July-August 2017


By Ross Altman, PhD

AFM logoLast night I had the strangest dream, but it had nothing to do with ending war. It had to do with my union card for American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 47, and what it means to me. In my dream I just barely touched the truck in front of me when we were both stopped at a red light. The driver got out and decided to make a federal case out of it, even though there was no visible damage to the back of his truck. Somehow as the conversation developed between us he let me know that he did not want to report this to his insurance company, nor was he looking for any out of pocket settlement from me. He said that he would not report it if I agreed to give up my “freight card” for good; I would no longer be a member of the professional musician’s union. I could continue to drive with no further punitive measures taken against me; it wouldn’t cost me a penny—except my union card. I told you it was a strange dream. And yet it forced me to confront the question of what my union card meant to me—and whether it was worth all the hassle and potential expense of dealing with my insurance company and the DMV in order to keep my card.

I slowly mulled this all over, as the trucker kept coming back and looking at the rear end of his huge truck to see what wasn’t there. Finally, I told him, no, I would prefer to keep my “freight card” (how he referred to it) and he could report the accident come what may. Then I saw him suddenly change his own mind, and start to reflect on whether it was worth his time to report me to the DMV and the accident to his insurance company. This went on for some time until I finally woke up, relieved to discover that it was only a dream. And then, with no help from Freud, I began to interpret this dream, and concluded it was significant enough to write about.

I have been a proud member of AFM Local 47 at 817 Vine St in Hollywood ever since I met Serena Williams, who was then Executive Vice-President of the Local. She heard me do a program of labor songs for the Jewish Labor Committee, one of many union-inspired organizations in Los Angeles. After I ended the program with IWW (Wobbly) member Ralph Chaplin’s anthem of the labor movement, written in 1910, Solidarity Forever, Serena came up to me and benignly asked if I was in the union—not the IWW, but Musicians Union Local 47. My face turned a bright beet red and I blushed and admitted I was not—right after singing 10 of the most eloquent arguments for belonging to the union I had in my repertoire—songs like Joe Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave, John Handcox’s Roll the Union On, Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid, Florence Reece’s Which Side Are You On, and Chaplin’s Solidarity Forever. She wasted no time in telling me that I should be in the union, both because I was being paid for the booking and my repertoire reflected a union soul. I could see no argument against joining, so like Woody said in his song “You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union,” I did just that. That was more than 15 years ago, and I have been not just a folk singer, but a union folk singer, ever since. Not just figuratively, but literally, I have paid my dues.

To fully appreciate what this means I encourage you to see (or see again) Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers movie about a folk singer in the early days of the Greenwich Village folk revival loosely based on “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” Dave Van Ronk, whose first Folkways album was likewise titled, “Inside Dave Van Ronk.”

There is a great sequence in the movie—among many—of what a union card meant to Llewyn Davis. It wasn’t a musician’s union card, but his Merchant Marines seaman’s union card. In this part of the movie, as his life is otherwise falling apart around him, he returns to his sister’s apartment to pick up his few belongings, most notably his Merchant Marines union card so he can go back to sea and finally make enough to support himself, since his life as a folk singer has not panned out and he needs to somehow make a living. His sister nonchalantly tells him that she threw out the small box that had his seaman’s papers, including the card that would allow him to accept work on a merchant ship. The forlorn look in his eyes when she tells him that she threw it out—as having no value—tells you everything you need to know about Llewyn Davis; he is the real deal: he now knows that his life has come to nothing, the last hope he had was embodied in that union card: his ability to work in the symbolically charged Merchant Marines—which was where Woody Guthrie shipped out three times, and was torpedoed twice—the symbol of American folk music. When he goes down to the docks to try and enlist without his card he is told in no uncertain terms that without his union card he cannot get an assignment. That Merchant Marine’s card is his—in the language of the Beatles—“ticket to ride.” Now you know what my dream and musician’s union card meant to me—the difference between being a working musician who—like the Bible said—is “worthy of his hire,” and just playing guitar for himself and friends. In short it meant—and means—everything.

Woody said it best in his World War II song There’s a Better World a-Coming:

There’s a better world a-coming

I’ll tell you why why why

There’s a better world a-coming

I’ll tell you why.

I’m a union man in a union war

It’s a union world I’m fighting for

There’s a better world a coming

Can’t you see see see

There’s a better world a-coming

Can’t you see?

We’ll all be union and we’ll all be free

There’s a better world a-coming can’t you see?

We will beat ‘em on the land, in the sea and in the sky

There’s a better world a-coming tell you why

There’s a better world a comin’

Tell you why.

There's a Better World A-Comin'

That’s the strangest dream I had last night, and it revealed to me what a small union card I carry in my wallet means: it’s a symbol of why I became a folk singer in the first place—it truly is a “freight card,” just as the trucker in my dream called it, and the freight it carries is the significance of the social values represented by Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie—the attitude of “one for all, and all for one,” as opposed to everyone for themselves. We may no longer live in a world where unions have much power, but nonetheless I sing Joe Hill’s song There Is Power in the Union, and for three minutes it feels like it still does. The billionaire values represented by the recent presidential election may now lean towards a “dog eat dog world,” but the counter-culture values of “I am my brother’s keeper” will have a voice and a guitar so long as a folk singer like Llewyn Davis can keep his union card and live by a higher calling.

I am particularly proud to belong to American Federation of Musicians Local 47 due to its distinguished history of having broken the color line in the musicians’ labor movement. On April 1, 1953, the previously segregated union Locals 47 and 767 merged, setting the precedent for all other Locals throughout the Federation to end segregation. That is something to be proud of, since the modern civil rights movement had not really developed yet, and this move towards integration grew out of the struggle within musicians ranks to be a trail blazer for social justice—going back to Benny Goodman in the 1930s being the first major orchestra leader to integrate his orchestra, and Columbia Records’ John Hammond (who discovered both Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan) in 1938 creating a major integrated concert at the Hollywood Bowl—From Spirituals to Swing—that demonstrated the development of modern music out of the African-American slave spirituals, and assembled cutting edge performers like blues artist Big Bill Broonzy and jazz clarinetist and big band leader Benny Goodman on the same stage to tell that story in the most meaningful way possible: through the music itself. The labor movement, personified by AFM Local 47 put its professional stamp on this movement to reflect the reality of American music that had always been integrated at the grassroots, even when musicians unions remained segregated.

Even in the Deep South, in Alabama, long before integration had been championed by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Hank Williams learned to play and sing the blues from a black street performer “T” Tot. His influence on Williams’ vocal style in the 1940s made him the signature country singer of the age—as significant a factor as Williams songwriting in making him “the Shakespeare of Country Music.”

By integrating the labor movement for musicians, AFM Local 47 led the way in creating a union that looked like America—a long way from those sorry days in the south when Billie Holiday couldn’t stay or eat at the same hotels as her white bands conducted by Lester Young and Artie Shaw. However, Artie Shaw notably persevered in insisting that she stand on the same stage as the band—which southern hotels pointedly tried to stop. Musicians—in keeping with H.D. Thoreau’s tempo—marched to the beat of a different drum, and it led to de facto integration and eventually integrated unions as well. AFM Local 47 was the first. Hooray for Hollywood!

Of all the official union bookings I have had through the years (my comrades in Local 47 know how hard it is to make a living as a folk singer, so they earnestly try to throw me a union-sponsored gig at least once a year to help me pay my dues and keep me in the union, since nobody else in Local 47 seems to know any labor songs) the most surprising and gratifying occurred during the presidential campaign last year, when they hosted candidate Bernie Sanders to speak in our parking lot in support of Prop 61: regulating drug prices for the sake of the working poor who often had to choose between buying their medications and food for themselves and their family. They asked me to open for Bernie with a set of labor and union songs.

Oh you can’t scare me

I’m sticking to the union

Sticking to the union

Sticking to the union

Oh you can’t scare me

I’m sticking to the union

Sticking to the union

Till the day I die.

Woody’s song filled up the parking lot, and I got to shake hands with Bernie after the set—the same Bernie Sanders who as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, had once recorded his own album of classic protest songs!

That’s what my union card means to me, and why I continue to proudly pay my dues: Solidarity Forever!

Folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton and belongs to Local 47 (AFM); he may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com.


All Columns by Ross Altman