English folksinger Ewan MacColl, who was born January 25, 1915, wrote a number of great songs like “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.” One of his most touching songs combines his political work with a personal story about his father, “My Old Man.”
In “My Old Man,” MacColl sings about his father. Socialist parents raised MacColl, who was born with the name James Miller, and their own activism surely influenced their son’s political work.
MacColl’s father was a Scottish foundry worker who was blacklisted by most factories because of his union activity. In “My Old Man,” MacColl uses song to indict the capitalist system that can destroy human lives.
In “My Old Man,” MacColl also reveals his fondness for the man who helped bring him into the world. But he also reconsiders his father’s life: “He abandoned hope and the will to live / They killed him, my old man.” And he sees the life as a warning that he can pass on to his own son: “And my advice to you, my son,/ Is to fight back while you can.”
“My Old Man” is a tragic story and a touching song about fathers. I first heard the song during a performance by folksinger Charlie King.
MacColl’s performance of “My Old Man” below was made for Grenada Television in 1984. It features MacColl’s usual style of singing while cupping his ear. The recording was made only about four years before MacColl died in October 1989.
On August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair. The execution of the Italian-born anarchists drew worldwide protests from people who believed the two men were innocent of the murder charges against them. Many today still debate whether or not the two were guilty of the crime, but most agree that anti-immigrant sentiment and other factors affected the fairness of their trial.
The saga of Sacco and Vanzetti has inspired various forms of art, including songs. Chimesfreedom previously addressed the songs that Woody Guthrie wrote about the case. Additionally, folksinger Charlie King wrote an excellent song about the case called “Two Good Arms,” and I have seen him perform it on several occasions. King, who grew up in Massachusetts and has been performing for fifty years, is not as well known as he should be. But artists like Pete Seeger have recognized his talent.
While there does not seem to be a video of King singing “Two Good Arms,” here is Holly Near covering his song at the 1987 Philadelphia Folk Festival. And you may hear King’s original version on his webpage.
King took much of the lyrics of “Two Good Arms” directly from the speech that Vanzetti made at his sentencing. It is interesting how he recognized the poetry in Vanzetti’s own words, even as the native Italian speaker presented his plea in English: “That I am not only innocent of these two crimes, but in all my life I have never stolen and I have never killed and I have never spilled blood. . . . Not only am I innocent of these two crimes, not only in all my life I have never stolen, never killed, never spilled blood, but I have struggled all my life, since I began to reason, to eliminate crime from the earth. Everybody that knows these two arms knows very well that I did not need to go into the streets and kill a man or try to take money. I can live by my two hands and live well.”
The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti remains relevant today, as many debate whether states have executed innocent people in recent years. A new book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, recounts how Texas may have executed an innocent man when it executed Carlos DeLuna. Others claim that other executed men like Cameron Todd Willingham were innocent.
It is difficult to prove innocence to everyone’s satisfaction after someone has been executed, but these and other cases certainly raise questions about the justice system, as any system run by humans is bound to make mistakes at some point. Thus, one may wonder whether society should execute people rather than holding them in prison. These ongoing risks make it important that we answer the opening question of Charlie King’s song with an affirmation that we all will remember past injustices and work to prevent them in the future.
Photo of Vanzetti (left) and Sacco (right) via public domain.
The New Yorker recently published a sad story by Jeffrey Toobin about the prosecution of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and how the fallout from the case affected a young Justice Department lawyer named Nicholas Marsh, who committed suicide. (Casualties of Justice, Jan. 3, 2011).
The media is all over a story until suddenly the story disappears, and it was that way with the Sen. Stevens prosecution. There was extensive coverage of the case against Ted Stevens, who was charged with failing to report gifts of reduced rates on renovations to a house. While the case was pending, Stevens lost reelection in 2008. Then the media coverage died down. But the Stevens case did not result in a conviction, and the Attorney General’s Office ultimately asked for all charges to be dropped against Stevens because prosecutors breached ethics by failing to disclose information indicating Stevens may not have been guilty. Stevens died in a plane crash in Alaska in 2010.
Nicholas Marsh was one of the prosecutors in the Alaska investigation that resulted in nine successful convictions revealing corruption in the state political system. Although Marsh participated in the Stevens case, Toobin wrote that apparently Marsh had nothing to do with the unethical actions by his fellow prosecutors. But because of Marsh’s involvement in the case, officials removed Marsh from his high-esteem position and moved him to a lower-prestige department. Meanwhile, the Office of Professional Responsibility continues to investigate the conduct of the Stevens prosecutors.
Even though Marsh may ultimately be cleared, the stress from the ongoing investigation took its toll on him. Depressed and unsuccessfully fighting his demons, in September 2010 he hanged himself in the basement of his suburban Washington, D.C. home. Married less than five years, he did not leave a note for his young wife.
It is tragic to think of Marsh feeling his life was crashing down as his career identity was crumbling. Maybe he could have left town and started over again and eventually been happy again. But one suspects that for whatever reasons he felt like he could not get away.
In an earlier post about life lessons, Chimesfreedom discussed Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Denial of Death. In the book, Becker explained that people identify with things — be it possessions, esteem, organizations, sports teams, etc. — to give meaning to their lives and to give us defense mechanisms against our fears. Many of us identify ourselves by our jobs. And, as has happened frequently to far too many people in the last several years during the recession, if we lose a job we feel we lose our entire identity and our defense mechanism against our fears.
The story about the Stevens case reminded me of a song by folk-singer and activist Charlie King. King is a good performer, full of stories and good songs about social issues. One song, entitled “Our Life is More than Our Work,” has common-sense lyrics reminding us something we often forget when we get wrapped up in our own worlds: “You know that our life is more than our work / And our work is more than our jobs.”
The song reminds us that we are not our jobs. Additionally, we each have work to do during our lives that is beyond our jobs. But even that broader work is not the whole of your life.
The New Yorker story about the Alaska prosecution also reminded me of Insomnia (2003), a movie that focuses on a criminal case in Alaska involving questionable professional ethics that haunt the lead character. Insomnia is a very good movie about a Los Angeles detective played by Al Pacino who goes to Alaska to investigate a crime. While there, he is unable to sleep from the constant daylight and from being haunted by his past choices. The movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, features excellent acting by Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and a creepy Robin Williams. It reveals how our jobs can take us down a well-worn path where we feel we do not have control.
Most likely, there were other factors contributing to the Nicholas Marsh tragedy besides the ethics investigation, and it is ridiculous to think that lessons from an action movie or a folk song could save a life. But music and movies can make us think about our lives and maybe change our attitudes a tiny bit. And that’s something. As Charlie King sings, “Think how our life could be, feel how our life could flow / If just for once we could let ourselves go.”