Category Archives: News

Labor Day – Enjoy Responsibly

Have a great Labor Day.
And don’t forget what it’s all about.

1913 Miners

Les Ross, 1923-2014

Les Ross passed away on Thursday, June 26th, just a month shy of his 91st birthday.

Read his obituary here: World War II (Navy) veteran. Accountant. Father, grandfather and great-grandfather. A Detroit Tigers fan. And a wonderful musician.

Les played lumberjack style harmonica, a Finnish-Scandinavian style in which the melody and a pronounced, rhythmic chording and bass line are played together at the same time.

Ken and I first met Les at the Covington Music Festival, where he appeared with Oren Tikkanen, Johnny Perona, Helmer Toyras and Randy Seppala. The performance we captured that day is featured in the strike scene of 1913 Massacre.

While Ken got up close for handheld portraits of each musician, I had the wider angle: Les against a field of flowers.


For more about Les and his music, check out this Michigan Public Radio profile.

Can Films Still Make A Difference?

(cross posted from my personal blog):

What filmmaker wouldn’t be pleased with a critic like Joan Gibb Engel? Here’s what she writes about 1913 Massacre.

We were treated to a complex story, excellently told, replete with black and white stills from the period depicting the miners, the strikers, the town, the children, and the hall before it was torn down, and there were colorful scenes from the present of townspeople reflecting on the tragedy and their versions of what really happened. It had mystery, drama, sentiment, dance, and of course, the now-famous song sung in the film by Woody’s son Arlo.

Gibb Engel was in the audience when we showed 1913 Massacre at the Calumet Theatre in October of 2012, and she recalls the event in a paper she contributed to Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse: Ecological Integrity for Law, Policy and Human Rights. (The book came out last year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I came across her article, while looking for some notice of the film’s May Day screening in Oslo, Norway.)

It turns out that Gibb Engel comes to bury our film, not to praise it. She offers her experience at the Calumet Theatre as a “dispiriting example of the failure of a film to make a difference.”  And it’s not just 1913 Massacre. “I don’t believe a film, even a beautiful one…can do much for us now. We are already too awash in virtual reality depictions of the future, and no generation has had more reason to question their respective validities.”

The question whether a film can still “make a difference” in the world is one I’ve struggled with myself, written about (e.g., here, here and here), and discussed often with friends and colleagues. Gibb Engel arrives at her pessimistic view mainly after viewing and thinking about another film — Journey of the Universe, a big-budget television documentary produced by Mary Eveyln Tucker and Brian Swimme — and then she finds that view reinforced by an exchange she has, or tries to have, with a young man seated next to her at the Calumet Theatre watching our low-budget, independent film.

He was “a local high school student” who had come to the theater that day with his girlfriend, and he “had been playing with his mobile phone prior to the lights going down.” When Ken or I — we usually take turns at this — asked everyone in the audience to please make sure their cell phones were switched off, “he turned it off as requested for the performance.” So far so good! The trouble comes after the film is over, when Gibb Engel

turned to the young man and asked what he thought of it. He answered in a voice completely devoid of colour: ‘it was interesting.’

And on the basis of that exchange, Gibb Engel concludes that 1913 Massacre failed to “make a difference.” What are we to make of this?

It’s worth pointing out that from the very start that Gibb Engel seems to have nothing but praise for the film, but her argument in this paper is an exercise in a foregone conclusion: what she really wants to say here — what she in fact says immediately after having dispensed with Journey to the Universe and 1913 Massacre — is that there isn’t

any way forward except to do what GEIG [the Global Ecological Integrity Group: Gibb Engel’s husband, Ron Engel, sits on the executive committee] and its members have tried to do these past twenty years: make a personal connection with some part of the Earth and help others do the same; work for social and ecological justice; fight for people and policies that matter to the Earth’s flourishing; get our hands dirty.

Exactly how this noble or necessary or dirty work is to be accomplished, and why there should be only one way forward, she does not bother to say. There’s also a whole messy argument to untangle here about the possibility of unmediated experience (of nature) and the role of language, story and representation in forging “personal connections” and helping others do the same, working for justice and fighting for policies, etc. that Gibb Engel doesn’t come close to addressing here. I’m not going to press the issue. Instead, I want to go back to the moment where she turns to the young man sitting next to her in the Calumet Theatre and asks him what he thought of 1913 Massacre.

It’s an odd moment to focus on, and I am reluctant to allow Gibb Engel’s account of her exchange with this young man to stand for the audience’s experience of the film. There were plenty of reasons to think that 1913 Massacre did make a real difference to that Calumet audience — maybe even to that local high school kid.  And this isn’t just because I am one of the film’s producers. The house was packed for three screenings; the crowd gave the film successive standing ovations; the whole house laughed and cried and rode the film like a wave. (My diary of the Calumet Screenings is here). Gibb Engel enjoyed herself as well. But she wants to divert our attention from the audience’s experience (“we were treated to a complex story, excellently told”) to the experience of this one young man.

ow having been a young man of high school age, I can tell you that at that time in my life I probably would not have even managed “it was interesting” if asked by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me what I thought of a film. If I had been there with my girlfriend, as he was, I probably would have been even more reticent; or I might have said or done something awkward in an effort to impress my girl, or disentangle myself from the mutual attention of these two women, or get off the witness stand where this lady had put me. In other words, what Gibb Engel fails to consider here is that “it was interesting” was in all likelihood a social cue, meant to nip the conversation in the bud. (Remember when your parents’ friends used to ask you how things were going at school? “Fine.” It’s still a good rule not to trust anyone over 30, at least until you’re 25 or so.)

Even more puzzling is that Gibb Engel takes her cue from this high school student and then puts the failure to connect in a meaningful way on the young man. But surely Gibb Engel has an important part in the little social drama she describes, as the young man’s grown-up antagonist or interlocutor. That’s the position she’s in after watching the film and turning to the young man; maybe it’s fair to say it’s the position the film put her in. These two probably would never have had occasion to address one another were it not for the fact that they happened to be seated next to each other at the Calumet Theatre for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

So, as my friend Marc Tognotti pointed out when I shared the passage from Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse with him, 1913 Massacre did make at least one “obvious difference” in Gibb Engel’s world: first of all, it prompted Gibb Engel to turn to the cell-phone- wielding young man next to her and ask what he thought of the film. (And before that, it prompted the young man to turn off his cell phone — to take his life offline and participate in a public screening of a film, or at least sit quietly through it.) And when he gave her a cue “devoid of colour,” Gibb Engel by her own account seems to have let the whole thing drop, without adding any color of her own. She could have offered what she herself thought of the film, expressed the appreciation she later put into writing, asked what he meant by interesting, addressed his girlfriend and asked her what she thought, asked them both if they grew up in Calumet and had ever heard the story. And so on: the possibilities for improvisation, new relationship and conversation after the colorless “interesting” cue were many, especially because in Calumet nearly every high school kid has some family connection to the Italian Hall or the mining operations or the Finnish music Oren Tikkanen sings in our film. Gibb Engel didn’t pursue any of those.

What Gibb Engel doesn’t acknowledge here or anywhere in her discussion of 1913 Massacre or Journey of the Universe is that the difference film or any work of art makes is always one that we have to make, among ourselves. Marc puts it this way in an email:

Our tradition with film and with all art is to believe that meaning resides within the art object, or within the mind of the author/artist, etc.  But the meaning of art, if we take a pragmatist perspective anyhow, is actually something that is realized in the public domain, in how the artwork changes the conversation, changes the way in which people coordinate their actions with one another and towards the world, natural and artificial. Once we realize this, we can stop treating art as something for individual consumption, we can stop objectifying meaning in a way that renders us passive observers, and we can begin to take responsibility for creating meaning and creating change.

The work of art is not just the inhuman object that remains when the craftsman puts down his tools; it is the human activity that can begin only after the artwork is brought into the world.

A Letter to the Students at Lincoln Elementary School In Madison, Wisconsin



We are thrilled that you watched our film and so happy that you took the time to write letters to us and to Arlo and Nora Guthrie.

A couple of weeks ago, Ken and I attended an event honoring Pete Seeger at Symphony Space, here in New York City. Pete was scheduled to receive the first Woody Guthrie prize, but as you may know, he passed away in January. He was 94 years old.

You may remember seeing Pete Seeger in our film. He talks about his friendship with Woody Guthrie, how Woody came to write the song “1913 Massacre,” and how much he learned from Woody about America. Pete spent a lot of time in schools, teaching kids your age and even younger to sing and make music together.

Ever since Pete died, Ken and I have been talking about the time we got to spend with him and wondering what we’re supposed to do now that he’s gone. We hadn’t come up with any real good answers before the envelope full of your letters arrived in the mail.

Some of you (like Ethan and Sam) wrote to us. Most of the letters are addressed to Nora and Arlo Guthrie.

Cora writes to Nora and Arlo to say that “your dad’s songs really mean a lot to people” and Kelly writes to say “thank you for telling about history through your dad’s song. It is a great song.” Landen wants Arlo to know that Woody “is an awesome song writer.” Thanya’s favorite song is ‘This Land Is Your Land.” Rozalin thinks it’s “really cool” Arlo was in the film, and so do we.

Some of you talked about the story our film tells in your letters to Nora and Arlo. A whole bunch of you thought the tearing down of Italian Hall was a big mistake. Evan was surprised to learn that children worked in the mines, and after he saw the film he thought lots about how much has changed since 1913. Paris feels “kind of mad” that people got killed in the Italian Hall. Abishek was struck by Winkie Pyrrha’s story about losing his candy bag after someone yelled ‘Fire!.’ Lucy writes to thank both Nora and Arlo “for honoring that tragedy.”

And so on! There are so many wonderful letters here that we can’t possibly sum them all up. You guys are all awesome and we cherish each and every one of these letters.

Your letters also reminded us that the songs Woody Guthrie wrote and the stories they tell will live on, if we just keep singing. That’s a lesson Pete Seeger would want us all to remember.

Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

Ken emailed late last night with the news that Pete Seeger had died. I found out this morning. We both feel incredibly lucky and blessed to have spent time with Pete, talking about Woody, their time on the road, “1913 Massacre” and all sorts of musical and historical topics.

There was no such thing as a brief visit or a short interview with Pete. Once he got talking, telling stories and playing music, time just opened up and the thought of leaving never entered your mind.

The Times obituary does a pretty good job of telling his life story. I doubt Ken or I have much to add when it comes to the details.

Instead, here’s some unedited footage of Pete.

Pete singing “Soldier and A Lady” — the tune Woody borrowed for “1913 Massacre.”

“The Star Spangled Banner,” sung the way it was supposed to be sung.

A story called “Us and Our Little Teaspoons,” which Pete introduces as a “metaphor” he likes to use when people feel that their efforts to make things better are in vain.

Pete Seeger was so alive and he made so many others come alive. The world is a better and more beautiful place for Pete’s having been in it. It’s hard to believe he’s no longer around.

“‘Well,'” writes Arlo on his Facebook page, “‘of course he passed away!’ I’m telling everyone this morning. ‘But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.'”

Quick Holiday Round Up — 1913 in 2013

Calumet Ceremony

There was a ceremony in Calumet this past Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the Italian Hall disaster, and all around the country there were news articles, blog posts, TV shows and radio programs about the trouble in Calumet on Christmas Eve, 1913.

Our film came in for some notice, too. Here are a few highlights:

There was, first of all, Bill Meyer’s remarkable review of the film, which I cited in a previous post, likening 1913 Massacre to Strange Fruit and Bill Moyers’ Amazing Grace.

Michele Bourdieu published a thoughtful piece based on an interview she did with us back in October, when we showed the film at Michigan Tech. Bourdieu includes video clips from the interview and deals with both the story we tell in 1913 Massacre and the filmmaking process.

Gabriel San Roman interviewed us and wrote a (widely shared) review for Truthout about the film, which he characterizes as “a vivid portrait of a people coming to terms with their past.”

Over at The Nation, Greg Mitchell published a piece about “Woody Guthrie’s Christmas Massacre”, in which he connects the film, and the posts on this site, with “current anti-labor moves in Michigan.”

2013 has been a big year for 1913 Massacre. Thanks for being part of it, and Happy New Year to all.

“Joins the Ranks of Great Progressive Movies”

Bill Meyer sums up his review of 1913 Massacre:

Seamless editing, engrossing interviews and a stirring well-integrated music soundtrack make the film flow like long lost friends catching up on history. Arlo makes the point early on that it was folk songs where people learned about working class history, such as this tragic event, that may have been forgotten to the world otherwise. This movie could be called a “folk movie” as it tells the story in the same dramatic and powerful manner. It joins the ranks of great progressive movies based on famous songs, that include Strange Fruit, about the song about lynchings written by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holliday, Alice’s Restaurant based on Arlo’s famous song, and Bill Moyer’s Amazing Grace, a probing study of the history of the classic hymn.

Newtown, Calumet and Dark Anniversaries

Sometimes during the Question & Answer periods after screenings of 1913 Massacre, people ask why the tragedy held the town of Calumet in its grip for so long. Why did the memory of the Italian Hall disaster last? Why did it take so long for the town to come to terms with what happened on Christmas Eve, 1913? Why couldn’t the town just let go? Why does it still matter, 100 years on?

I was reminded of these questions as I read about the one year anniversary of the Newtown shooting. PBS Newshour has an excellent story about how families in Newtown are coping, and how some of them have worked together over the past year to create The Sandy Hook Promise — to “parent together” and to create “a powerful message of inclusion and love.” Newshour’s Hari Sreenivasan interviews one of these parents, Nicole Hockney, about what he calls the “dark anniversary” of Newtown:

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, as you approach this dark anniversary, what’s — what’s going through your mind?

NICOLE HOCKLEY: The one-year mark, the six-year mark, it doesn’t change anything. It’s a passage of time, but at a time and place where time doesn’t really have much meaning for me, because it’s just one more day that Dylan’s not in my arms. And that’s not going to change.

Hockley’s hit on something important here that shouldn’t be overlooked. We expect time to heal all wounds. But why should a year, or six years, or twenty years be enough? Why should 100 years? How much time is enough to make up for one mother’s loss of a child, or twenty children, in the case of Newtown — or fifty-nine children, as in Calumet? Our fast-paced media moves on from stories like these in a matter of days; but parents and towns and communities don’t. “Time,” as Hockley says, “doesn’t really have much meaning” for them. It can take years, decades, even longer for this kind of grief to unwind and for people to recover from this kind of trauma.

The Heikkinen boys, three of whom died at the Italian Hall on Christmas Eve. Alice Marzolino tells their story in the film.

The Heikkinen boys, three of whom died at the Italian Hall on Christmas Eve. Alice Marzolino tells their story in the film.

As Arlo Guthrie says in our film: “these events are like stones in a pond that have waves and ripples that go way into the future.”

Mother Bloor, the socialist organizer who wrote the book where Arlo’s father Woody first read about the Italian Hall disaster, described the events she witnessed in Calumet in a chapter she entitled “Massacre of the Innocents.” She borrows the phrase from the start of the Christmas story told in the Gospel According to Matthew, where Herod orders a slaughter after learning from the Magi that the King of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem: they have seen his star in the east. The title is meant to confer biblical significance — world historical importance — on the events of Christmas Eve, 1913.

Foreign Agitators!

ouragitatorA hundred years ago yesterday, on December 10th, 1913, the operators of the Calumet and Hecla Mine and members of the Citizens Alliance announced that all representatives of organized labor from outside the state had just “twenty four hours to leave. If they fail to do so they will be sent out of the district in a manner most convenient and effective.”

This wasn’t an idle threat. 

Just days before, on December 7th, three men had been shot and killed at a boarding house in Painesdale. A thirteen-year-old girl was wounded in the melee. Kenneth Nicholson, who was four years old at the time and would later write an account of the shooting, called the Painesdale murders an “act of terrorism, brought on by an ongoing strike at that time.” It only “succeeded,” he went on to say, “in losing for the strikers whatever public support they might have had.”

Most of the blame for the violence of the strike and all the trouble in Calumet did not, however, fall on the striking miners, but on the outsiders who had stirred them up. A headline in the Mining Gazette on December 8th demanded that “foreign agitators” be “driven from the district at once.” The specter of “foreign” agitation – “fiery speakers” and “oily-tongued orators” who “goaded” the miners to strike — loomed large over the range. At a Citizens Alliance meeting, A. E. Petermann put it this way:

Six months ago people of the copper country of Michigan would have been proud to say in the outside world, I am from the copper country of Michigan. We had a happy community. There were no murders, no disorder, no lawlessness. See what has happened in four months? It has been brought about by whom? By men who have been hired to come here and spread their poisonous slime.

The Western Federation’s Charles Moyer – who just days after the Italian Hall disaster would himself be subject to convenient and effective removal, shot through the arm and hustled on to a Chicago-bound train – was clearly aware public opinion in Calumet had turned against him and other outside organizers. He telegrammed his alarm to the American Federation of Labor. AFL officials brought the telegram to President Wilson’s attention, “so the constitutional right of the labor representatives may be protected.”

On the Copper Range, Judge O’Brien granted a writ of injunction, “restraining members of the Citizens Alliance from interfering with or molesting, by threats or intimidation,” members of the Western Federation of Miners. “Stop and think,” Petermann urged members of the Citizens Alliance. “You can’t afford to have any blood on your hands.”

Five months into the strike, the hope remained that if troublemakers from outside the district could just be sent packing, people would have a chance to settle down. “Wise counsel is prevailing,” wrote a local newspaper editor, as late as December 20th; “conservative citizens are playing a major part toward bringing the struggle to an end.” If people could just come together without outside interference, went this line of popular argument, the community might recover its balance, and find a way out of the mess those outside men had made. Everybody could be happy again.


Documentary As A Layer of Memory

Geoff Gimse saw our film last Thursday evening, at Michigan Tech. Here, Ken and I agree, he nails it, and we especially dig his last comment about the film as “another layer of…memory.”

Since the actual facts of the tragedy are impossible to discern, the film instead focuses on how the events are remembered and how that memory becomes internalized in a community. It is memory, especially familial memory, that becomes particularly important to the film. It tracks the event through the stories that were passed down from the survivors to their children and grandchildren. This familial context is then further explored through Woody Guthrie’s song, from which the film takes it title. Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s son, is interviewed at length regarding his father and the impact of the song itself. It is apparent by the end of the film that the Italian Hall Disaster, now almost 100 years past, remains a living memory that continues to have a real impact on the community today. Indeed, even the movie itself can be seen as another layer of that memory. It is a recording of voices. Voices that were previously unheard but are now remembered.