On the Almanac Trail
Performing union songs across the heartland of America
Volume 113, No. 9October, 2013
A month later, it almost seems like it never happened. But for 32 days this summer, I hit the road with fellow AFM member Rik Palieri, singing for unions and union people at 23 concerts in 15 states.
This self-organized tour came about at the end of a year of planning, research, recording and promoting “The Almanac Trail,” a new union-made CD that features the labor songs of The Almanac Singers as well as narrative supplied by Pete Seeger, the sole surviving member of the group that included Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays and Mill Lampell. At the core of that work, however, was a dream that Rik had been carrying with him for more than 30 years – retracing the route taken by The Almanac Singers in 1941, when they sang for unions and picket lines throughout the United States, and bringing labor classics such as “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?” back to the labor movement.
The Almanac Singers were one of the first “topical” groups out there, and the songs on their “Talking Union” album, released in 1941, continue to inspire workers in organizing drives and on picket lines. The loose-knit group existed in various formations for about two years, but they were one of the first protest or political groups in modern music.
Rik had been carrying this idea around since the early 1980s, when he first brought it up to Pete Seeger while Rik was part of the Hudson Clearwater Singers. Rik showed me a letter from 1983 in which Pete discusses the idea and shares recollections of the tour. But the idea never got off the ground – Rik was a folksinger, but not strongly connected to the labor movement. So it sat until Rik brought it up to me while touring last year. And once we began talking, the idea took root – we would record a new album of these labor songs, we would get Pete Seeger to narrate it, and we would devise a tour that tracked the 1941 tour – from Pittsburgh to Chicago, from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, up the coast to Seattle, and then back along the northern route.
Little did we know what we were in for when we began this journey! We began planning the CD while touring Australia in February, singing some of the songs we knew would be on the album, and talking about how to present the project. We knew we would re-record the six songs on the original “Talking Union” CD that the Almanacs produced in 1941, and we added five more songs that they either wrote or helped popularize.
Rik set up interviews with Pete Seeger, who gladly supplied stories of how the Almanac Singers came together and memories of the tour. We recorded the album this spring, and were honored to have our friends Anne Feeney, Guy Davis and Dom Flemons (from The Carolina Chocolate Drops) appear on several songs. We have filed a limited pressing agreement with the AFM and used a union print shop for the CD jacket and liner notes. Since Rik had a tour of Europe scheduled for May, the task of mixing and completing the CD fell mostly on my shoulders. We mixed the CD in early June and sent the CD into production – holding our breath that it would be ready in time for the beginning of the tour on July 11 in Pittsburgh!
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Both Rik and I are seasoned road dogs, touring for many years throughout the nation and overseas. But this nearly five-week, 23-concert tour (with a nursing home and a veterans’ home gig thrown in), was the longest tour I have done. The sheer distance we covered – 9,200 miles – is evidence enough. There were days in which we drove upwards of six to eight hours before arriving at our next city, then playing a two-hour concert. After the first few days, it kind of dissolves into one long trip – but with a different bed, hosts and venue each night.
In the folk music world, at least on the level in which we circulate, we are dependent on presenters/hosts to feed and house us. Touring would not be feasible if we had to pay for hotels and meals each night, and it is fun to meet and stay with people who are supportive of the work you are doing – whether it is because they are union activists, folk music lovers, or both.
Rik and I have many friends along the way, so we already knew whom we’d be staying with at many of our stops. But every night is a bit of a surprise when traveling to new places. We slept on more couches, floors, and air mattresses than I care to recount here, but the best part of this type of accommodation is spending time with your hosts, who are often excited about the prospect of having the “artists” staying with them. There were many late-night, post-concert jams and gatherings, which is also an important part of this work, in effect thanking your hosts and local activists for presenting the concert.
I’ve already mentioned Rik’s dream of taking this music out and following the tour route of the Almanac Singers on that 1941 route. While this was Rik’s baby, so to speak, he took me on as a partner in this project mainly, I think, because of my background as a union organizer and activist and my history of producing labor and protest CDs. We fit somewhat comfortably into these roles – Rik was the “vision” guy, and I was the details and logistics guy. And while all of this work was not without struggle or conflict – the standard issues of two solo artists now working together and making decisions together – we complemented each other well onstage and off. We rented a good, union-made car (a Ford Focus, highly recommended!), used GPS to faithfully get us to each destination, and had no problems along the way. At each gig, we enjoyed giving fellow activists and audience members a shot in the arm and musical inspiration as they continue to fight the powers that are stacked up against organized labor. Our first three shows, in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit, featured our friend and labor folksinger Anne Feeney, who has been successfully battling cancer for three years now! It was great having Anne along for the shows, and we began to hit our stride in Detroit, the last of the three with Anne. By now the concert, which featured the songs and stories of the Almanacs and the 1941 tour, was running smoothly.
I was most moved by our visits to Butte, Montana, an old mining town with a rich union history, and the concert in Madison, Wisconsin, where labor activists have been fighting Governor Scott Walker since he stripped public employees of their union rights in 2011. It was in these cities that I saw the best of the labor movement – militant, spirited, and unflinching in the face of opposition. It reminded me of why the labor movement has been my home, so to speak, over the last two decades of work as a union organizer and now a folksinger.
In Chicago, we stood and stared at the urn that held the ashes of Joe Hill, the martyred IWW songwriter and organizer, framed on a murder charge and executed in Utah in 1915. To be that close to history, and know that in some small way, even if it is just by singing the song “Joe Hill,” you are connected to it, was overwhelming.
These classic songs, which tell the stories of labor’s struggle, are powerful even now, some 70 years after they were written and recorded. They are not just good “songs” because they are catchy tunes or have good lines. They help us remember our history, and they remind us of those who have come before us, and often paid the price for their activism. We felt honored to be singing these songs, and telling the stories behind the songs, for activists throughout the nation!
For more information on the Almanac Trail and tour, see AlmanacTrail.com. There is a video blog and many photos from the tour there.
George Mann, a singer-songwriter and producer of protest music, is a member of AFM Local 1000 and The Industrial Workers of the World. He lives in Ithaca and is a former union organizer who has worked with Local 802 and the Communications Workers of America. When not touring, he performs for many veterans’ homes and nursing homes in upstate New York.