*The following is an adaptation of a paper I gave at the 2011 American Folklore Society annual meeting in Bloomington, IN.
The paper was titled: “Everything’s Raisin’ But the Wages”: The poetics of class warfare in the work of two Hoosier songwriters.
From last winter in Wisconsin to last week on Wall Street, American has pricked up its ears to current extremes of class difference in this country. Throughout the history of class disputes and labor struggles, music has had a place as a political and poetic form of communication. Historically, songwriters like Sarah Ogan Gunning, Hazel Dickens, Joe Hill, and Woody Guthrie and many others have created an impressive body of songs that relate the woes of class warfare in America. In more recent years, we’ve seen this mantle be taken up by folks like Billy Bragg and Tom Morello. Here I draw attention to two native sons of Indiana, Otis Gibbs and The Reverend Josh Peyton, thus far left out of this linneage, but nonetheless deeply connected.
Otis Gibbs promotional photo by Todd Fox
Rev. Peyton promotional photo by Todd Fox
Recently, with many citizen’s attention be held by the Occupy Wall Street movement, NPR music critic Ann Powers sought to find the musical voice of the protest, asking those on the ground, if a musician or anthem had arisen to give poetic voice to their concerns?
It didn’t shock me at all to hear that the consensus was that so far, the movement hadn’t seen its musical poet laureate. As Powers observes, the era of the single voice of protest, the one people remember Dylan to be, isn’t suitable to the kind of diverse and poly-vocal crowd that makes up the Occupy movement. But there’s another dimension to this lack of key-note singer, one that was observed by Archie Green and George Korson in their work on labor and mining songs. Both scholars noted that the best songs of labor movements were generally written in times of general peace and harmony for the unions (and by extension, workers), for in times of desperate strife and political upheaval, people are too busy marching, picketing and sometimes fighting literally fights to sit down and write songs. In view of this trend, while neither the Rev. or Otis are directly tied to current protests movements, they are the ones writing the songs day in day out that bring a sense of labor history and class consciousness to audiences year after year.
Here I devote most of my attention to Reverend Josh Peyton, (Rev. – as he’s called by family and fans alike). I don’t mean to short change Otis Gibbs at all, but I feel the disciplins I am trained in (folklore and ethnomusicology) gain more from listening to artists and learning from them than from mapping grand theories over them. Since I wasn’t able to do the kind of fieldwork I feel necessary to speak with any kind security about Otis’s process and motivations, I don’t care to speculate here.
I will mention that Otis, in a way, represents a more conventional type of labor songwriter, but even that doesn’t do his situation justice. Born and raised in the township of Wannamaker Indiana, just southeast of Indianapolis, Otis now resides in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s not exactly difficult to understand why Otis hasn’t found fame in the corporate sponsored world of Nashville, Tennesee, considering the titles of his last to albums:
Grandpa Walked A Picketline
Joe Hill’s Ashes
Otis, instead, has gained a loyal following in Europe, where he regularly tours with Billy Bragg, and sings in small folk clubs throughout the continent.
My concern here is to set an example of contrast, two artists with similar sympathies who’ve expressed themselves quite differently. This is also interesting to see play out because Otis and Rev. are good friends, who constantly support one another and hold dear their Indiana connection. While Otis writes songs to suit many occasions and themes, his political songs are overtly political and often specifically labor related. Always performing in work boots and an ever-present IWW ball cap, Otis sings songs that evoke the names of Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the aforementioned Joe Hill and commemorate events like the 2006 West Virginia Sago Mine collapse that killed 12 men. His merchandise quite consciously connect him to the images of labor history as created by Wobblie graphic artist Carlos Cortez.
While not operating strictly within the labor movement, Otis sings to people sympathetic to the goals of organized labor and generally on the progressive side of class reform.
Rev. Peyton walks a rather stranger and more complicated line of affiliations and styles, and for quite different audiences.
At Burt's Tiki Lounge, SLC, UT (photo by author)
I first met Rev. Peyton about four years ago while working with the public folklore agency Traditional Arts Indiana under the director of Jon Kay. At the time I little about Rev’s work, but was awe-stuck at both his energetic stage show and deep commitment to his Hoosier identity. One of the most personally gratifying aspects of being a public folklorist has been developing the tools to approach artists with the confidence to say, “Tell me more about what you do.” The remarkable thing I’ve learned about survey work is how well it’s laid the foundation for deeper relationships to develop. Over the years Rev and his wife Breezy and I have become friends, working on various projects together: I write a paper about Rev. He teaches me to shoot a gun.
Author and Rev. in Brown Co. IN (photo by Breezy Peyton)
As opposed to Otis, who plays and sings songs in a country/bluegrass infused folk style, Rev. Peyton idiom is country blues. He and his “Big Damn Band,” which consists of his wife Breezy on washboard and their cousin Aaron on drums, play up-tempo blues songs grounded by Rev’s impressive finger style, slide guitar. More Bukka White than Woody Guthrie, I distinctly remember watching Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration on TV at Rev’s cabin when he exclaimed, “That dude’s awesome! I always thought he was kinda of geezer.”
Musically influenced by artists like Bukka White, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Patton. Rev also acknolwdges that growing up in southern IN, he was raised on “all manner of hillbilly music, from Hank to Bill Monroe to everything in between.” This confluence has had direct impacts on his songwriting.
Often in blues in general, the idea of writing a song gets lost, in technical prowess or silliness or whatever, and I like to write songs. Somewhere blues songwriting got lost. But ultimately music is about songs, that’s what matters.
David Evans has written that the blues idiom is essentially one of deep subjectivity, “concerned with the self, though in relation to others. Lyrics are realistic (as opposed to idealistic).” Here, Rev. brings that personal touch to rural living, feeling a desire to fill a gap left by mainstream county music misrepresenting rural American life.
It was a response to country music radio. They name drop things like pickup trucks, and mud and ‘we drink beer around the fire’ just really generic stuff.
So he ended up writing “Born, Bred, Corn Fed” (which is also a mantra his has tattooed on his right bicep.) Rev. considers the song “a wink to people who really grew up in the country,” where he could name drop things that were more authentically rural in his view.
Over this past summer I had the chance to catch Rev and Breezy on break from their near constant touring schedule, and I had Rev. play some songs in his cabin in Brown Co. A fortunate and rare acoustic solo, personal jukebox kind of concert.
Here’s Rev. performing “Born, Bred, Corn Fed.”
While this is not an overtly political or class-conscious song, it represents Rev.’s attitude to write songs that resonate with him personally. There’s an important connection here. Rev. has often said he doesn’t write political songs, he writes “social songs,” He says his songs have no agenda, other than to, “Tell the stories of people I know, my family and friends, who’s stories aren’t told.”
Locality is key to him, saying:
I would never write about West Virginia miners, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a West Virginia miner. I just want to write tell-it-like-it-is songs. We all know the economy is messed up, and I’m not claiming to know why, and I’m not claiming to know how to fix it, but as I see it, everything’s raising but the wages. That’s a fact you can’t argue with.
In the climate of endless political commentary about the economy, Rev.’s simple assertion is a statement of class-consciousness, without the alienating distance of polemical rhetoric. Labor activist and folksinger Utah Phillips once said that labor songs are “a better and more accurate picture of who were are and where we have come from than the best damn history book you ever read.”
Rev. is simply making the political personal with his song, “Everything’s Raisin’but the Wages.”
Unlike Otis Gibbs, Rev. is often performing to fans who don’t listen to NRP, know who Joe Hill was, or give a damn about political movements. He plays blues festivals, punk clubs, Biker Ralleys, BBQ Fairs, and twice played on the Vans Warped Tour. A common quip from the Rev. is that the hippie and the redneck have more in common that they realize, and he’s living proof of that. Yet it’s his sympathy for the lives of others, and the basic human desire to feel good about themselves, that drives the social message of Rev.’s songs. Yet while Rev. says his songs aren’t overtly political, he also hasn’t kept his views in check just to make an easier way for himself commercially, his song “Walmart Killed the Country Store,” has guaranteed that his records will never be stocked by the countries largest music retailer, but he feels okay about that, saying, “I don’t ever want to write a song that makes people feel stupid. Well, unless you’re the head of a major corporation, then I don’t care.”
But he goes on:
I like to not state what I would believe politically, but state it socially. I get people coming up to me at shows wearing Obama shirts or Palin shirts who’ll say ‘I hate Walmart too.’ I want to take things that matter to me, and not paint them politically, but paint them plain. Local businesses don’t get a fair shake because of Walmart, and that’s not fair. And if you state it like that, you can turn more people onto it.
While these videos help get at the poetics of Rev.’s songwriting, but they misconstrue the performance context for the vast majority of Big Damn Band shows. As I’ve said, most commonly, Rev. will be playing to large, rowdy crowds, either in small clubs or large summer festival stages.
For example (video not by author):
His songwriting, however, reveals an important dimension to Rev.’s work, and his efforts to present something more complex, accessible, and durable than the party band they show onstage. In this regard, Rev.’s work is social in both the sense of offering a common ground for people to enjoy music, food, drink, and fellowship. And the more politically charged sense of socialism – believing music and song should include the perspective of the diverse individuals who populate the world – not unlike the current slogan, “We are the 99%.”
Rev. often quips that he believes the hippy and the hillbilly have more in common than they realize (he’s living proof of that), and as we were discussing this project, Rev. sent me this text message:
What do you think of all this occupy stuff? What’s your gut saying? Real thing or just the tea party equivalent of the democratic party. I want to back it so bad. I would love some real populist movement. Not something cooked up in the board room, and not something that ends up being hijacked by the powers that be.
I think this speaks to exactly what he wants to see in the world. A kind of 21st century, political minded, socially grounded version of “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” A good reminder when one sees this finger-style blues playing hillbilly playing music with punk rockers, a reminder that people are more complicated than the political pundits would like, and that complexity is a good thing.