all, and all of a sudden are passionate about the AFM.

“I think that it’s fleshed them out. And they listen to music in a very different way, and they realize that there’s a lot of music out there that is in fact labor music without being ‘Solidarity Forever.’ When they hear a Bruce Springsteen song and he just happens to mention in passing, ‘I met her down at the union hall,’ their ears perk up and they say, ‘Oh, I know what that’s like.’”

McCutcheon may be best known for his song “Christmas in the Trenches” about an unofficial one-night truce between German and English soldiers during World War I. His 24 recordings include 1997’s Grammy-nominated Bigger Than Yourself (Rounder Records), for which the George Meany Center for Labor Education produced a study guide to teach children about unions. Still, it isn’t easy to pigeonhole him or his music.

“I don’t really think of myself as an antiwar singer or a labor singer, I just happen right now to be the president of this Local, and it’s something I feel passionate about. There’s only a brief period of time that you have enough influence that people will listen to you, and right now’s that time for me. Right now I’m talking a lot of union nuts and bolts, but there’s a long way to go and I doubt I’ll be shutting up about that anytime soon.”

Jody Kolodzey is a journalist and ethnomusicologist in Philadelphia.
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