Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Activist (Blog)

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 stood with them
And helped them
She never wavered
In the brotherhood
She gave her love
Like justiceBut the factory closed
When the labor was
The struggle of workers
Solidarity is someone

Emma was an anarchist
She said women are
She never wavered
In the power
She battled against
And their control

But revolutions
And turned
People turned on
“Guaranteed

And me—
Raised by
I was told
In the land
And I never wavered
Unfortunately
I gave my love
That hopelessly

I got lost
The bright lights
I thought all those
Were the way things

he organized for the men.
on the picket lines
get home again.
in her belief
of man
to those treacherous dreams
and freedom.thirty years ago
shipped abroad.
happens somewhere else.
else’s cause

She spoke of love that is free
paralyzed by matrimony
in her belief
of love.
the church and state
of who we can love

are televised
into corporate TV
their social media.
personality.”*

I was an American boy.
the powers that be—
that I was living
of the free.
in my beliefs
Unfortunately
to those contradictory dreams
confused me.

in the supermarket*
dazzled me
forms and consumer goods
were supposed to be—

Song Writing, guitar – Mike Opitz
Vocals – Kathleen Downes
Bass – Tom Daddesio
Keyboards – 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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