In memoriam, Archie Green (1917-2009)

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I wrote briefly last week (in rather vague terms) about some of Archie Green’s accomplishments. Over the weekend, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times both published lengthy obituaries. I wanted to offer a more personal glimpse of him here from a longtime friend and colleague of Green’s, Robert Cantwell. In 2001 UNC Press published Green’s collection Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. For that book, Bob wrote a foreword that incorporated some of Green’s biography, acknowledging that Green’s life and work were inseparable. In the following essay, Bob writes about Green’s politics and personality, his innovations, and his legacy. [Archie Green photo from the work of Hazen Robert Walker.] — ellen

Since so much of the conversation in which Archie engaged with his many friends and protégés over the years was ideologically nuanced, and often about the nuances of ideology, it became a kind of parlor game to try to locate him somewhere on the ideological spectrum. Was he an anarcho-syndicalist, as he sometimes claimed, like Emma Goldman? Or a cultural pluralist, like Horace Kallen, whom he often cited? Or a “left libertarian,” a term he seemed to favor later in life? Or was he simply an unreconstructed New Dealer? To a superficial observer, Archie might look like one of the underfed revolutionaries gesticulating through the pages of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy — but on that point there was no ambiguity. Archie was a radical, but not, finally, an ideologue; and if he was a revolutionary, it was a revolution more of minds and hearts than of posters and parties.

One of the most surprising and bewildering themes of his conversation was his unrelenting criticism of certain heroes of the folk revival such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie (whom many of Archie’s friends and followers had at one time loved and revered, and maybe did still) or his skepticism about folk revivalists generally in favor of combative movement-songsters like Aunt Molly Jackson, or a genial cowboy singer like Glenn Ohrlin, or a coalfield balladeer like Hazel Dickens — singers whose working-class credentials could not be doubted.

What was all that all about, one wondered — could it be only that Seeger had been perhaps a little slow in repudiating Joseph Stalin?

This always seemed to me a family quarrel exacerbated by the narrowness of the political niche that people like Seeger and Lomax and Guthrie and Green each had tried over their careers to occupy, especially during those difficult postwar years when the embattled Left had retreated, culturally speaking, to an underground of schools, universities, and summer camps. Archie knew where he stood. And he expected those around him to know, or at least to think carefully about, where they stood — for where social change and effective action are concerned, nothing will come of nothing.

Achieving complexity without confusion, subtlety without obfuscation, nuance without equivocation, Archie was all of the above: suspicious of concentrated power at any level, like the anarchists; dedicated, like the syndicalists, to self-governing, voluntary communities as the cultural ground upon which political consciousness may flourish; “left,” certainly, because dedicated to social democracy; but “libertarian,” too, because for him democracy by definition came from the ground up. No plan, program, or scheme, however clever or visionary, might produce it.

We sometimes associate libertarianism with that simon-pure individualism that thinks of democracy mainly as a regime for enriching oneself. Archie’s was a distinctively social kind of ethical libertarianism, with definite Jewish roots, that demands we discover in ourselves the resources of being, in relation to others, conscientiously and energetically human. For all of his bluster about scoundrels Right and Left, Archie was profoundly kindhearted. Oh, and a New Dealer, too, in his idealism, his sense of solidarity with all who shared his convictions, a believer in good government, and, like Roosevelt, one who threw in his lot with working people as the prime movers of American prosperity. And, yes, an Obama supporter.

Archie did not like to be patronized. And he did not like patronizing political philosophies whose basic argument was that people mostly don’t know what’s good for them, that they needed elite panels of lieutenants or authoritarian leaders to maneuver them in the right direction. The doctrine of “false consciousness” was anathema to him. People were not so misled as they appeared to be. They were not dupes, but, like the rest of us, thought, spoke, and voted from within the world as they saw it. Were we sufficiently imaginative, he seemed to demand, we might get into the shoes of people with whom we disagreed, and see the error of supposing that only graduates of the Yale and Harvard law schools were fit to take up the reins of history.

An intellectually gifted, bookish, and politically inclined smallish Jewish-American boy — his father was a harnessmaker from the Ukraine, multilingual, who ran from the Cossacks after leading a small-scale shtetl revolt — Archie looked for a model of manhood to the skilled, stouthearted, self-respecting Scots shipwrights among whom he worked in his early days on the waterfront, as Jewish boys of later generations might look to the cowboy, the mountain banjo player, or the bluesman. He called himself a shipwright. But he was not a poseur. He had learned the trade, and practiced it.

At the same time, like his mentor, Mission District linguist Peter Tamony, he had had a keen eye for the vernacular, not only in language, story, tale, and legend, but in the crafts and the arts with which skilled workers rear and beautify our built environment. Read one of his books — one of his most recent, for instance, Tin Men, on the effigies that sheet metal workers construct to advertise and celebrate their craft, and suddenly you see “tin men” everywhere. The same was true of all the marvels of crafts and art to which Archie awakened us: not only odd words like “fink,” “linthead,” or “pilebutt,” or songs of mysterious origin such as “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” but also the Italian stone-carvings overhead in the entrance hall of the Library of Congress and the brick walkways underfoot on the UNC campus, laid from the early days to the present by local African-American masons.

Archie was not, as sometimes supposed, an auto-didact, like the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, to whom he was sometimes compared, but a widely read, deeply learned man versed in all manner of subjects, including literature (especially American literature), history (especially the history of the Left in Europe and America), anthropology and folklore, and politics (he was the most astute political observer I’ve ever known). He had taken a degree in Anthropology under Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley in 1939 before joining the Civilian Conservation Corps on the Klamath River. Later in life, after following the carpentry work from the declining postwar San Francisco waterfront to the city’s growing uptown, he reentered the academy, first as a library science student at Champaign-Urbana and finally, in the 1960s, as a graduate student in folklore at Penn. After taking his degree Archie entered the professoriate at Illinois and the University of Texas, but left the academic world after a few years in order to lobby in Washington for the passage of the American Folklife Act and the creation of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. After ten years, he succeeded.

In politically dark times, of which we have had so much in recent decades, Archie used to advise that we cultivate our own garden. He did not mean retreat from the political process. He meant that we should exercise our citizenship in ways in which we could do some immediate, palpable good in some cause about which we cared, whether it was to save the spotted owl, create a country music discography, or raise funds for a scholarship in labor studies. Simply to express one’s opinions, to discuss and remonstrate, to make consideration of the political a part of everyday social intercourse, even if only among friends and family — that too, for Archie, was a way of being “involved.” “Involved?” he might have said, along with Jim Stark, “We are all involved!” For many otherwise committed and well-intended people, breaking out of the private life on behalf of the common good is often a kind of personal crisis. For Archie there was no anxiety on this score. Though he was certainly an “activist” for vernacular lore in all its forms, the common good, for him, flowed over his doorstep and into all of his personal relations; the public sphere was his personal life.

Archie was not bourgeois. He never drove a car. There were no fashionable clothes, no gourmet foods, no fine furniture. The house at the top of Caselli Street in San Francisco’s upper Castro remains pretty much as he found it in the 1950s, when he bought and refurbished it. Archie entertained his many visitors by the window in his front room, which was also, as it happened, his workroom, where the couches and the chairs and the desktop were piled high with file-stuffed cardboard boxes, papers, magazines, journals and books. There was scarcely a place to sit. But sit one did, and listened. Always the focus was not on “I,” or “you,” but “we” — what will we do to advance the cause, to enhance the visibility of labor culture, to improve this or that academic program in folklore, to mount the conference, publish the book, edit the record album, commemorate the site of an epochal strike or save the labor landmark like Copra Crane down on Islais Creek? He was a fountainhead of ideas, which he readily gave away to younger scholars in the hopes they might carry them through. The intellectual proprietorship that is the unwritten law of academic advancement was unknown to him. Were one to undertake a genealogy of the scholarly publications in labor history and folklore over the last thirty years, to track the lines of connection that placed such-and-such a person in a certain influential academic or editorial or executive position in the field, to track the ideas circulating in the discourse of folklorists whether in Archie’s beloved “public sector” or the academy itself, one would discover a vast web of relations he himself had spun and of which he was the vigilant center. He rarely if ever spoke of himself, except when asked — which, in later years, many did, with tape recorders at the ready — and then typically in historical and political terms, using his own story as a window on the politics, the personalities, and the issues of the periods that shaped him.

I like to call Archie, as a kind of shorthand for people who don’t know him or much about him, the last of the Wobblies. The IWW was the “one big union;” their creed, like Lincoln’s, was “to every man the fruits of his labor.” Their martyr was Joe Hill. They were working class intellectuals with strong backs and strong arms and inquiring minds who, when they were not hauling logs or singing protest songs or riding the rails, loved to roll up their sleeves and dispute a point. That was Archie: knit cap on his head, cuffs folded back to his elbows, gesturing with his sinewy forearm, his speech exiting his face with a kind of twist as if his nose itched, and sometimes through one side of his mouth like a street tough, mulling it over, hashing it out, holding forth — “Socrates in a T-shirt,” as Stephen Wade says. That captures it.

For years Archie spoke of opening a dialogue between scholars and working people. I thought he was dreaming — especially during the Bush years when it seemed the estrangement between Right and Left had become permanent and irreconcilable. Meanwhile, ten years or so ago he had gathered a little cohort of his old union friends in the Bay Area to establish what he called the Fund for Labor Culture which, among other projects, would sponsor a day-long conference he called a “Laborlore Conversation.” The first of these took place in the piledivers’ union local in Oakland in 2004. Here the sons and daughters (yes, daughters) of men who built the Golden Gate and the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridges (and who are at this moment sinking the piles upon which the new Bay Bridge will rise), workers and union officers and old veterans of the labor movement met with historians, folklorists, filmmakers, editors, preservationists, journalists, environmentalists, and students to see if together they might at least spade up the ground in Archie’s dream garden.

Since then — the sixth meeting will be in Chicago in May — the conversation has ranged over everything from Al Zampa’s fall from the unfinished decking of the Golden Gate Bridge (he survived) to intrepid women tugboat captains, Lumbee Indian sheetrockers, mountaintop removal and undocumented workers. New friendships have formed: between a man who has groped about in the cloudy waters of San Francisco Bay in a diving suit and a woman who writes and edits a blog on rural culture; between an ironworker and an oral historian; between a retired merchant seaman and an English professor.

It is inspiring, this opening of the ark of the democracy to which Archie dedicated his long and energetic life. We fall so easily into the habit of despising one another it’s easy to forget how much there is to admire and to learn, on the other side of the debate, the ballot, the income bracket. At close range and within close quarters, ideas like “class” can come to seem a little less real, and “culture” a little more so. That’s what we learned, I think, from “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” “pilebutt,” or tin men, when Archie unpacked them. He taught us that as card-carrying members of “one big union” which is the human race, we are all, as he was himself, the fruits of our own labor, each of us entitled to the enjoyment of them as any other.

Bob Cantwell
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One Comment

  1. Bob Cantwell, a million thanks for that beautiful tribute to a beautiful man! You really must write a biography of Archie — you know his life, his heart, his works better than anyone, and your own prose is shining and eternal.

    Archie Green was mentor, inspiration, and friend to so many of us that I believe his garden will continue to flourish. I will miss him more than words can say. He was the wind behind my sails these last years of my long research for a biography of Vincent St. John. Archie and his dearest pal, Henry, loved “Vint” as much as I. We three discussed and plotted and planned in his “we” idea way – and in the end I had hoped to have the book completed so Archie could read it. His eyes were failing, but his spirit was brighter than ever. I’m coming in close to the finish line… but Archie took flight.

    He will remain my inspiration and take me to the sky. Gentle, laughing, guiding, delightful spirit — Archie will be with us always. The biography is dedicated to him and to Henry.

    Again, many, many thanks for your beautiful tribute to him!

    MaryJoy

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