Labor disputes and industrial disasters are not particularly unusual events in American history, but the macabre deaths of 74 people (60 of whom were children between the ages of two and 16) on Christmas Eve in a tall, jammed stairwell of the Italian Hall in strike-ridden Red Jacket, Michigan, in 1913 (renamed Calumet in 1929) was no ordinary catastrophe. Several thousand underground copper miners, mostly Finnish and Italian immigrants, had been on strike for more than six months, but they were running out of strike funds and faced a powerful business-led Citizens’ Alliance. As Christmas drew near, the mining union’s Women’s Auxiliary organized a big Christmas party to make sure that every child of a striking miner would receive a holiday gift. Hundreds of children and parents climbed up the high steps to the second floor ballroom of the Italian Hall and gathered around a large Christmas tree. A young girl played a piano and the crowd quieted down to listen. Although there remains a dispute as to what happened next, it is clear that some person or persons yelled, “Fire!” and that this provoked a mad stampede for the stairwell. Many children tripped and fell headlong down the steep stairs, landing with broken bones in front of the doors. For some reason, the doors would not open. The strikers claimed the anti-union thugs hired by the Alliance held the doors shut; the Alliance later claimed the doors opened to the inside. As more and more tried to escape, the stairway became jammed with panic-stricken children who piled on top of each other, breaking their painfully entangled arms and legs. Soon they began to suffocate. When the doors were finally opened, 74 bodies were carried back up the stairs and laid in rows by the Christmas tree.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is a 70-mile finger of land that juts into Lake Superior at the northernmost point of the state of Michigan. I stepped on the gas pedal and pushed my Chevrolet up to 55, heading south from Copper Harbor, the small town at the top of the peninsula. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is physically separated from the rest of Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac and when you look at a map of the United States you might say, with perfect logic, that the Upper Peninsula really should be part of Wisconsin. Most of the UP is scenic northern forest, but wild, rugged, and largely undeveloped. I’m sure more wolverines live in the UP than humans, but they don’t get counted in the census. US Highway 41 is a six-lane freeway in Milwaukee, but up on the Keweenaw Peninsula it is a narrow two-lane road with tall pine trees standing like soldiers along the edge of the asphalt. Rounding a sharp turn, I suddenly saw five or six whitetail deer directly in front of me. I swerved and missed most of them, but one deer jumped in the same direction as my car, smashed into the hood, broke the windshield, flew over the top, and dashed into the forest. The car was not drivable. After a half hour or so, a Highway Patrolman pulled up to offer assistance. “It happens all the time,” he said. “There are a lot of deer and it can be hard to see them.” He called a tow truck and soon my damaged car was on its way to Snow’s Auto Repair in Calumet, Michigan.
Wolff contextualizes the story of 1913 in a comprehensive history of copper mining in the Upper Peninsula. Native Americans mined copper and used it to make hooks, knives, and jewelry. French explorers and Jesuit missionaries discovered new uses for copper, prospectors searched for more, and industrialists from the East invested large sums to go underground, recruiting thousands of immigrants from Wales, Russia, Italy, and Finland to drill and extract the ore. By reopening the historical record, Wolff resolves lingering mysteries about the tragedy:
Was there a fire? No.
Did someone actually yell “Fire!”? No one ever confessed to it.
Did the strikebreakers deliberately hold the door shut to prevent the children from leaving? No one claimed to have seen anyone hold the doors shut, although the strikers and their families were inside the building.
Did the doors at the bottom of the steps open to the inside, as is so often repeated in official descriptions of the tragedy? No.
It is these rumors and uncertainties that have passed for history, burying the truth under layers of obfuscation that anger Wolff and have led him toward Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie wrote (and rearranged) about 1,500 songs, but “1913 Massacre,” with its dark tone, solemnity, and dirge-like tempo, was a uniquely powerful piece of his repertoire. The dry humor and ironic double meanings often found in his compositions are jettisoned as Guthrie reports on the shockingly brutal facts in a matter-of-fact way. It suggests that the full extent of the horror sapped him of emotion. As Wolff correctly notes, we hear nothing about socialism or revolution or even unionism. Instead, Guthrie takes the listener along with him as an observer, a witness to what will unfold. “Take a trip with me back in 1913,” writes Guthrie.
Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I will take you to a place called Italian Hall,
where the miners are having their Christmas ball.
I will take you in a door and up the high stairs,
singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see,
and watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.
Guthrie crafted the song based on a memoir written by “Mother” Mary Bloor, an early Socialist and labor organizer well known in political circles for her courage in the face of repression and violence. Bloor’s daughter, Herta Geer, was the wife of Will Geer, the actor and political activist who had befriended Guthrie in Los Angeles in 1939 and introduced him to the local writers, actors, and musicians involved in the growing labor movement and the fight against fascism. Guthrie wrote the song in 1945, about five years after Bloor’s 300-page memoir, We Are Many, appeared. Although her section on Calumet is only a few pages long, it was crammed with detail, much of which Guthrie incorporated into his song.
Wolff uses “1913 Massacre” as an entry point into Guthrie’s life. Despite Guthrie’s self-created persona as the “Political Okie,” with his deliberate misspellings, improper grammar, and “aw shucks” demeanor, Guthrie was not an uncomplicated personality. As he writes his narrative of “1913 Massacre,” Wolff draws out some of those complexities. On the one hand, Guthrie’s situation in 1945 was more stable than ever. He had completed his military service and several tours in the Merchant Marine, and had survived a torpedoing. Working with Moe Asch he was recording scores of songs and beginning a new project called “American Documentary,” which he described as “a kind of musical newspaper,” using songs to illuminate and comment upon current events. His semi-autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, had received 150 mostly positive reviews and encouraged Guthrie to begin a second novel, Seeds of Man. A song he had written in Los Angeles in 1939, “Oklahoma Hills,” recorded by his cousin Jack Guthrie, reached number one on the folk jukebox list in 1945. That same year, along with Pete Seeger and others, he founded People’s Songs. The United States and the Soviet Union remained united against the Axis powers, unions had made unprecedented progress during the war years, and organized labor emerged for the first time as an important political force at the national level.
But below the surface, Guthrie was troubled. His project with Moe Asch resulted in about 150 recordings, including collaborations with Seeger, Cisco Houston, Bess Lomax Hawes, and Sonny Terry, but the end product, an album entitled Struggle, was not widely distributed. A further recording effort, focused on Sacco and Vanzetti, also proved a disappointment. Wolff describes how Guthrie’s energy and focus began to wane as he succumbed to the debilitating disease that would devour him over the remaining 25 years of his life: “Just dizzy, woozy, blubberdy. And scubberdy and rustlety, tastely […] the soberest drunk I ever got on.” Guthrie’s disease was not accurately diagnosed as Huntington’s chorea until 1952, but he knew that the same inexorable force that had destroyed his mother now held him in its deadly grip. Even as he gathered with Seeger and others to form People’s Songs on New Year’s Eve, 1945, Guthrie must have been beset by deep anxiety. Wolff describes the scene:
They were trying to reinvent the movement, to survive the emerging Cold War, to preserve their hopes and ideals. The meeting soon turned into a hootenanny where everyone sang. When it was Guthrie’s turn, he could have launched into the punchy “Union Maid” or “Roll on, Columbia,” songs of confidence and optimism. Instead he sang a cautionary tune, that slow ballad about the miner’s Christmas that he was now calling 1913 Massacre.
Wolff notes that Guthrie’s productive years coincided almost exactly with the period of the Popular Front against fascism, from 1935 to 1945. That period had ended.
Through the windshield of the tow truck I saw a sign that read “Calumet, Michigan” and immediately recalled the song — a song that’s hard to forget. I had first encountered it on Arlo Guthrie’s album, Hobo’s Lullaby. I remember listening to the song and writing down the lyrics on a sheet of paper, lifting and dropping the needle of the record player a dozen times before I was able to capture all the words accurately. Then I sang the song to myself. And sang it again. And again.
Snow’s Auto Repair was located in the heart of what remained of Calumet after the copper veins were exhausted and the miners left for work out west. The year was 1988, but at Snow’s it seemed more like 1958. The sagging building, the forlorn signage, the old auto repair equipment, and the two elderly mechanics in dreary, oil-stained uniforms all recalled an earlier time. While I waited for the insurance adjuster to arrive and estimate the cost of repairs, I struck up a conversation with one of the mechanics.
“Say, can you tell me where the old Italian Hall is located?” I asked.
“The Italian Hall?” he responded.
“Yes, I’m sure it’s here. This is Calumet, right?”
“That’s right. This is Calumet.”
“Well, I’m just wondering where the Italian Hall is located. I’d like to see it.”
The mechanic raised his arm and pointed his work-worn index finger toward the window, in the direction of a large empty lot across the street. “That’s where it was. They tore it down last year. I guess you’re too late.”
Woody Guthrie appealed to KFVD radio listeners in Southern California and found a new audience among political activists, union organizers, and progressive writers who had never seen a bona fide Okie with left-wing politics. He cultivated his persona in songs, newspaper articles, and Bound for Glory. Even as he branched out into new areas, such as children’s song, Jewish songs, and novels and cartoons, the Okie persona never left him.
Wolff contrasts this with Bobby Zimmerman’s constant reinventions of himself. First the artist who would be Dylan abandoned his early interests in rock and blues for the emerging folk scene and changed his last name. Then, after discovering some Guthrie records from one of his folkie friends in the Dinkytown section of Minneapolis, he immersed himself in the Guthrie persona. He learned all of Guthrie’s songs and limited his performances at coffee houses and parties to the man’s repertoire. He mimicked Guthrie’s guitar style, speech patterns, and clothing. He carefully read Bound for Glory and began to create tall tales about his background, claiming that he was from Albuquerque or Gallup or Illinois — anywhere but Hibbing, Minnesota. “Dylan made himself authentic,” writes Wolff.
He changed who he was to get closer to the truth. Or try to. The sound that eventually came over pop radio — his timed drawl, the rural edge, the off-center sense of humor — was a lot Guthrie. That’s how Dylan became an original — through imitation. It’s as if he ran from his middle-class, mid-20th-century Hibbing and went back to Guthrie’s ’30s. Or as he put it, “I was making my own depression.”
Veteran folkies from the Dinkytown scene who were familiar with Guthrie chided Dylan for going too far with his impersonation. So Dylan went east to find Guthrie, claiming that he hopped freight trains and hitchhiked like Woody, when he actually got a ride from a friend. Dylan’s visits with a dying man in Greystone Hospital have been treated elsewhere, but Wolff captures an important element of this encounter. While Dylan was performing Guthrie’s songs for his idol, who was no longer able to speak, he confronted the reality that Guthrie was effectively gone, that his world of the Depression and his war against fascism had disappeared, that his fervent political dreams had vanished in the wind. Later Dylan would write:
Woody Guthrie was my last idol
he was the last idol because
he was the first idol
I’d ever met
that taught me
face t’ face
that men are men
shatterin’ even himself
as an idol …
Dylan’s confrontation with Guthrie’s demise was the starting point for Dylan’s composition of “Song to Woody,” written only a few days after their first meeting.
The song draws heavily upon Guthrie, using, almost note by note, the haunting, dirge-like melody of “1913 Massacre,” and opening with the line, “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song,” which is derived from a similar opening Guthrie had used in a poem for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The song is a tribute but also a farewell. The lyrics set up comparisons between the Depression-era ’30s and the ’60s, between Guthrie’s old life and Dylan’s new life. “Listen to the song Dylan felt he needed to sing,” writes Wolff, “and you hear a kid who’s come a thousand miles only to discover that what he came for no longer exists.” The song is important for another reason: it marks the commencement of Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter. Dylan’s first self-titled album included only two original songs — “Talkin’ New York,” a hillbilly’s satirical romp through the big city, and “Song to Woody.” Subsequent Dylan albums contained exclusively Dylan compositions.
Wolff may be right in locating the end of young Dylan’s idolization of Guthrie in “Song to Woody,” but the older folky continued to influence the younger artist. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin’ featured songs with powerful but artful political themes. While hardline politicos in the folk scene complained that Dylan’s songs about old girlfriends meant that he was turning his back on the struggle, those who listened closely to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Times They are a-Changin’,” heard Dylan developing on the Guthrie tradition. Still, Dylan was carefully moving away from strictly political themes. Wolff quotes excerpts from a “letter back to Dinkytown,” which Dylan wrote for the 1963 Newport Folk Festival program, in which the artists refuses to answer the standard union organizing question posed in the powerful song written by Florence Patton Reece, “Which Side Are You On?”:
Hey man — I’m sorry —
the songs we used t sing an play
the songs written fifty years ago
the dirt farm songs — the dust bowl songs
the depression songs …
Woody’s songs …
when there was a strike there’s only two kind of views
… thru the union’s yes or thru the boss’s eyes
… them two simple sides that was so easy t tell apart
A COMPLICATED CIRCLE.
The folk songs showed me the way
an I got nothing but homage an holy thinkin’ for the ol songs and stories
singin an writin what’s on my own mind …
not by no kind of side
not by no kind a category.
Dylan was preparing to reinvent himself again and he was not taking sides.
I turned to the mechanic at Snow’s and asked, “Where are the bricks?”
“Well, the Italian Hall was made of bricks and they demolished it. So, what did they do with the bricks?”
“They hauled them away.”
“Yeah, but where did they go?”
“You want to know where the brinks are now?”
“Yes, where did they dump the bricks? Do you know?”
“Well, I don’t know why you want to know, but yeah, I know where they dumped them, sure.” He pointed out the window again. “Okay, go north for two stop lights. Then turn left and go until you get to the railroad tracks. Cross the tracks and take the first turn to the left. Keep going about a quarter mile until you see an island of poplar trees on the left. Then take the dirt road on the right for, I don’t know, a hundred yards or so. You’ll see a pile of bricks. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s where you will find them.”
About a year later I was asked to perform in a Labor Concert in Kenosha, Wisconsin, along with Woody’s son, Arlo. I told Arlo I had learned the song “1913 Massacre” from his recording and that I wanted to give him a brick from the Italian Hall — a reminder of how our past can reemerge from under the weight of obfuscation.
Like the miners of Red Jacket, Michigan, who extracted copper from deep below the surface of the earth, Wolff helps us recover the truth about a tragic episode in our history.
Darryl Holter is a historian, entrepreneur, musician, and owner of an independent bookstore. He has taught history at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA and is an adjunct professor at USC.