September-October 2009

To the casual observer, it may appear that science and folk music are barely on speaking terms: Who built the Ark? Noah built the Ark-just like it says in the Bible.

But then in 1935 an agnostic Jew weighed in to this debate, and a small sliver of light opened up in the great wall of gospel music and spirituals based on biblical texts and stories. His name was Ira Gershwin, and in the folk opera Porgy and Bess he wrote: It ain't necessarily so/It ain't necessarily so-the things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.

Suddenly, a breath of fresh air was blowin' in the wind. And it wasn't the first; way back in 1921, a scientist in Cold Spring Harbor, Maine, Philip H. Pope wrote some verses to a chorus his wife Louise heard some of his students singing, to the tune of It's a Long Way From Tipperary-It's a long way from Amphioxus/It's a long way to us/It's a long way from Amphioxus to the meanest human cuss/Goodbye to fins and gill slits/welcome lungs and hair/It's a long, long way from Amphioxus, but we all came from there.

The song became a part of oral tradition, at least in zoology and biology departments across the country, mostly from the singing of marine biologist/folk singer Sam Hinton, who recorded it for Folkways Records in the early 1950s. Sam later became the head of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla and carried on his dual career until about ten years ago.

Finally, a legitimate folk singer and scientist had appeared in one musician. That's evolution for you. Sam demonstrated the evolution of science itself by pointing out that Amphioxus had been superseded by an earlier form of vertebrate that was a more accurate starting point for the evolution of Homo Sapiens. That was the scientist in Sam talking.

According to Sam, "Nowadays, most systematic biologists agree that Amphioxus is a sideline, and that sea-squirts and other ascidians are more like our Great-Great-Great-to-the-nth-power Grandparents." Nonetheless, the artist in him sang the song the way it was written, because, as he put it in his liner notes to the album Songs of Men, "It's still a good song, though."

One needn't rely on a trained scientist, however, to detect chinks in the armor of Creationism and its Judeo-Christian superstructure of belief that provides the world-view of most folk hymns, spirituals and religious novelty songs. Nor need one be tied to the academy to find articulate voices with powerful counter-statements to the dominant culture.

Indeed, one need go further than the iconic labor troubadour Joe Hill to see how deftly folk music has been able to turn religion on its head and create a counter-culture long before that of the 1960s.

The majority of Joe Hill's tunes come from the Christian hymnbook, but he systematically dismantled the mythology of their texts. In The Sweet Bye and Bye became Pie In the Sky, formally entitled The Preacher and the Slave, urging oppressed workers to get what was coming to them here on earth, not in some fabled after-life. There Is Power In the Blood became There Is Power In the Union, substituting the idea of organized labor for organized religion. And so as not to mince words, What a Friend We Have in Jesus became Dump the Bosses Off Your Back.

Seen from this point of view, Joe Hill's battle against the religious zealots of his day on behalf of dispossessed industrial workers was significantly more resonant and subversive than even he is usually given credit for. He is not only a fighter for workers' rights, he is a cultural warrior as well, taking on the religious establishment as well as the monopoly capitalists exploiting the workers. Indeed, it is basic to Joe Hill's world view-one almost wants to say fundamental-that the religious establishment's main social function is to prop up the economic oppression of the working class.

Joe Hill's ingenious strategy of taking on the capitalists at their mythological core by satirizing their Christian hymns caught on. Wobbly founding member and lifetime labor activist and socialist Eugene Debs garnered a million votes for president-from his prison cell-to which he had been consigned for opposing US entry into World War 1. No avowed Socialist has inspired more confidence since.

And after Joe Hill was executed on November 19, 1915 in Salt Lake City, Utah, a generation later folk singer Woody Guthrie picked up his fallen standard. One of his most powerful songs took on the prevailing myth of Jesus as the gentle prop of the ruling class and recast him as a classic folk hero outlaw in the mold of Jesse James, demonstrating as Joe Hill had that the message was in the music, using the tune from that song: He said to the rich "Give your goods to the poor," so they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And lest you think that Woody was writing only a romantic historical ballad about a bygone figure, his last verse brings the story radically up to date: This song was written in New York City/Of rich men, preachers and slaves/If Jesus was to preach what he preached in Galilee/They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.

In another of Woody's classic labor songs he takes a page right out of Joe Hill's playbook and transforms the hymn You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley into You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union: Though the road be rough and rocky/And the mountain steep and high/Yet we will sing as we go marching/And we'll win that One Big Union by and by.

"That One Big Union" sounds like Wobbly Heaven to me-thus satisfying the religious impulse without giving in to the religious, metaphysical world-view.

The battleground between science and religion on the one hand, and labor's most radical union and institutionalized Christianity on the other, goes to the heart of how folk music has become an agent of social change, and gotten tangled up in America's culture war.

For spirituals are not static; they-to use a metaphor derived from Darwin-evolve. We Shall Overcome, to take the most revealing example, began as a spiritual-I'll Be All Right Someday-collected on the Georgia Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina.

Under the guidance of Zilphia Horton it evolved into a labor song during the 1930's, at Highlander Folk School- founded by Zilphia and her husband Myles Horton at that time in New Market, Tennessee. Instead of I'll Be All Right it was sung as We Will Overcome as a part of a tobacco worker's strike.

Then in the late 1950s and early 1960s it penetrated the civil rights movement, where Pete Seeger changed the word "will" to "shall," Frank Hamilton added some new verses and Guy Carawan slowed down the tempo to an anthem-like crawl and added a new chord progression. Guy brought the song to the founding meeting of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in 1960, and a local hymn was on its way to becoming a world freedom song-eventually even making its way to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China in 1989, where it helped to give students the courage to stand in front of tanks.

From a religious song it became a secular song, and from a standard hymn transformed into a labor song-a la Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie-then "resurrected" into a southern civil rights song and finally into an international anthem for human rights.

A long way from Amphioxus, indeed.

Ross Altman holds a Ph.D. in Modern Literature; he is President of the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, and a member of Local 47 of the AFM; he may be reached at"

Ross will be performing his 29th annual concert of labor songs in the tradition of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger at The Church in Ocean Park at 235 Hill St. in Ocean Park, at the corner of 2nd and Hill, on Sunday morning, September 6 at 10:15 AM. It is free and open to the public. For further information, call 310-399-1631 .

On Friday evening, October 9, Ross will be performing two programs of his original baseball songs as a part of Art Night in Pasadena at the Pasadena Public Library, from 7:15 PM to 7:45 PM and from 9:15 PM to 9:45 PM in the Humanities Wing of the library, which is located at 1240 Nithsdale Road, Pasadena 91105 (at Avenue 64). It is free and open to the public. For further information, call 626-744-7271 .

On Sunday, October 11, Ross will be appearing at 3:00 PM on the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Stage at the CTMS Encino Taste of Folk Music, at Ventura and Balboa in Encino.

For a full roster of performances visit the CTMS web site and/or The Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest web site. The event is in honor of slain Wall Street Journal journalist Danny Pearl. This performance is also free and open to the public.


All Columns by Ross Altman