US folk songwriter Si Kahn is approaching 75 -- with another Bluegrass album on the shelf and union activist Mother Jones on the theater stage!
Mary G. Harris Jones (baptized 1837; died 1930), known as Mother Jones, was an Irish-born American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent organized labor representative, community organizer, and activist. She helped coordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.
Jones worked as a teacher and dressmaker, but after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever in 1867 and her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, she became an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. From 1897 onwards, she was known as Mother Jones. In 1902, she was called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners. In 1903, to protest the lax enforcement of the child labor laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organized a children's march from Philadelphia to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in New York.
Mary G. Harris was born on the north side of the city of Cork, Ireland, the daughter of Roman Catholic tenant farmers Richard Harris and Ellen (née Cotter) Harris. Her exact date of birth is uncertain; she was baptized on 1 August 1837. Mary Harris and her family were victims of the Great Famine, as were many other Irish families. This famine drove more than a million families, including the Harrises, to emigrate to North America when Mary was ten years old.
Mary was a teenager when her family emigrated to Canada. In Canada (and later in the United States), the Harris family were victims of discrimination due to their immigrant status as well as their Catholic faith. Mary received an education in Toronto at the Toronto Normal School, which was tuition free and even paid a stipend to each student of one dollar per week for every semester completed. Mary did not graduate from the Toronto Normal School, but she was able to undergo enough training to occupy a teaching position at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, on 31 August 1859 at the age of 23. She was paid eight dollars per month, but the school was described as a "depressing place". After tiring of her assumed profession, she moved first to Chicago and then to Memphis, where in 1861 she married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders, which later became the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America, which represented workers who specialized in building and repairing steam engines, mills, and other manufactured goods. Considering that Mary's husband was providing enough income to support the household, she altered her labor to housekeeping.
The loss of her husband and their four children, three girls and a boy (all under the age of five) in 1867, during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis marked a turning point in her life. After that tragedy, she returned to Chicago to begin another dressmaking business. She did work for those of the upper class of Chicago in the 1870s and 1880s. Then, four years later, she lost her home, shop, and possessions in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This huge fire destroyed many homes and shops. Jones, like many others, helped rebuild the city. According to her autobiography, this led to her joining the Knights of Labor. She started organizing strikes. At first the strikes and protests failed, sometimes ending with police shooting at and killing protesters. The Knights mainly attracted men but by the middle of the decade member numbers leaped to more than a million becoming the largest labor organization in the country. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the fear of anarchism and upheaval incited by union organizations resulted in the demise of the Knights of Labor when an anarchist threw a bomb into an altercation between the Chicago police and workers on strike. Once the Knights ceased to exist, Mary Jones became involved mainly with the United Mine Workers. She frequently led UMW strikers in picketing and encouraged striking workers to stay on strike when management brought in strike-breakers and militias. She believed that "working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids." Around this time, strikes were getting better organized and started to produce greater results, such as better pay for the workers.
Another source of her transformation into an organizer, according to biographer Elliott Gorn, was her early Roman Catholicism and her relationship to her brother, Father William Richard Harris. He was a Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, and dean of the Niagara Peninsula (in St. Catharines, Ontario) in the Diocese of Toronto, who was "among the best-known clerics in Ontario", but from whom she was reportedly estranged. Her political views may have been influenced by the 1877 railroad strike, Chicago's labor movement, and the Haymarket riot and depression of 1886.
Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was involved particularly with the UMW and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organizer, she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf. She was termed "the most dangerous woman in America" by a West Virginian district attorney, Reese Blizzard, in 1902, at her trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign ... crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out."
Jones was ideologically separated from many female activists of the pre-Nineteenth Amendment days due to her aversion to female suffrage. She was quoted as saying that "you don't need the vote to raise hell!" She opposed many of the activists because she believed it was more important to liberate the working class itself. When some suffragettes accused her of being anti-women's rights she clearly articulated herself, "I'm not an anti to anything which brings freedom to my class." She became known as a charismatic and effective speaker throughout her career. She was an exceptionally talented orator. Occasionally she would include props, visual aids, and dramatic stunts for effect. Her talks usually involved the relating of some personal tale in which she invariably "showed up" one form of authority or another. It is said Mother Jones spoke in a pleasant-sounding brogue which projected well. When she grew excited, her voice did not grow shrill. Instead, it dropped in pitch, and her intensity became all but palpable.
By age 60, she had assumed the persona of "Mother Jones" by claiming to be older than she was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers that she helped as "her boys". The first reference to her in print as Mother Jones was in 1897.
In 1901, workers in Pennsylvania's silk mills went on strike. Many of them were young women demanding to be paid adult wages. The 1900 census had revealed that one sixth of American children under the age of sixteen were employed. John Mitchell, the president of the UMWA, brought Mother Jones to north-east Pennsylvania in the months of February and September to encourage unity among striking workers. To do so, she encouraged the wives of the workers to organize into a group that would wield brooms, beat on tin pans, and shout "join the union!" She felt that wives had an important role to play as the nurturers and motivators of the striking men, but not as fellow workers. She claimed that the young girls working in the mills were being robbed and demoralized. The rich were denying these children the right to go to school in order to be able to pay for their own children's college tuitions.
To enforce worker solidarity, she traveled to the silk mills in New Jersey and returned to Pennsylvania to report that the conditions she observed were much better. She stated that "the child labor law is better enforced for one thing and there are more men at work than seen in the mills here." In response to the strike, mill owners also divulged their side of the story. They claimed that if the workers still insisted on a wage scale, they would not be able to do business while paying adult wages and would be forced to close. Even Jones herself encouraged the workers to accept a settlement. Although she agreed to a settlement that sent the young girls back to the mills, she continued to fight child labor for the rest of her life.
In 1903, Jones organized children who were working in mills and mines to participate in a "Children's Crusade", a march from Kensington, Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding "We want to go to school and not the mines!"
As Mother Jones noted, many of the children at union headquarters were missing fingers and had other disabilities, and she attempted to get newspaper publicity for the bad conditions experienced by children working in Pennsylvania. However, the mill owners held stock in most newspapers. When the newspaper men informed her that they could not publish the facts about child labor because of this, she remarked "Well, I've got stock in these little children and I'll arrange a little publicity." Permission to see President Roosevelt was denied by his secretary, and it was suggested that Jones address a letter to the president requesting a visit with him. Even though Mother Jones wrote a letter asking for a meeting, she never received an answer. Though the president refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda. The 2003 non-fiction book Kids on Strike! described Jones's Children's Crusade in detail.
During the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, Mary Jones arrived in June 1912, speaking and organizing despite a shooting war between United Mine Workers members and the private army of the mine owners. Martial law in the area was declared and rescinded twice before Jones was arrested on 13 February 1913 and brought before a military court. Accused of conspiring to commit murder among other charges, she refused to recognize the legitimacy of her court-martial. She was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary. During house arrest at Mrs. Carney's Boarding House, she acquired a dangerous case of pneumonia.
After 85 days of confinement, her release coincided with Indiana Senator John W. Kern's initiation of a Senate investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines. Mary Lee Settle describes Jones at this time in her 1978 novel The Scapegoat. Several months later, she helped organize coal miners in Colorado. Once again she was arrested, served some time in prison, and was escorted from the state in the months prior to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre, she was invited to meet face-to-face with the owner of the Ludlow mine, John D. Rockefeller Jr. The meeting prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines and introduce long-sought reforms.
Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW into the 1920s and continued to speak on union affairs almost until she died. She released her own account of her experiences in the labor movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). During her later years, Jones lived with her friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess on their farm in what is now Adelphi, Maryland. She celebrated her self-proclaimed 100th birthday there on 1 May 1930 and was filmed making a statement for a newsreel.
Mother Jones attempted to stop the miners' from marching into Mingo County in late August 1921. Mother Jones also visited the governor and departed assured he would intervene. Jones opposed the armed march, appeared on the line of march and told them to go home. In her hand she claimed to have a telegram from President Warren Harding offering to work to end the private police in West Virginia if they returned home. When UMW president Frank Keeney demanded to see the telegram, Mother Jones refused and he denounced her as a 'fake'. Because she refused to show anyone the telegram she was suspected of having fabricated the story. Mother Jones refused to allow anyone to read the document, and the President's secretary denied ever having sent one. After she fled the camp, she reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown.
Mother Jones was joined by Keeney and other UMWA officials who were also pressuring the miners to go home. Although Mother Jones organized for decades on behalf of the UMWA in West Virginia and even denounced the state as 'medieval', the chapter of the same name in her autobiography, she mostly praises Governor Morgan for defending the First Amendment freedom of the labor weekly The Federationist to publish. His refusal to consent to the mine owners request he ban the paper demonstrated to Mother Jones that he 'refused to comply with the requests of the dominant money interests. To a man of that type I wish to pay my respects'. Apparently Jones did not know or overlooked that Morgan had received about $1 million in campaign donations from industrialists in the 1920 election.
Mary Harris Jones died in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the age of 94 years on 30 November 1930. There was a funeral Mass at St. Gabriel's in Washington, D.C.
She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the 1898 Battle of Virden. She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, "her boys." In 1932, about 15,000 Illinois mine workers gathered in Mount Olive to protest against the United Mine Workers, which soon became the Progressive Mine Workers of America. Convinced that they had acted in the spirit of Mother Jones, the miners decided to place a proper headstone on her grave. By 1936, the miners had saved up more than $16,000 and were able to purchase "eighty tons of Minnesota pink granite, with bronze statues of two miners flanking a twenty-foot shaft featuring a bas-relief of Mother Jones at its center." On 11 October 1936, also known as Miners' Day, an estimated 50,000 people arrived at Mother Jones's grave to see the new grave stone and memorial. Since then, October 11 is not only known as Miners' Day but is also referred to and celebrated in Mount Olive as "Mother Jones's Day."
Si Kahn (born April 23, 1944) is an American singer-songwriter, activist, and founder and former executive director of Grassroots Leadership.
Hard times for everyone Hard times for you and me It's hard to watch it all go down Drowning like the setting sun Hard to watch out freedoms taken Hard to lose what we had won It's hard to watch the people struggle Hard to watch the bastards smile But it's hardly time to take a seat Hardly time to lose your voice Hardly fair to just complain As if we never had a choice For we are born to work and choose We are born to rip and mend We are born to win and lose We are born to rise againIn late August, Strictly Country Records will release a 5 CD box set of albums he recorded on this side of the Western Ocean, Si Kahn At 75: The Europe Sessions.
Kahn grew up in State College, Pennsylvania. When he was 15 his family moved to the Washington, DC area, where he graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. His grandfather Gabriel Kahn, his mother Rosalind Kahn, and his father Benjamin Kahn, a rabbi, instilled a strong sense of the family's Jewish heritage as well as teaching him the rudiments of rhythm and harmony as a child. His uncle, Arnold Aronson, executive secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, helped inspire and shape Kahn's career. Kahn earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard University. In 1995 he completed a Ph.D. in American Studies from the Union Institute.
Kahn moved to the south as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, and he now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kahn is the founder and former director of Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization that advocates for several causes, including prison reform, improved immigration detention policies, and violence prevention. He retired May 1, 2010. Most of the profits from Kahn's musical performances benefit this group. He has also been involved with Save Our Cumberland Mountains, an environmentalist group opposed to strip mining in Appalachia.
Though Kahn writes songs about a variety of topics, he is especially known for songs about workers and their families, like "Aragon Mill" (1974). He frequently writes songs, and occasionally performs, with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon. Kahn usually accompanies himself on a steel-string acoustic guitar, played with brass fingerpicks.
Kahn's younger sister, Jenette Kahn, was President of DC Comics for 26 years until she stepped down in 2002.
Reviewing Kahn's 1974 New Wood album in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), Robert Christgau observed "willfully austere Appalachian music" and songs that are "correctives every one (despite an occasional baldness of instructional intent) to the romanticizations of Southern pastoral individualism that are currently so profitable." He went on to call Kahn "an aficionado of poor-white virtues, but not at the expense of his vivid understanding of the labor, sadness, frustration, and small-mindedness that go along with them."
By the time of Kahn's 1979 record Home, Christgau had called him "the most gifted songwriter to come out of the folkie tradition since John Prine", possessing a political outlook in songs that are nonetheless "personal, their overriding theme the emotional dislocations of working far from home." While identifying Kahn's asset as living among ordinary people rather than the folk subculture, the critic credited Kahn's "understated colloquial precision" and concluded that, "some will consider the all-acoustic music thin (it's often solo or duet, twice a cappella) and the voice quavery. I find that both evoke the mountain music of the '20s in a way that makes me long for home myself, and I'm from Queens."
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: June 2019.
Photo Credits: (1),(2),(4),(7) Mother Jones In Heaven, (3) Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, (6) Utah Phillips, (8) Si Kahn, (9) Looping Brothers (unknown/website); (5) Andy Irvine (by Walkin' Tom).