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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 6, 2010
A Union Man
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT Utah Phillips, singer, songwriter, activist, and hobo, liked to tell this joke: How do you make a million dollars as a folksinger? You start with two.
George Mann, a folksinger and Phillips’s fellow Wobbly, will perform a tribute to him at the Altamont Village Hall on Friday, May 14.
With two sets of music, and wine and beer sold in between, Mann said the show would be a mixture of his own songs and those of Phillips, a folk-singing icon and two-time Grammy nominee for albums he made with Ani DiFranco.
“I want people to know about songs that Phillips wrote, or that have been in our canon of folk music for the last one-hundred years,” said Mann from his home in New York City. “From the Depression era, the overlap of the struggles of the union and civil rights, immigrants rights, minorities, women. These songs are not just about labor.”
Wobblies is the moniker of the International Workers of the World, a union formed in Chicago in 1905 by socialists and anarchists whose primary goal was to promote worldwide solidarity in the struggle to overthrow the employing class. Unlike typical unions that organize by trade, the Wobblies promote an umbrella model of unionism, where workers from similar industries join in their demands for fair labor practices.
“George is unique because he sings about a fairly narrow spectrum of issues that most people don’t think about,” said village resident Greg Giorgio, a member of the upstate branch of the IWW, which is sponsoring Mann’s concert. “Labor issues and this idea of treating our vets better by not allowing them to go to war in the first place. That’s a hard idea to sell in the mainstream culture and it’s not an easy way to make a living and we at the IWW have to do our part to support that culture.
“And the fact that he has chosen to use his touring as a vehicle to raise money for the Long Memory Project,” said Giorgio, “was a double whammy for a positive way for us at the IWW to use our energies.”
Phillips’s son, Duncan, started the Long Memory Project in 2008 after Phillips died at the age of 73. The project’s name came from an oft-spoken belief of Phillips that the experiences and stories of one’s elders are an invaluable way to learn about history.
“That was something that Utah and I had in common,” said Mann. “We looked to our elders as gods and goddesses who have helped spread the word of the struggles that we as a people have always had. The only time we have bettered ourselves is when people have been willing to pay a price. People have gone to jail, been beaten and killed for things that we take for granted: the eight-hour workday, vacations, health insurance. These things were not gifts. They had to be fought for and wrenched from businesses and, for that debt, I’ll always be willing to repay it.”
One of Duncan Phillips’s goals for The Long Memory Project is to make available for free online recordings of all of Phillips’s radio shows, which was called “Loafer’s Glory.” The hour-long shows were broadcast between 1999 and 2001 from Nevada City, Calif.
Nevada City, Phillips’s hometown was, he said, a place “where no good deed goes unpunished.” Part of each show entails Phillips’s talking about his life as a soldier in the Korean War, or the years afterward when he train hopped across the country, as well as his musings on history and current events.
Interspersed throughout are rare or never-heard recordings of folk and protest songs, such as Blind Kenny Hall’s tribute to the 1914 Newsboys strike in Butte, Montana, where the men and boys who sold papers at newsstands asked to be given the same wage as those delivering the paper door to door.
Mann, a lifelong fan of Phillips, has himself only been performing folk music for 13 years. His interest in the labor movement goes back farther, however, to when he first heard Joan Baez sing “Joe Hill” on the Woodstock album. After becoming involved with the state University of New York Center at Stony Brook’s graduate student employees’ union, Mann eventually began work for the musicians’ union in New York City, where he helped organize an array of New York’s music industry, from Carnegie Hall to the bands playing at weddings on Long Island.
Then, in 1996, Mann met Julius Margolin, a 79-year old merchant marine active in the unions. “It was through him that I came down this road,” said Mann. People joked about his croaky voice but he knew melody and wrote catchy songs, like “The Pedestrians Lament.” He describes it as “a song about getting run over in the city.”
Mann and Margolin made three albums together in a series called “Hail to the Thief,” protesting George Bush’s re-election in 2004. Margolin died of cancer last year and Mann decided to begin his full-time career as a folk musician.
“Jules and Utah Phillips were 20 years apart in age and they died one year apart,” said Mann. “Both left important lessons that I’ve learned that I hope to convey to our audience.”
Giorgio cites Mann’s “overall social consciousness” as one of the reasons he is so excited to have him perform in Altamont but his reasons don’t stop there.
“I’ve lived here for 20 years,” said Giorgio, “and I felt it was a unique opportunity to present something that hasn’t been presented before. I’d also like people to get used to the idea that we should promote different cultural things in the village as a part of village life.”
George Mann will perform at Altamont Village Hall, 115 Main Street (Route 146), Altamont, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. Doors will open at 7 p.m.
Admission is a $10 suggested donation and proceeds will go to The Long Memory Project.