Woody Guthrie. Library of Congress photo.

KIRWAN: Voices For Their Time - And Ours Too

On a recent Celtic Crush/SiriusXM show, I featured songs about James Connolly and Joe Hill, along with "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie. As I was listening I realized just how little has changed. Immigration was the big polarizing issue in their early 20th Century, just as it will be ours in this year’s presidential election.

And yet it would appear that much of our political establishment has no intention of hammering out an acceptable compromise to this existential American problem. No, far better use it to enrage sensibilities and get themselves re-elected! What has James Connolly, martyred leader of the 1916 Insurrection in Ireland, got to do with U.S. immigration anyway?

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Well, between 1903 and 1910 he too was an immigrant, living in Troy, Elizabeth, and The Bronx.

James Connolly.

James Connolly.

A full time organizer for the International Workers of the World (The Wobblies), he sought to unionize textile workers then living under wage-slave conditions in the U.S. Many were Jewish and Central European women fleeing the pogroms of Tzarist Russia, along with Italians and others from Southern Europe.

Most could not speak English and were despised by the Nativist Know-Nothings of the time. Like modern immigrants, they too were accused of “poisoning the blood of our country.” Ironically, the great-grandchildren of those 20th Century disadvantaged immigrants are now the backbone of middle-class America. What about Joe Hill?  

Born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in Gavle, Sweden, he didn’t even begin to speak English until after his U.S. arrival in 1902 at the age of 22. He took whatever underpaid day labor he could find in New York and eventually made his way to the West Coast, where he narrowly escaped death during the San Francisco earthquake.

What a brief but meteoric life! A soldier of fortune in an invasion of Mexico, a free-speech advocate, and eventually a galvanizing songwriter. He became the voice of all Americans, immigrant and otherwise, who sought a living wage working 60 hour weeks in the direst of conditions. Needless to say, this Nordic immigrant and his hobo tribe, who rode the rails up and down the West Coast in search of work, were treated as disposable cogs in an unfettered boom and bust economy.

Joe was executed in Salt Lake City in 1915 for a crime he didn’t commit, despite the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson.

Joe Hill in a booking photo.

Joe Hill in a booking photo.

Woody Guthrie, born a generation later, was no immigrant, though along with thousands of Okies he drifted west during the Depression in search of work. One of his finest songs, however, is "Deportee," an ode to the plight of migrant workers.

He also wrote "This Land is Your Land" in answer to God Bless America, because he felt Irving Berlin’s anthem did not reflect the reality that the vast majority of Americans were experiencing. One can only wonder what Woody, Joe Hill, and James Connolly would think of Mr. Trump’s proposal to involve the U.S. Armed Forces in rounding up eight million or more illegal immigrants for deportation.

One could rationalize this threat as Donald simply being Donald, but this is no longer the garrulous hero of the New York Post’s Page 6, but the man who sat on his presidential hands while his “patriot” supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6th, 2021.

Though it’s unlikely that the U.S. Army would allow itself to be used in such a manner, these are strange days. This is a country of laws and a person who gains entry and petitions asylum is legally entitled to remain here until their case is heard. And yet, there’s little doubt the current immigration system has broken down on the southern borders.

So, fix it.

Though it won’t be easy and will take compromise, that’s why we elect representatives. The U.S. has faced slavery, a civil war, and a host of other problems, and time after time our politicians have risen to the occasion. Ours is a big booming economy, with an aging population; until our politicians summon the courage to act, we need workers for the many jobs Americans won’t touch.

Though they look and sound different, there are James Connollys and Joe Hills among the current asylum seekers, and you can be sure many of them are already singing their version of "This Land Is Your Land."