First episode of the Working Class Literature podcast, about the life and work of radical hobo author T-Bone Slim. A prolific columnist for the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union in the United States, he was also a poet and songwriter as well as a barge captain working on the New York waterfront.
In this episode we speak to Dr Owen Clayton from the University of Lincoln and Slim’s great-grandnephew, John Westmoreland.
If you want to support our work, please consider supporting us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/workingclassliterature
WCL patreon supporters get exclusive access to a bonus episode here about Slim, including more information about his mysterious death, and some of his poems. (Working Class History patrons contributing $10 a month or more also get this exclusive access)
And you can also follow us on Twitter: twitter.com/workingclasslit
More information on Slim, can be found in the links below:
– Puns, Politics, and Pork Chops: The ‘insignificant magnitude’ of T-Bone Slim by Dr Owen Clayton: workingclassstudiesjournal.files.wordpress.com/2…f
– Juice is Stranger Than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim, edited by Franklin Rosemont: www.akpress.org/juiceisstrangerthanfriction.html
– T-Bone Slim papers held at the Newberry Library, Chicago: collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/ref/c…/id/53743
- The Big Red Songbook, a massive compilation of over 250 IWW songs and much more, including ones by Slim is available here in the WCH online store. Proceeds help fund their work.
It was often thought that there were no photographs of T-Bone Slim in existence. However we are very happy to be able to host here online for the first time photographs of Slim and his wife, from his pre-hobo days. Photos courtesy of the Newberry Library, collected by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont
- Learn the early history of the IWW, 1905-1918, here in the WCH podcast
- Learn the history of the IWW from 1918-1950 here in the WCH podcast
- Learn the history of women in the early IWW here in the WCH podcast
Theme music by John Westmoreland. Check out the following links for more info:
Album, Cast Fire: store.cdbaby.com/cd/westmoreland7
Hello, today we are very happy to introduce the first episode of our sister podcast Working Class Literature. WCL is going to be an occasional podcast taking a radical look at fiction and culture. We reproduce here the first full episode in its entirety about T-Bone Slim, a columnist, songwriter and poet in the Industrial Workers of the World Union. So please do check it out and subscribe to the Working Class Literature podcast. It’s available on Apple Podcast, Spotify and most other podcast apps. You can also access episodes on the WCH website workingclasshistory.com. You can support Working Class Literature on Patreon and get access to exclusive content like a great bonus episode about T-Bone Slim at patreon.com/workingclassliterature. You can also get early access to WCL episodes and bonus episodes through the Working Class History Patreon if you subscribe at the level of $10 a month or more. That’s at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Links to all this in the show notes. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it and if you do, please do tell your friends about it and share it on social media.
On 15th May 1942, the body of a 60-year-old Manhattan waterfront worker was found in New York’s Hudson River. The body was that of Matti Valentinpoika Huhta, better known by his pen name T-Bone Slim, a prolific columnist, poet and songwriter for the publications of the radical Industrial Workers of the World Union, also as known as the Wobblies. Much like an earlier Wobbly, Joe Hill, who was framed for murder and eventually executed in 1915, Slim’s work gained great popularity within the workers’ movement and hobo jungle camps but unlike Joe Hill, who became a folk hero after his death, Slim has since been unfairly forgotten by the movement to which he dedicated so much of his life and subsequently faded into almost total obscurity. This is Working Class Literature.
[The Popular Wobbly by T-Bone Slim played by John Westmoreland]
Welcome to the first episode of the Working Class Literature podcast. In this episode, we’re going to be discussing the life and work of IWW author T-Bone Slim. If you’d like to learn more about the IWW, you should check out our sister podcast, Working Class History, whose episode 6 and 9 cover IWW history from 1905-1950. In this episode, we speak to Dr. Owen Clayton and John Westmoreland who have been conducting research on T-Bone Slim.
Hi, my name is Dr. Owen Clayton. I’m a senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. I’m currently working on a book entitled On and Off the Road: The Writings of Vagabonds, Tramps and Hobos. I’m interested in transiency and the writings of transients and also the music and the culture of transiency, particularly in America but other countries as well.
My name is John Westmoreland. I’m from Pittsboro, North Carolina and I’m a musician and songwriter who recently found out that T-Bone Slim is my great-granduncle.
The intro music to this episode was John’s version of Slim’s The Popular Wobbly which we’ll be playing more of later on. You can also find out more information about John’s music in the show notes below. Slim grew up in America’s notoriously left-wing, working-class Finnish community at the end of the 19th century. He married his wife Rosa and had four children before leaving his family and becoming a hobo, working in numerous jobs as he would until the end of his life.
T-Bone Slim was a second-generation Finnish immigrant. He was born on Valentine’s Day on 14th February 1882 and he was born and raised in a working-class family in Ashtabula in Ohio which was known as Fintown. He worked there in the harbour along with his father and brothers. The family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, around about the turn of the century and then Slim worked in the harbour in Erie as well, along with members of his family. He was a hoister, so he was hoisting goods and freight on and off ships. In 1902, he married his wife Rosa and they had four children. We don’t know exactly why but in 1912, he left the family and he became a hobo, or a transient worker, and three years later, Rosa successfully filed for divorce. There’s this kind of mysterious period in his life after 1912 and pretty much for the next years, we don’t exactly know what he did between 1912 and 1920. Articles that he wrote later in the Industrial Worker newspaper suggest he did all kinds of jobs, much like many hobos would have done. He was a lumberjack and a gandy dancer, which meant that he was putting down railroad ties. There’s a couple of accounts of him working as a cook; one account in Oregon as a camp cook and also a harvest labourer as well. He did all kinds of jobs and led this kind of hobo life for a large part of his early life, particularly once he left his family.
As with everything with T-Bone Slim, there are more gaps than there are bridges to the past. There’s a story that he was working for a Duluth newspaper and was covering an IWW meeting. He wrote his article on the meeting and then submitted it to the editor at the newspaper. They botched up the story and he was furious, so he quit and joined the IWW. I haven’t found any articles from any Duluth newspaper and I don’t know of any newspaper that he worked for other than the IWW, although, I guess it certainly could be possible. It’s hard to say. That’s a story that’s been passed around and mostly and that’s what there is with T-Bone Slim; there are stories and you can believe whatever you want to [laughter].
We don’t know whether he became radicalised as a result of being a hobo or whether he became a hobo as a result of being radicalised. We don’t really know. Certainly, in terms of his background, Finnish immigrants had a reputation for being fairly left-wing, so it’s entirely possible he could have encountered radical ideas growing up in Ashtabula in Ohio or encountered Wobblies and hobos moving through those towns. At some point in between 1912 and 1920, it seems to me that he would have joined the IWW. Around about 1920 is also when his articles first start appearing in the Industrial Worker newspaper which was the IWW’s main weekly outlet as well. We don’t necessarily know a huge amount about when he became a Wobbly but what we do know from his articles is that he was a pretty committed Wobbly. He was very committed to the kind of Wobbly vision of worker self-emancipation and not only did that put him at odds with mainstream American capitalist society but it also put him at odds with the Leninist, Stalinist Communist Party and also with the Socialist Party of America. Both of those parties believed in having a kind of educated vanguard that they were going to show the workers the path to emancipation. Slim makes it quite clear that he’s pretty scathing about that idea. So he didn’t hold an official position in a union, like a high-up committee position or anything like that but he was a long-term member of the Wobblies and other unions as well. There are accounts of him taking part in meetings and I think he was doing that as an ordinary member, presumably in relation to matters that were affecting him as a worker. From the ’30s onwards, he was working on the Manhatten waterfront, so there are accounts of him attending meetings and going to union halls. So I think he was active in that sense but not necessarily as a leader in the organising sense but he was certainly friends with organisers. There is an account of him being friends with the prominent African American Wobbly organiser, Ben Fletcher, in New York. Slim and Fletcher seem to have been friends. In terms of how significant Slim was, he was extremely significant and his main contribution are the newspaper articles that he writes. He writes weekly columns in the Industrial Worker and he writes occasional pieces in One Big Union Monthly as well. His work is also reprinted in Industrial Solidarity, so he’s featured across a range of Wobbly papers. The Industrial Worker columns, in particular, appear almost every week for over 20 years, from 1920 to his death in 1942. He really was a very prolific prose writer and we know that people were reading him. We know that radicals, hobos and other workers were reading him. There are accounts of people saying that they only bought the Industrial Worker newspaper in order to read his column. In fact, there’s even an advert for one of those papers that says ‘there’s a lot more in Industrial Solidarity and Industrial Worker than T-Bone Slim’s columns’ which shows that they were aware that people were only buying those papers to read him. He was definitely their best writer and they knew it. There are accounts of workers and sailors exchanging Slim’s phrases and aphorisms amongst each other which kind of reminds me how a worker today might watch a comedy and then the next day, they would be saying lines from that comedy at work and that kind of thing. There is even an account of hobos writing Slim’s sayings onto boxcars and obviously, those boxcars would then travel all around the United States and so giving him a physical circulation. One Wobbly writer even refers to Slim as ‘the laureate of the logging camps’, so he really was well-known and very significant. There are actually anonymous poems written in his honour and published in the Industrial Worker as well, so he did have this kind of legendary status amongst the Wobblies in the ’20s and ’30s, in particular.
He seemed to be the IWW’s most prolific columnist during his active years of writing from 1920 until his death in 1942. I would say, as a writer, he was quite prolific. Carl Cowl, who was, at one time, a member of the IWW and later became a member of the Communist Party, was quoted as saying that he was ‘a real adjunct of the paper’ and that he thought that a lot of people used to buy the Industrial Worker just to read T-Bone Slim. He’d say that you used to hear in the jungles the latest remarks that T-Bone Slim had made but he also went on to say that he was not often quoted in the non-IWW radical press because he was popular and the impulse would be not to give credence or notoriety to a competitor, so he was a positive feature of an opponent movement. That’s from Carl Cowl from an interview that was taped with Franklin Rosemont in 1983. In the same interview, Carl stated that in regards to T-Bone Slim’s writing ‘Some of it was frankly obscure. I don’t know what the hell he was trying to say. He dredged it up from the bottoms of his psyche.’ [Laughter]
I guess his other contribution are his songs and if people have heard of Slim today, which they often haven’t, to be honest, they may have encountered one or two of his songs. There are a few that are still in circulation today. There is one called Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life which has been recorded by Cisco Houston. There’s The Lumberjack’s Prayer which has been covered by a few people. There’s even a Studs Terkel version. The Popular Wobbly is probably his most well-known song which has been covered by Pete Seeger and others. Much like the far more famous Joe Hill, Slim’s songs were published in the Industrial Worker newspaper with the aim that hobos and transient workers would carry those newspapers with them on freight trains and then would sing those songs around jungle campfires and on jobs. Unfortunately, as far as we’re aware, he doesn’t seem to have recorded any of his songs. The technology certainly did exist at the time and that, in theory, he might have recorded something. I’ve never heard of such a recording and there is even an article I’ve read where he’s very scathing of radio and refers to it as a form of scabbing which makes me think he may have not wanted to record. There are accounts of him giving benefit concerts and live gigs. I do actually have in front of me an account of him performing on stage in New York City which I think is quite entertaining. This is a very rare account and we don’t have many of these. This comes from a book called Second String Red: The Life of Al Lannon, American Communist. ‘Hoping to capitalise on lingering IWW sentiment among seamen, Al Lannon set up an open-air meeting at Thames and Broadway, featuring T-Bone Slim. Lannon gave the singer a big introduction, expecting the singer to open with his well-known The Popular Wobbly. T-Bone Slim began yelling at the crowd about ”those fucking bastards down in Alabama who had framed the Scottsboro boys”. An embarrassed Lannon hustled the living legend away from the microphone.’ The Scottsboro boys’ case was an infamous miscarriage of justice in American history in which African American men were sharing a freight car with white women. They were basically busted by a railroad cop, or a bull, and the white women, I think partly as a way of protecting themselves, made what in all likelihood was a trumped-up allegation of sexual assault. They used their white privilege as a way of getting themselves out of trouble in this interracial boxcar that they’d been in. It was this very famous miscarriage of justice and it was a very poorly handled trial. That case went on for years and was a bit of a cause célèbre on the left in the early 20th century in the United States. I’ve read a lot of hobo autobiographies and while many of them are interesting and, in some respects, admirable, there’s also a significant portion of hobo writers who were white supremacists. Yet here, we have an account of somebody at the same time who is blindingly angry about a shameful moment of racial injustice from American history. Obviously, that also fits in with the account we have of his interracial friendship with Ben Fletcher. I think Slim comes off fairly well and I think we also get a bit of a sense of his personality from shouting at the audience. I also love the quote because it might very well be that Slim was one of the first-ever musicians to refuse to sing his greatest hit on stage, which a lot of musicians since him have done [laughter].
One of the central themes that comes up frequently in Slim’s writing is that of food or rather its lack thereof both in terms of quantity and quality.
He’s super political, as you’d expect for a Wobbly. The thing he writes the most about, and his name is a bit of a giveaway here, is food. He sees food and hunger as being a kind of defining class experience. One of his phrases is ‘labour has a bad habit of getting hungry’ [laughter] by which he means that workers are betrayed by their stomachs into performing exploitative labour. Without getting hungry, people might not agree to do this labour. He talks a lot about how workers eat very infrequently and says ‘mealtime is an epoch in the history of today’ and that it’s a really significant event in the life of workers. For him, the hunger of the workers is what defines them as workers. At one point, he says that to appreciate his humour, readers should skip a couple of meals before reading him. He was aware that a lot of his readers actually were hungry a lot of the time. He wrote a longer pamphlet in addition to the various articles that he wrote. He also wrote a pamphlet which was an exposé of the food industry in the early 1920s and he called that Starving Amidst Too Much which I think highlights that, for him, the matter of food is a really political matter. He doesn’t just talk about the quantity of food; he also talks about the quality of food as well. In that pamphlet, he gets very angry about the marketing of cheap, processed food for the working class which was something that was just starting to take off during his lifetime. Slim was one of the first people to really pick up on that shift that was starting to take place. One of his songs, The Lumberjack’s Prayer is all about that.
The following track is a recording of Studs Terkel performing a reading of The Lumberjack’s Prayer. Thanks to Bucky Halker for giving us permission to use this version which appears on his album Don’t Want Your Millions. Check out the links in the show notes for more information.
The Lumberjack’s Prayer by an old Wobbly named T-Bone Slim.
I pray, dear Lord, for Jesus’ sake
Give us this day a T-bone steak
Hallowed be thy holy name
But don’t forget to send the same
O hear my humble cry, O Lord
And send us down some decent board
Brown gravy and some German fried
With sliced tomatoes on the side
O hear my cry, almighty host
I quite forgot the quail on toast
O let your kindly heart be stirred
And stuff some oysters in that bird
Dear Lord, you know your holy wish
On Friday we must have fish
Our flesh is weak and spirit stale
You’d better make that fish a whale
O hear me Lord, remove those ‘dogs’
Those sausages of powdered logs
Your bully beef hash and bearded snouts
Take them to hell, or thereabouts
With alum bread and pressed beef butts
Dear Lord, you’ve damned near ruined my guts
Your white-wash milk and oleorine
I wish to Christ I’d never seen
Oh hear me Lord, I’m praying still
But if you won’t, our Union will
Put pork chops on the bill of fare
And starve no workers anywhere
The Lumberjack’s Prayer is a song that follows in the tradition of Joe Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave which is a parody of religion. The IWW often saw groups like the Salvation Army, and other religious groups, as rivals. It parodies religion as promising what Joe Hill referred to as ‘pie in the sky’ but doesn’t actually deliver in the real world. It’s got lots of different foodstuffs in it which T-Bone talks about a lot in his writings. You’ve got T-bone steaks, ham and eggs, quail on toast, etcetera. I think one thing that The Lumberjack’s Prayer does do that develops on from Joe Hill is it also critiques adulterated food which is something that is distinctive about Slim. It critiques hotdogs, alum bread and food that’s packed full of preservatives. Alum is a kind of aluminium-based compound which was just used to bulk up bread to make people think they were full but it wasn’t actually full of any nutrients, so your body wasn’t getting what it needed. It was also related to cancer and other things and had been used since the 19th century. Slim says in The Lumberjack’s Prayer that this food has damned near ruined his guts which is quite likely to be true. He talks about oleorine which is the original term for margarine. Oleorine contains oil which makes it another preserved food which is a kind of replacement for real food which is butter. Slim being a cook, of course, he would know that butter is much better for you than margarine. In terms of the context for The Lumberjack’s Prayer, it was printed as a fundraising device on these cards that the IWW would put out. They would try and sell these cards which were ten cents and they said that the money for these cards would go out and pay for the free literature that the IWW would put out. Slim was being used as somebody who could write an entertaining song that would make people laugh, make a political point but also be used to fundraise as well. In the various recorded versions, including the Studs Terkel version, The Lumberjack’s Prayer is on the cards but isn’t actually in the recorded versions. Slim did also write what he called ‘an answer to the prayer’. He sets this prayer up as a kind of mock prayer to God which is kind of ironic, given that he’s a Wobbly and critical of religion but then he writes this answer to the prayer. That’s a prose piece and it’s just a few sentences. At the bottom of the prayer, Slim says ‘I am happy to say this prayer has been answered by the old man himself. He tells me he has furnished plenty for all and that if I am not getting mine, it’s because I am not organised sufficiently strong to force the master to loosen up. He tells me he has no knowledge on ‘dogs’ or ‘pressed beef butts’, etcetera and that they are probably products of the devil. He further informs me that capitalists are children of hisn (the devil’s, that is) and that he absolutely refuses to participate in any children’s squabbles. He believes in letting us fight it out along the lines of industrial unionism. Yours in faith, T-Bone Slim’. So even in this answer to the prayer, you’ve got God answering and saying, ‘Basically, I’m not going to get involved. You need to work it out for yourselves,’ which very much fits with the final lines of the prayer itself where Slim says ‘O hear me Lord, I’m praying still but if you won’t, our union will put pork chops on the bill of fare and starve no workers anywhere’. God isn’t going to provide the answer and you have to do it for yourselves and you have to do it, in T-Bone Slim’s opinion, through the IWW.
Another interesting thing about The Lumberjack’s Prayer is how it mixes the modest with the luxurious, evident in how the humble cry for decent board quickly becomes a request for quail on toast stuffed with oysters. Slim is obviously playing around here but the point he’s making is also a serious one.
We want bread but we want oysters too or something like that [laughter]. He’s exaggerating and he says ‘Dear Lord, we know your holy wish, on Friday, we must have a fish. Our flesh is weak and spirit stale, you’d better make that fish a whale’. He’s using this kind of comic exaggeration to make exactly that point; we don’t want just a fair share, we want the whole thing and we deserve the whole thing because we make it all.
Slim’s prose writing was also very different from other essayists, particularly left-wing ones. So while, for instance, Orwell would go on to lay down his rules to prevent bad writing, like ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’ and ‘if it’s possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’, Slim, on the other hand, constructed a style of what he called ‘coagulated verbosity’. This involved mixing slang and workers’ speech patterns with absurdist wordplay, sometimes through small neologisms where he fuses two words or ideas to create a new one or otherwise, in more extended passages.
I guess what I would say is, perhaps, most significant though about Slim is that he combines this accessibility with this amazing talent for absurdist wordplay. It’s really clear from his writing that he was obsessed with words. He turns words around, he shifts them about and he makes them into something new. Even more significant is when he does it in more extended passages as well and it almost starts to break down meaning in quite interesting and experimental ways. To give you a bit of context for this one, this comes from 1923 and he’s responding, as he often does, to a mainstream newspaper in which the newspaper has argued that abundance means prosperity. So then Slim picks up on that idea and he says this ‘Never has there been a shortage of abundance in these United States. Rather, it has been a case of too much abundance and too much is not enough. Too much is too much, just what it says, and enough is less than too much. Too much is more than enough and enough is never too much. Sufficiency isn’t too much but it is enough. So you can yourself, enough is enough and too much is too much. Abundance is too much and not enough. Hence, it is a very ambiguous quantity to monkey with. Better stick to sufficiency, be it ever so elegant.’ It’s all there in that absurd paragraph. He’s making these straightforward statements like ‘enough is less than too much’. Of course it is. Who would disagree with that? But then, as those statements go on, something else starts to happen. What Slim is doing here is putting that word ‘abundance’ under pressure and putting it through a dialectical process. When he concludes ‘abundance is too much and not enough’, what he’s saying is abundance provides too much for the bourgeois class and not enough for the working class which is why he says that ‘abundance is a very ambiguous quantity to monkey with.’ He’s translating very complex ideas here into language that’s funny, accessible and absurd and he does that without losing the complexity of the ideas. I think that’s a remarkable achievement.
Also evident in Slim’s writing is the breadth of his own reading, frequently peppering his columns with references to a variety of authors and poets.
As a reader, he’s often making references to other writers and references Keats a lot and rephrases sayings by Keats. He references Shakespeare and plays with Shakespeare’s name at times. He compares himself, on at least two occasions, to George Bernard Shaw. He says ‘Some people want to coax George Bernard Shaw, the world’s other greater writer, into this country but the country isn’t big enough for both of us’. I get the impression that, although again, he’s being sarcastic, he does actually like George Bernard Shaw. That’s pretty clear from what he’s saying.
Slim’s writing also contains many parallels with modernism which was arguably the most significant literary movement in America at the time in which Slim was active.
He does make oblique reference to literary modernists. At one point, he refers to the modernists as ‘the rising generation of poets’ which does suggest at least a degree of familiarity with modernism as well. I don’t have any biographical evidence of him reading modernists but I think if you just look at his writing, I think you can see that he is being influenced by that. A common modernist technique is defamiliarisation by making the familiar seem unfamiliar. It’s about making readers look again at something that they’ve seen for a long time and taken for granted. Slim does this with words, in particular; words and ideas. He likes to reframe words and ideas so that his readers can see them as ideological. He also experiments with language in ways that can feel very modernist. He reproduces a yawn in print at one point. I’d love to be able to read that but I can’t because it’s a mixture of random letters and punctuation marks, so it’s completely unpronounceable. You can only see it on a page but you can’t actually speak it. He reproduces it as ‘etaoinshrdlu ?x!!oo**!?’ There are also proto-surrealist moments. At one point, in one article, he talks to a woman whose body has completely disappeared, except for a pair of red lips. There’s also another article where he has this long, extended conversation throughout the entire article with a sentient stone that is in a prison wall and the stone is on strike. There are these kinds of surreal moments and also in terms of him playing with words, he does this in quite extended ways. There is one article where he reproduces words that rhyme with ‘omp’ until they just become meaningless. He does something similar in another article with the word ‘soup’. I think, at those moments, I would say that he comes quite close to the writing of Gertrude Stein. I’ve no idea whether he read Stein and it’s hard to see him liking someone like Gertrude Stein but it comes quite similar to that. I think partly, this is how he thinks. He thinks in not necessarily a straightforward way but I think it’s partly also because he sees his readers as being intelligent. He knows he’s writing for a working-class audience. He’s writing for workers, hobos and radicals and those are groups who were stereotyped in American society at that time as being bruts, basically, and as being unintelligent. At one point, he says ‘I am not in the habit of associating with ignoramuses’. [Laughter]. He wrote in this experimental way but he did it in a way that meant that his working-class audience could still understand him. He didn’t lose them.
Perhaps, due in part to the strong parallels with modernism, Slim’s writing can also be read as an example of what French theorist, Roland Barthes, called the ‘writerly text’.
Barthes concept of the writerly text is a self-conscious literary text; a text that asks its readership to do a significant amount of work. It’s a text that asks its readers to be, I guess you’d say, active participants in the process of making meaning. A really obvious example of a writerly text is Ulysses. It’s not just a book you can just open easily and breeze your way through. It takes work. I think we often associate modernism, potentially, with right-wing politics and elitism but I think Slim is always trying to make his readers into active participants. He thinks what bourgeois writers like Arthur Brisbane are doing is that they’re doing the opposite and trying to stop their readers from thinking and they’re certainly trying to stop their readers from taking any action after they’ve thought, which is where you also get into questions around propaganda. There are new words that he creates which, to me, is an example of making readers work, albeit in a very quick way. He’s created this new word by combining the two ideas inherent in two other words. You can’t understand that new word unless you put those two ideas together yourself. You have to do a little bit of work in order to create that and he does that in a way that isn’t elitist. You don’t have to have a Harvard education to be able to do that but you do need to put in some work. The same goes, I suppose, for the proto-surrealist and modernist elements of his work that we were just discussing as well. I think that’s partly about making his readers work. I think there is that link between politics and writing for him. He’s constantly exhorting his readers to overthrow capitalism and he’s constantly saying that you can’t rely on political leaders to do that for you because political leaders will always betray you. For him, the same goes for literary leaders. He says ‘A man is only great as a writer if his readers are great. Never was, is or will be a writer greater than a reader’. For him, greatness is communal. It’s a kind of communal model of authorship and greatness is a relationship between writer and reader. It’s not a quality of individual genius. If his readers are great, then he is also great. Earlier on, he also says ‘No one recognises better than T-Bone Slim the insignificant magnitude of the world’s greatest writer’. If he’s on his own and he’s taken as an individual writer, then his greatness is ‘an insignificant magnitude’ which is a really interesting phrase. It’s that kind of communal model of authorship. That why, in the article, I’ve described his style as literary anarchism.
Since finding out about his great granduncle’s career as a poet and songwriter, John Westmoreland has been working on readapting some of Slim’s music.
I pretty much right away started working on his songs. The first one was The Popular Wobbly or Wild Over Me because that one was so readily available online. I was just drawn to doing it because I’m a musician and songwriter and so it seemed like the obvious thing to do [laughter] to me at the time. I’ve been taking his songs and poems that I’ve found either online or ones that are unpublished in the material I found at my parents’ house, as well as songs that are in the Newberry Library. So far, I’ve got three of his songs that I perform publicly now and there are other ones that I’m still working on. My hope is to do a full-length record of T-Bone Slim songs. I’d like to have it out in the next year which is my hope. Basically, my process with that is that I’m taking his lyrics and then I’m allowing myself liberties to musically express things how I feel drawn to doing so, as far as the chords and melodies that I use. My version of The Popular Wobbly is a bit different than the more standard version of it.
We’re going to play John’s version of The Popular Wobbly in just a second but first, it’s interesting to note the song’s trajectory from the popular 1917 show tune which Slim was originally parodying to Candie Carawan’s readaptation of Slim’s version as part of the civil rights’ movement in the 1960s.
I believe the first version of it, which he used as his template to make The Popular Wobbly, was about the idea of ‘the girls go wild over me’ and that’s the whole subject matter of the song. Slim is clearly choosing that song sarcastically in the sense that instead of the girls going wild over the man, it’s the cop, the judge, the jailer, the bed bugs and the fleas. I think that was clearly just commentary on some popular thing that he probably didn’t think had much substance to and is trying to turn it around and playing with the meaning that was originally there which was ‘all the girls just won’t stay away from me’. It’s sarcastic – Oh, the cops, they just won’t leave me alone and judge just goes wild over me. I think that’s where Slim was coming from, perhaps. As for the other versions, during the civil rights’ era, it seems that the song reemerged during the ’60s and in that version, there were some new lyrics that were added in. My sense was that during that period, they’re invoking the song to speak to the jailings of all the civil rights’ activists that were going on. I think that’s beautiful because if a song has a life, it’s an amazing thing. If a song lives for more than a few years and outlives the songwriter, that’s a song that’s got some longevity. I think it’s a testament to the song that it did resurface in the ’60s and I hope maybe it will get out there a little bit more these days as well. To me, just the vibe of the song is really beautiful. There’s a sense of this character, who’s never done any harm to anybody and not trying to cause anybody any trouble, just getting thrown in jail and everybody’s just going wild over him. I find that image to be poignant on just a basic human level and this idea that this exists and they are human beings who are not trying to cause anybody any harm but just get caught up by these systems that are in place and locked away. I think, unfortunately, this song is very relevant. That character does have this kind of innocence or naivety, maybe. There are also these lines where he says ‘Then the judge, he went wild over me and I plainly saw that we never could agree, so I let the man obey what his conscience had to say’. I love that line that he let the man obey. ‘I’ll let him obey what his conscience had to say.’ He’s easy-going too. He’s saying, ‘I’d had to disturb the poor man’s conscience. I’ll just let him say what he has to say and he’ll go wild over me.’ I think it really is a beautiful song and the last verse, he says ‘Will the roses grow wild over me when I’m gone into the land that is to be? When my soul and body part in the stillness of my heart, will the roses grow wild over me?’ I think that’s a beautiful line and there’s a longing. It really expresses a longing that I think is really beautiful. This is my version of that song The Popular Wobbly.
I’m as mild-mannered as can be
And I’ve never done them any harm that I can see
But on me they put a ban
And they threw me in the can
They go wild, simply wild over me
They accuse me of rascality
But I can’t see why they always pick on me
I’m as gentle as a lamb
But they take me for a ram
They go wild, simply wild over me
Oh the bull, he went wild over me
And he held his gun where everyone could see
He was breathing rather hard
When he saw my union card
He went wild, simply wild over me
Then the judge, he went wild over me
And I plainly saw we never could agree
So I let the man obey
What his conscience had to say
He went wild, simply wild over me
Then the jailer, he went wild over me
And he locked me up and threw away the key
Yes, it seems to be the rage
So they keep me in a cage
They go wild, simply wild over me
They go wild, simply wild over me
I’m referring to the bedbug and the flea
They disturb my slumber deep
And I murmur in my sleep
They go wild, simply wild over me
Will the roses grow wild over me
When I’m gone into the land that is to be?
When my soul and body part
In the stillness of my heart
Will the roses grow wild over me?
When my soul and body part
In the stillness of my heart
Will the roses grow wild over me?
The later years of Slim’s life would see the declining fortunes of the IWW, leading him to note in 1937, with a typically grim witticism, that ‘we have the union but no membership’. This decline of the union, to which he dedicated himself for so long, was compounded by a life which was becoming increasingly difficult as old age, decades of hard manual labour and poverty all took their toll.
He settles down in the mid-1930s in New York City. He gets a job as a barge captain, working on the Manhatten waterfront. There is an account that says that sometimes he would sleep aboard ship and sometimes he would stay in flophouses in the Bowery in the Lower East Side. He was certainly always poor. You don’t stay in a flophouse if you’ve got money. There are letters in the Westmoreland family archive, that are in the possession of John and Cherie Westmoreland, where he’s asking for money. There are also letters where he’s giving money too. There are letters that show he had some physical ailments as well and problems with his feet. He settles down but he lives a pretty hard life and obviously, as he’s getting older, it’s even harder. He’s in his 50s at this point and there’s evidence that his life was difficult. Just a few weeks ago, Cherie and John Westmoreland and myself were in New York City and we discovered that Slim was arrested in 1939 for disorderly conduct which indicates that maybe there was a lessening of control personally happening. Towards the very, very end of his life, there are a couple of mysteries. His weekly columns pretty much stop appearing in the final ten months of his life or almost completely. Between 1920 and 1941, he is published in the Industrial Worker, as far as I can tell, pretty much every week with occasional exceptions to that. Between July 1941 and his death in May 1942, his articles appear in only six of 45 issues, so there’s a massive shift. There’s obviously a number of possible explanations that could be the case for this. It could be ill health. It could be trouble with the law. It could be something else. Anything I would say about that would only be speculation. I guess it’s clear that there are lots of questions that are still there with Slim and hopefully, one day, we may get some more answers.
The second mystery relates to the causes of Slim’s death in May 1942.
What we know is that T-Bone Slim’s body was found in the East River on May 15th 1942 and that it was estimated that his body, according to the medical examiner’s report, was in the water for about four days. It has him listed officially as ‘an unknown white male, approximate age of 50 years old.’ It said ‘probably name of Matt Huhta’.
It looks like he was probably informally identified by someone but, again, we don’t know who. This pretty mysterious demise has led to some speculation. There has been some speculation that he might have been murdered.
There have been stories that he was drunk and fell off the barge or fell off the docks. There’s been at least a couple of folks that have commented that they thought that he was murdered. Who knows? I think it’s really speculative, no matter what.
Speculation about the possibility of Slim’s murder forms a curious part of a novel called Savage Streets by Floyd Miller, a former New York seaman and member of the Communist Party. Miller had been gathering intelligence for the KGB in the 1930s and ’40s on non-communist trade unionists active on the New York waterfront. Though primarily focused on Trotskyists, Miller would no doubt have been collecting information about Wobblies like Slim as well. Miller’s novel begins with the death of a ‘philosophical Wobbly’ who drowns in the river in what transpires to be a murder involving the Mafia and the Communist Party itself. John goes into more detail about these intriguing connections with Slim’s mysterious death in our bonus episode, available now for Patreon supporters. Meanwhile, following his death, Slim would fade almost immediately into complete obscurity.
It’s kind of mysterious to me why he just faded away very quickly after his death. The IWW did print an obituary for him but it was about almost six months after his death had happened. There doesn’t seem to have been any other remembrances of him after that. As best as I can tell, he was quite known in those particular radical circles at the time because his columns were widely read, certainly in the IWW circles, and judging from people like Carl Cowl, it sounds like in communist circles too. People in various unions would have been reading his material. They may not have quoted his work because he was from a competing union. It’s kind of fascinating. I guess there is this mystique about T-Bone Slim that he was this character that nobody really knew. The people, that I’ve come across quotes from, that say that they knew him, basically in the same breath say that they didn’t know him [laughter]. They say, ‘Yeah, I knew him but nobody really knew him.’ That’s interesting to see. People have said that he was soft-spoken and kept to himself. I’m really not sure what to make of it. It’s the way things have gone down.
He was buried on Hart Island which is an island off Manhatten, so a few miles away from Manhatten. He was buried on 5th June 1942 as ‘an unknown white man’. Hart Island is America’s biggest mass grave. Basically, it’s a potter’s field where people who were too poor to afford private burials have been buried ever since the 19th century. He would have been buried by inmates of a workhouse that was on the island at the time that he died. It seems fairly appropriate or poignant, I guess, that he was somebody who wrote with America’s poorest citizens in mind and then he ends up being buried by them. He was a really genuinely great, working-class author. He’s extremely talented and he’s been totally erased from literary history. It seems to me that we need to rediscover that history and I think that rediscovery is an inherently political project. He’s a writer who is talented enough that he will bear the pressure of scrutiny and analysis and that’s why we need more people to look at him and not just scholars [laughter]. I can imagine all kinds of uses for him. I can imagine artists and activists using Slim in their work. Obviously, John Westmoreland is going to be creating an album of Slim’s unrecorded songs, largely. Slim is funny; he’s punchy; he’s sarcastic; he’s ironic; he’s accessible; he’s experimental. He never sold out [laughter]. He’s not perfect but I think we have a lot that we can get out of his work. I think now is the time. He’s been completely forgotten for three-quarters of a century and now is the time to rediscover him.
That’s the end of our first episode of the Working Class Literature podcast. We hope that you enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed making it and talking to our guests. Links with more info on Slim and the IWW, as well as John Westmoreland’s music, can be found in the show notes below. You can also find a link to the Working Class History online shop to buy a copy of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook which contains some of the songs discussed in this episode. If you liked what you heard, do consider donating something to our Patreon, as that will keep us sustainable and hopefully, allow us to make episodes more frequently in future. Patrons will get exclusive early access to future episodes and can also listen to bonus content, such as the one for this episode containing readings by John of two of Slim’s unpublished poems as well as more on the peculiarities surrounding Slim’s death. If you can’t donate anything right now, that’s fine too but if you could give us a great review on your favourite podcast app, that would be amazing as well. Anyway, that’s it for today and thanks for listening.