GIL SCOTT-HERON / “Blue Collar”
I’m a Teamster and proud of it. Before I became one though, I can’t say I knew for sure what that meant. What it means is, I belong to one of the largest labor unions in America – specifically, the one that includes truck drivers and dock workers. Originally, ‘teamsters’ were mule-cart drivers or something like that, so that’s the where the name came from.
The other day on the radio, I heard an economist assert in an op-ed that the reason unions are losing power and membership in America is because they are no longer needed. The middle class in America is strong, he said, standards of living have never been higher, and therefore, unions have become redundant. Unions exist so that blue-collar individuals can earn a good living wage, health care and a pension. Since all of those things are already being taken care of by the free market system, he asked, why do we still need unions at all? To hear him tell it, the squeeze on unions is a problem providing its own solution. Union enrollment is down because the problem unions are supposed to correct is no longer much of a problem.
On the surface level, the argument sounds good. But dig a little deeper and it reveals itself to be specious at best. Using the same line of reasoning, I guess we can conclude that the nationwide nursing shortage is because there aren’t enough sick people and the decline in enrollment at police academies across the country is because there just isn’t enough crime to go around. It makes about as much sense.
I don’t know what fantasy land the op-ed guy resides in, but in the real world where I live, health care costs for the average worker are going through the roof, virtually no one has a pension to look forward to and wages are getting stretched thinner and thinner. I need to look no further than non-union trucking companies to see this reality. At my last trucking job – which was non-unionized – health care cost me $90 per week (vs. $0 per week now), my only option for retirement was a partially-funded 401k (as opposed to a fully-funded pension) and I got paid almost eight dollars per hour less than I get paid now. And that was actually a pretty good company. The job I had before that one was such a fucked up experience I don’t even want to describe it now for fear of waking up. I might still be stuck in that hellhole and only dreaming that I’m typing this. The point is, without the union, my working life would suck.
In arguing against unions, the op-ed guy reported that Americans, as a whole, have never been wealthier. He also reported that household income among middle-class Americans is higher now than it has ever been, even adjusted for inflation. All of that is true. What he didn’t say was that nearly all middle-class families earn that extra money by having both Mom and Dad working full-time. What he forgot to mention was in the last forty years the top 20% in America have seen a nearly 100% gain in their annual income while the rest of us have seen about a 20% or so gain…and that’s with both parents working! If you’re older than thirty, ask yourself, did your Mom work outside of the house? Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. Now ask, did your grandmother work outside of the house? I’ll bet the majority didn’t. Now ask yourself this question. If you’re a woman – do you work full-time? If you’re a man – does your girlfriend or wife work full-time? I’ll bet they do. If you factor in the additional worker in most households, I’d argue that middle-class and working-class incomes have gone DOWN in the last forty years. Not up at all. Meanwhile, I deliver imported Italian tile and bamboo flooring and flat-screen televisions to the top 20% all day everyday and I can report with confidence that not many of the Moms in La Jolla or Del Mar or Rancho Santa Fe are out working 40+ hours per week unless they’re doing so by choice. And good for them. I wish every mother could make that choice if she wanted to.
Now, on to the music, shall we? Gil Scott-Heron is known as a Black revolutionary, a poet who fought fiercely for the rights of Black people in America and around the world. What few know about Gil is he also consistently fought for the working class of all races. Over and over, Gil sang about and talked about the plight of the ordinary working man and woman. When he did, race would scarcely, if ever, be mentioned. Part of Gil’s brilliance was he recognized a long, long time ago that race was just one part of the system of oppression in America. Here, in America, class warfare is the real deal. If racism is a symptom, classism is the illness itself.
Gil Scott-Heron may have started out in 1971 as an angry young revolutionary, spouting racially-charged polemics, but my man was also twenty-two years old at the time. Ten year later, when Gil cut “Blue Collar” (from the Moving Target LP), he was older, wiser and in tone at least, quieter. He realized that the battle for equality wasn’t just in the urban centers where most of the black and Latino folk are, but also “between the cities and the towns,” where you’ll find mostly working-class white folk, many of whom are dealing with the same or similar economic pressures as working class black people deal with in Chicago or L.A. or NYC. “You can’t name where I ain’t been down,” Gil sings, “’Cause there ain’t nowhere I ain’t been done.”
A couple years earlier, Gil cut a track named “Three Miles Down” (from the out-of-print LP Secrets) in which he focused on coal miners, not exactly the first profession that comes to mind when one thinks of black people. Gil likens working in a coal mine to “working in a graveyard.” Except in this case, you’re actually working in the graveyard because “there ain’t no sunshine underground.” Since 1978 when Gil first recorded “Three Miles Down,” the song has become one of his most-performed live numbers. We’ll include both the original (which is more affecting) and the live version (which is a lot longer and, as unlikely as it may seem, very funny. BTW, the live version is from a set named Tales Of Gil Scott-Heron. It’s out-of-print as well.)
We’ve got something of a blues theme going, so let’s go to a spoken-word piece in which Gil breaks down the meaning of the blues. The poem “H20 Gate Blues” is an example of Gil’s always-brilliant political commentary (it’s available on The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron). I remember hearing this piece back when I was 10 or 11 years old. I used to play it over and over, having not even the slightest idea what Gil was talking about but being totally captivated by the sound of his voice. His confidence, his dexterity, his timing – it’s a beautiful thing even if you can’t understand the words. And again, you’ll hear how Gil uses his breakdown of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal to talk about the class system in America and around the world.
Let’s go back to 1971. Pieces Of A Man was Gil’s first foray into full-out song-writing and singing. (He’d previously released Small Talk At 125th & Lenox which was a collection of poetry set to drumming, Last Poets style.) The cut I want to mention from this album is “Save The Children.” There’s one couplet in particular that stands out:
My little Tommy he said he wants to be a firemanLittle Tommy and little Mary want to be a fireman and a school teacher? What a cliché, right? Yes, and I think intentionally so. Even in 1971, even right on top of the Black Power era, I believe Gil was already singing about class inequality. When he said “we’ve got to do something to save the children,” I don’t think he meant we have to save them from death or prison or anything of the sort. I think he meant we need to save them from things like shrinking wages, virtually non-existent health care and empty pension accounts. He meant, ordinary people deserve good lives too. That’s the reason, I think, that he chose “typical American” names like Tommy and Mary and that’s the reason he chose such obvious middle-class jobs as fireman and school teacher. He was saying, we have to save the ordinary dreams of ordinary people because we are the ordinary people. As I look around at the outsourcing of American jobs, the ever-increasing number of workers without health care and the almost-daily news of corporate buy outs, mergers and lay-offs, I’m not so sure that we've followed Gil's advice.
And little Mary she said she got to teach school
—Mtume ya Salaam
The Great Goodness of Gil’s Music
Gil represents the best of conscious black artists. And, ironically, the worst. His work is sterling. Being a junkie is shit. His will to create must be off the charts. How else could he produce even as he is a dope fiend, i.e. someone for whom there are but two dominant realities: 1. Being high and 2. Getting high.
But beyond working through his problems of substance abuse, and beyond the general high quality of his artistic work there is an important element that separates Gil from other conscious songwriters, performers and spoken word artists. Gil Scott has a sharply defined and brilliantly articulated working class consciousness. He knows the real basis of the differences and problems within contemporary American society is rooted in class warfare. Gil is clear about that war and is unstinting in boldly and cogently addressing class struggle, a struggle which most of us don’t think about, not to mention include as a focal point of our artwork.
Beyond the great goodness of the music and the beauty of his delivery, I am convinced that people around the world respond to Gil addressing the concerns of people whom society forces to work (and work hard) just to eek out a meager living. Throwing the spotlight on class struggle not only appeals to the majority of people in today’s world, a working class focus also appeals across generational lines.
I’m adding “Alien” and “This Is A Prayer For Everybody” to the jukebox and I’m also including a live version of “Save The Children.” “Alien” is an old song first recorded in 1979 and released on the now-out-of-print album called 1980. Dig, over thirty years ago Gil Scott-Heron was addressing the plight of Hispanic aliens. How’s that for social insight and prophesy in terms of what issues were going to increase in relevancy?
The first version is the original 1980 version and the second is a 1994 live recording featuring Ron Holloway on saxophone and Gil introducing the song in Spanish.
“This Is A Prayer For Everybody” is one of my favorite recordings. The movement of the chord choices give off an aura of optimism. The rolling rhythm puts the listener in a relaxed mood. The tenor solo at the end is lyrical and simultaneously jazzy. I used to play this song to end my three hour Sunday morning radio programs.
In terms of the lyrics, this is one of the most positive songs ever written but it is a clear-eyed positivity that recognizes there is a lot of wrong but emphatically states that together we can overcome. Or, as Gil says: “We must be strong and not become bitter.”
Which, coming back to Gil’s personal travails with drug addiction, Gil exemplifies. Regardless of the depth of his problems, he continues to push forward and has not become bitter. The absence of bitterness is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
Gil Scott-Heron is an amazing man—a brilliant songwriter yes but also an amazing individual who continues strong in the struggle despite his obvious personal contradictions. Viva la revolucion! Viva Gil Scott-Heron!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, October 21st, 2007 at 1:47 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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