Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Activist

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Activist

A few years ago, one of my students–I think the class was Environmental Literature.–had been reading a labor newspaper before class and gave it to me. It had an article about how often women organized and supported labor movements but that the men took the credit and also took the labor of women for granted. I was a kid at the time, but I remember when my dad, a railroad worker, would be on strike. I remember being scared but was too little to know why. Men would meet on our porch and have dark, threatening conversations. My mom would cook for them and keep the kids away from the porch. So the Anna in the first verse is made-up from that. The irony of the labor movement exploiting the labor of women did not dawn on me for many years.

That was when I read the novel, Ragtime, by the Marxist novelist E.L. Doctorow.* One of the stories addresses early unions in the garment industry. The plot takes the reader to a union hall and a vivid scene of Emma Goldman–the anarchist feminist leader–giving a speech on free love to the male union workers. She asks her lovers who are in the crowd to stand up–and the male union workers don’t like to hear this. Doctorow juxtaposes this speech with the emergence of America’s first sex symbol, Evelyn Nesbit.

PBS.org Interview

Nesbit, like Goldman, a character in the novel as well as a real person, attends the lecture. This scene caused me to read Emma Goldman’s ongoing publication called The Traffic in Women–(early 20th century) — by which she mainly means marriage but other exploited labor as well. So Anna is fictional and a composite; Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit were real people but also fictional characters in Doctorow’s novel. The irony that now seems obvious in these manipulations of mass imagery that can be called “the traffic in women” did not dawn on me for many years.

The third verse tells the story of that guy and those years.

Activist

Anna was an activist.  She organized for the men.
She stood with them on the picket lines
And helped them when they came home again.

She never wavered in her belief in the brotherhood of man.
She gave her love to those treacherous dreams–
Justice and Freedom.

But the factory closed thirty years ago.
The labor was shipped abroad.
The struggle of the workers happens somewhere else.
Solidarity is someone else’s cause.

Emma was an anarchist.  She pointed to a love that is free.
She spoke of how women are paralyzed
By matrimony.

She never wavered in her belief in the power of love.
She battled against the church and state
And their control of who we can love.

But the revolution was televised,
And turned into corporate TV.
People turned on their social media
“Guaranteed personality.”*

And me, I was an American boy raised by the powers that be.
I was told that I was living
In the land of the free.

I never wavered in my beliefs—unfortunately–
I gave my love to those contradictory dreams
That hopelessly confused me.

But I got lost in the supermarket*
And the bright lights dazzled me.
I thought all those forms and consumer goods
Were the way things were supposed to be.

I’m lost … ff.

*The lines “guaranteed personality” and “lost in the supermarket” come from The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling, Epic Records, 1979.

Song writing, guitars, vocals           Mike Opitz
Bass, production of track                Tom Daddesio
Vocals, percussion                           Mysterious Madame X K
K
eyboard                                            Caitlin Brutger

Notes

* E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Random House, 1975.

*The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling (1980).

*Ben E. King, “Stand by Me” was added by Kathee as a vocal improvisation.

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