Archive for the ‘Notable Scumbags’ Category

The Redneck War

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 by Lorne



I grew up in southern West Virginia, about two counties shy of coal country. You’d think that at some point in my secondary school education I would have encountered news of the largest civilian armed insurrection in American history, which took place a scant hundred miles to the south and west of my high school. An uprising which had profound historical consequences (not all of them predictable) for the development of what are affectionately referred to as “the extractive industries” in my home state (which, face it, are the only real industries my home state can lay claim to). You’d think some history teacher along the way would have made mention of an event which featured some of the most colorful and despicable characters of the 20th century, squared off in a face-to-face confrontation that at its height involved as many as 15,000 combatants and left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and a legacy of mutual distrust and dislike which remains palpable in the coalfields to this day, ninety years later.


I’m referring, of course, to the Battle of Blair Mountain, also known as The Redneck War (a reference not to the crackerhood of the contestants, which was inescapable, but to the red bandannas worn by the Good Guys). I won’t attempt to recount the events of the uprising here, because they’ve been covered very well in a number of places: Wikipedia, to satisfy the idly curious; here, if you want an excellent and correctly biased account; and here and here if you wish to dig your heels in and do some serious reading.

But I will take a moment to consider why it should be that not Mr. Kaufman, my 8th-grade West Virginia History teacher; nor Mr. Waller, my 11th-grade American History teacher; nor Miss Raffles, my senior-year Problems of Democracy teacher (and surely there were others who tried to teach me “history” along the way…though they’ve all blessedly faded from my memory, rather like the Capital of South Dakota and the dates of the Crimean War) – why none of them saw fit to mention what was certainly the most interesting, and possibly the most important, event in West Virginia in the 20th century.

Well, those guys weren’t much to write home about in the schooling department (sorry, Miss Raffles, if you’re somehow still alive and reading this – I rather liked you: despite your grotesque and toad-like features, and even when you were bashing unions, minorities, welfare, civil liberties and, yes, hippies – hey, that was my family you were talking about, remember? – at least you had standards. But Lord you were a shitty teacher. Oh, and sorry for calling you a guy). And I doubt they ever did  much reading outside the textbooks. So I suppose it’s not out of the question that all my history teachers had made it through a West Virginia childhood and four years at Potomac State or Concord College or Marshall U. or wherever without ever having heard of Blair Mountain. Entirely possible, in fact. Because in West Virginia, the Bad Guys own everything, from the Boards of Regents of the universities right on down to the local school systems, including the TV stations, the newspapers, even the textbooks. And the Battle of Blair Mountain, though it resulted in a bloody victory for the Bad Guys, didn’t end up looking so good on paper. I mean, I suppose that if the likes of Don Chafin and the Baldwin-Felts gang had succeeded in establishing the sort of Permanent Fascist State their employers had hired them to establish, then we might have ended up reading fifty years later about the glorious victory of the mine operators over the unwashed, uneducated, and impolite mining masses. But it didn’t work out that way.

It took a Great Depression, a New Deal, and an Act of Congress, but eventually miners in West Virginia gained some semblance of autonomy and control over their wages, their working conditions, and their hours, so that events like 2010’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster became newsworthy rather than weekly occurrences. By the end of the Depression, the UMWA had established itself in every coal-producing county in the state, and while the union didn’t make all the scumbags go away, it sure made things better for a lot of miners. And as more miners joined the union, the less it was in the Bad Guys’ interest to tell stories about how Dandy Don Chafin* and his army of company-owned thugs barricaded themselves into their emplacements on Blair Mountain on the night of August 28th, 1921, and began picking off marching miners on the road to Logan one-by-one; or how his deputies killed unarmed men in the streets of Sharples, just for trying to warn their comrades that the thugs were in town; or how his private pilots dropped homemade bombs on the miners’ encampments from their biplanes – possibly the first aerial bombardment ever to take place on American soil, and certainly the first  and only “official” use of air power against U.S. citizens in our history.  By which I mean ALL our history, as in never before or again in America. No need to tell stories like that. It might just get people riled up again. Better to just let it fade away.

And fade away is what it did for about eighty years. Whole generations of young people meanwhile have gone through twelve years of primary education in West Virginia without ever knowing a thing about Blair Mountain or, really, about the history of union struggle in the state. Names like Mother Jones, John Mitchell, and John L. Lewis don’t mean anything to them. Neither does the phrase “Collective Bargaining” – and that’s just the sort of amnesia the Companies are after. Labor? Struggle? Forget about it.

All of which leads me to this: in commemoration of the 90th anniversary year of the Battle of Blair Mountain, a group of devoted historians, union people, citizen-activists and local residents have banded together to re-enact the march on Blair Mountain. And you should be paying attention to them. Why should you be paying attention to them, you ask? Because they’re not just a bunch of “living history” types trying to re-enact a golden moment in American history (though some of them might be, for all I know). What they’re trying to do is to prevent the Bad Guys from finally succeeding at what they’ve been trying to do for most of the past century, an act which would constitute their ultimate victory: to make Blair Mountain go away altogether.

See, there’s this thing called Mountain Top Removal. It’s very popular in West Virginia. It involves pulling down entire mountains to get the coal out of them. Whatever’s left is dumped over the surrounding landscape, smothering streams, meadows, and anything else that gets in the way. And guess what? Blair Mountain, which in 2006 was designated as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is slated for Mountain Top Removal. If Massey Energy and Arch Coal have their way, the last vestige of Blair Mountain in West Virginians’ memory – that would be the mountain itself – will finally just go away, like they’ve been trying to make it do for all these years.

The Blair Mountain Coalition is marching now – they started two days ago. Their aims are simple: to have Blair Mountain re-placed on the National Register of Historic Places (from which it was removed in 2006, thanks to the machinations of the coal companies); to halt plans for MTR at Blair Mountain; and to bring attention to the historic struggle for workers’ rights in America that was largely fought in the coalfields of West Virginia.

These guys have been blogging their march along the way. I wish I could be there to take part, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me – I’ve got my own blog to run! But I’ve been following their progress with interest, and I think you should too. I also think you should sign their Petition to the National Park Service – easy. I don’t know you well enough to say whether you should give them money or not, but I did, and if you want to, well, they make that pretty easy too.

Sorry, Miss Raffles.


*Stay tuned for more on Don Chafin!




This Week’s Scumbag: William Zantzinger

Monday, May 9th, 2011 by Lorne


In keeping with the (very) brief tradition begun with last week’s Scumbag post, I’m going to use this entry not only to revive the memory of a nasty little man whose name should live in infamy, but also to introduce readers to a hero of whom they may never have heard. In this case, as with the last, the two are connected by history. I can’t promise I’ll be able to pull off such a neat balancing act every week, but I do rather like the every-action-produces-an-opposite-and-equal-reaction symmetry of the whole thing…so maybe I’ll try.

It’s been two years since Wild Bill Zantzinger, a gentleman farmer from a prosperous family, by all accounts a peace-loving, church-going, quiet family man, known as a bit of a “character” to his neighbors,  passed away peacefully in his home town of Chaptico, Maryland. Unfortunately, this was 36 years too late to save Hattie Carroll, the African-American waitress who Zantzinger beat to death with a gold-headed cane in a posh Baltimore hotel bar in 1963.  Zantzinger and his victim were immortalized (sort of) in Bob Dylan’s 1964 ballad The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – not one of Dylan’s best efforts, but still a pretty good murder ballad that, given its topicality, achieved some notoriety during the Civil Rights struggle.

But the first poet to turn his attention to Hattie Carroll’s murder was the remarkable Appalachian socialist preacher, labor organizer, historian and folklorist Don West , a man I briefly met during my West Virginia childhood and who remains a hero to many in the southern mountains. Don was born in Georgia, and in his early years was active in organizing tenant farmers in the deep south, where he also took part in the very earliest iterations of the Civil Rights movement, working side by side with Communists and a few brave black organizers – thankless and dangerous work in those places in those days.  Later on he came to Summers County, West Virginia – one county to the west of Monroe County, where I grew up – and founded the Appalachian South Folk Life Center at Pipestem. That’s where I met him, sometime around 1974, in the company of my father. Recent transplants to the region, we were seeking out traditional old-time Appalachian music, and Don was a wealth not only of information but also of encouragement. He told us about Charlie Poole and Nimrod Workman – not then the household names (chuckle) they’ve become now, and my father went right out and bought every Charlie Poole reissue he could find (here’s a righteous sample, courtesy of YouTube), and I proceeded to learn every song on those records by heart. Those songs are still a big part of my life, and so is Don West.

West’s nine-stanza poem “Ballad For Hattie Carroll”  is not a great piece of writing, but it adheres to the tradition of the topical Southern ballad, where the literal and immediate recounting of events often takes precedence over “fancy” writing.  The poem was first published in Broadside magazine in March of 1963, at a time when Bob Dylan was very much involved in the Broadside scene in Greenwich Village; there’s no doubt that West’s poem inspired Dylan’s ballad, written six months later.  British journalist  Paul Slade has written a remarkable piece on the whole Zantzinger affair and the origins of Dylan’s ballad; you can find it on his blog which is really a remarkable work-in-progress — well worth a regular visit.

Meanwhile, here’s Don West’s poem in its entirety. He  intended it to be sung, to the tune of “Wayfaring Stranger,” and I’m giving it a try right now. It sort of works. And William Zantzinger, if I get my wish, will sleep a little less peacefully tonight.



Come all you poor and honest people
You who would like to understand
And listen to a sad, sad story
Of happenings in this troubled land.

The story of a brutal murder
Done by a rich and powerful man
Who beat to death a maid of color
With stylish cane held in his hand.

Hattie Carroll, an honest worker,
Left her home that fateful day
But little did she stop to ponder
That she might never draw her pay.

She went to work that cold gray evening
As she had often done before
Serving food and drink to rich men
At the big hotel in Baltimore.

The big man pounded on the table,
She hardly heard what he did say
And when she went to get his order
He took his cane and flailed away.

The poor girl bent and then she staggered
Her eyes could barely see the lights
But no one turned a hand to help her–
It was a ball for socialites.

They took her to a place called Mercy,
The doctor looked and shook his head.
There’s nothing now I can do for her,
Alas she was already dead!

The church was crowded at the funeral
Good people mourn, her children weep.
She left a family full of sorrow
And to us all a pledge to keep.

A pledge that we shall end such sadness
Brought on by men of powerful name,
That we shall not forget this mother
Whose murder brings to us such shame!


Notable Dead Scumbags: A Weekly Feature

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 by Lorne


Big Scumbag

Why only dead scumbags, when so many brilliant examples walk, nay, parade, brazenly, among us today? Well, please consider that we are rare book dealers, denizens of the camera obscura; obscurity in fact is our raison d’être; and to be alive, in our opinion, not only violates the first rule of obscurity (isness vs. wasness), but  also carries with it the living germ of redemption; and however improbable the chances of such a seed’s germination and florescence strike us in the case of, say, T. Ronald Dump, it should not be our place to close the door on their possibility. The dead, meanwhile, rest in the shadows with their accomplishments, and history shines its lamp, &c. &c.

This week, to launch our series, we offer for your consideration one of our all-time favorites, a real first-team all star among scumbags. Segregationists make great scumbags, their so-called beliefs so often having been motivated by the basest instincts – political expediency; crass cynicism; appeal to popular prejudices; plain old stupidity. How nice, then, to find all these traits gathered into one festering foul ball of race-baiting scumbaggery! I can be referring to none other, of course, than that paragon of Mississippian virtues, Senator Theodore G. Bilbo (1877-1947), famous among other things for denouncing Richard Wright’s great novel Native Son on the Senate floor, thusly:

“Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and troublebreeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro…It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print. I would hate to have a son or daughter of mine permitted to read it; it is so filthy and so dirty. But it comes from a Negro, and you cannot expect any better from a person of his type.”

Okay, I confess: that bit’s taken from Wikipedia, and hardly rises to a level of obscurity worthy of a bottom-dwelling tidbit-scavenger like moi (still – pretty good, though, and I’ll bet most of you have never had the chance til now to apply this trenchant bit of literary criticism to your own understanding of Wright’s magnum opus). But have faith in me, dear friends: I wouldn’t go here had I not first unearthed a little treasure ahead of time. One of Hon. Bilbo’s less well-known contretemps was with a young Italian-American woman from the Bronx named Josephine Piccolo. In 1945 Miss Piccolo had the temerity to write Hon. Bilbo asking him to desist from his filibuster of the Fair Employment Practices Act, then in committee. In response, Miss Bilbo received a letter which began: “My Dear Dago” and concluded with  instructions to “keep your dirty proboscis out of the other forty-seven states…I have no one to account to except the people of Mississippi…”

Piccolo, one of whose brothers had died in the Normandy invasion, went public with the letter, prompting New York congressman Vito Marcantonio to denounce Bilbo on the floor of the House.  Marcantonio’s speech was followed by a hailstorm of denunciations and recriminations which ultimately proved to be Bilbo’s undoing, as he failed to win re-election in 1946, despite his catchy campaign slogan: “I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the niggers away from the polls; if you don’t understand what that means you are just plain dumb.” Bilbo died in New Orleans in 1947, too late.

In 1945 Josephine Piccolo published a brief account of L’Affair Bilbo, giving her side of the story and expressing her determination to “…never rest until he is removed from public life and influence.” The pamphlet, titled My Fight With Bilbo – La Mia Lotta Contra Bilbo (the text  is in both English and Italian), was published by the Garibaldi American Fraternal Society of the International Workers Order (a CPUSA-affiliated civic organization) and is now exceedingly rare; only one American institution (Cornell) appears to own a copy, and we have never seen another exampe in commerce. We unearthed it recently among a stack of uncatalogued pamphlets in our backstock and offer it now as an important document marking a turning point in the history of public racism in America – and as a window through which we were able to gain a new appreciation of one of America’s really great scumbags.