Oct. 7, 2010

Derry Derry Down

by Seamus Heaney


The lush
Sunset blush
On a big ripe

I scratched my hand
Reaching in

To gather it
Off the bush,

In Annie Devlin's
Back garden.


In the storybook
Back kitchen
Of The Lodge

The full of a white
Enamel bucket
Of little pears:

Still life
On the red tiles
Of that floor.

Sleeping beauty
I came on
By the scullion's door.

"Derry Derry Down" by Seamus Heaney, from Human Chain. © Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1982 that the musical Cats first opened on Broadway. It was based on a book of children's poems by T.S. Eliot called Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), a series of sketches of different cats named Macavity, Mungojerrie, Rumpelteazer, Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, and Grizabella. The musical had one of the most expensive production designs ever assembled; it had no plot; all the characters were cats; and the lyrics were written by one of the more difficult poets of the 20th century. Most people in the theater industry thought it would be a huge flop. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music, had to mortgage his own house to get the project off the ground. But it went on to become the longest-running musical in history, with 7,485 performances in New York City and 8,949 performances in London. It is estimated that Cats has been seen by more than 50 million people in 30 countries.

It's the birthday of Amiri Baraka, (books by this author) born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey (1934). He has published more than 40 books of poems, essays, and plays.

He was the poet laureate of New Jersey during the September 11 attacks, and a year later, he read his poem "Somebody Blew Up America" at a poetry festival. In it, he suggested that Israel knew about the attack beforehand; the poem was labeled anti-Semitic and caused a huge controversy. The governor of New Jersey tried to fire Baraka, but discovered that it wasn't legally possible to fire a poet laureate. So the state passed a bill that dissolved the position, and since then, there has not been a poet laureate of New Jersey.

It was on this date that two major airlines were founded.

In 1919, KLM was founded, the Royal Dutch Airline. KLM is the acronym for the Dutch phrase meaning "Royal Aviation Society," and it's the oldest airline that still operates under its original name.

In 1903, the Wright brothers made their first brief, successful attempts at flying a controlled and powered airplane, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1909, the first official airlines had gotten off the ground. Headquartered in Frankfurt, it went by the acronym DELAG. But DELAG was an airline for airships, or dirigibles, not airplanes as we know them. It used airships made by the Zeppelin company.

Ten years later, when KLM was founded, they were ready to use airplanes. Their first flight was in 1920 from London to Amsterdam, on a biplane, a refined version of the basic design used by the Wright brothers. The biplane had capacity for four passengers, and KLM's first flight carried just two journalists, plus a lot of newspapers. By the end of the year KLM had transported 345 passengers, 22 tons of cargo, and three tons of mail.

On this day in 1933, five different French airlines came together to form Air France. Its headquarters are near Paris, but during World War II the company moved to Casablanca, Morocco. At the end of the film Casablanca (1942),Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick, puts his lover Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) and her husband on a plane to leave Casablanca, giving them a chance at freedom. The plane had a seahorse emblem on the side, marking it as Air France. Air France merged with KLM in 2003.

It's the birthday of the labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, born Joel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden (1879). He grew up in a big, devout Lutheran family. They played music together and encouraged Joe's musical talent, but they never discussed politics. His dad worked for the railroad but it was dangerous work, and he got injured and died on the operating table when Joe was eight. Joe went to work right away, working in a rope factory when he was nine, then as a fireman, and more odd jobs of one sort of another. And he kept playing music.

In 1902, his mother died. The six children sold the family home, divided up the money, and Joe and one of his brothers used their portion to buy passage to America. For the next 12 years, Joe Hill was all over the place, hard to keep tabs on — partly because so many myths about him were written down as fact later on. He spent time in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. He was fired from one job for trying to unionize the workers; he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and organized for them; and he published political songs like "The Preacher and the Slave," "The Tramp," and "Casey Jones — The Union Scab." He invented the phrase "pie in the sky" for his song "The Preacher and the Slave," sung to the tune of "In The Sweet Bye and Bye." It went: "You will eat, bye and bye, / In that glorious land above the sky; / Work and pray, live on hay, / You'll get pie in the sky when you die." He played banjo, guitar, violin, and piano all over the country, in migrant worker camps or hobo jungles, spreading his songs and ideas, making money where he could. He surfaced briefly in Mexico, in British Columbia, in Portland, and maybe in Hawaii — always working different, temporary jobs, and always organizing for workers' rights. He was arrested in 1912 in San Pedro, where he was supporting the dock workers' strike by serving as the secretary of the strike committee and playing music.

In 1913, Joe Hill was working for a mine outside Salt Lake City. On the evening of January 10th, 1914, Hill sought medical treatment from a doctor named McHugh for a bullet wound in his chest, which he told the doctor he had received because of a fight over another man's wife. He got a ride home late that night, and he tossed a gun out the car, a fact that he never really explained.

That same evening, two men were murdered in Salt Lake City: a storekeeper, John G. Morrison, and his son Arling. Morrison was a former policeman. The only witness who survived was Morrison's son Merlin, who saw two men in red bandannas enter the store and shoot his father and brother. There was a trail of blood leading out of the store.

Several suspects in the case were identified immediately. They assumed it wasn't a robbery attempt since the cash register remained full, so all the newspapers announced that it was someone seeking revenge. Two masked men had attempted to hold up Morrison before, and he had seriously injured one of the men when he shot at them, so there was speculation that it might be those two men back to finish their task. Only a few days before he was murdered, Morrison told a police officer that he wished he had never joined the police force, because now he lived in constant fear that the people he had arrested would come back to get him. And he told his wife that there were two men who lived in his neighborhood who were his enemies and that if anything happened to him he wanted her to know their names.

First the police picked up a man named Wilson, a recently released inmate whom Morrison had arrested, who had declared revenge on Morrison, and who was wanted for crimes in other states. They also picked up W.J. Williams, who had a bloodstained handkerchief in his pocket. They didn't want to pursue the names of the men whom Morrison had named to his wife because they were considered good citizens.

After Dr. McHugh read about the murders in the paper, he called the chief of police and told him about his patient with a bullet wound. Joe Hill was arrested immediately. The evidence against him was shaky. Even though Merlin initially said that Joe Hill didn't look at all like the men in the store, he changed his testimony in court. Apart from the fact that he had been shot and vague physical similarities to one of the two gunmen (mostly that he was tall), the biggest piece of evidence against Joe Hill was that he owned a red handkerchief. Hill and his attorneys were confident he would be acquitted, since there was only circumstantial evidence and, most of all, no motive was ever produced, certainly not a revenge motive.

But Joe Hill's refusal to explain where he had gotten the gunshot wound worked against him. And he often just sat back and let the prosecution make claims against him. He refused over and over to establish an alibi. He claimed that he didn't want to ruin the reputation of the lady in question, but that was all he would say. Some biographers interpret all this as a sign of his innocence — he was so sure that he wouldn't be convicted that he didn't fight back hard in court. Some people think that he was in bed with a married woman and didn't want to ruin her honor. Other biographers see his vagueness and his fatalism as a sign of his guilt. Many surmise that he sat back and let the prosecution do its worst so that he could be the ultimate martyr for the labor movement, symbolizing the total injustice of the justice system. The attorney he met with after his conviction said to a newspaper: "That Hill is a strange one. It's almost as if he needs to be a symbol for a cause."

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that he was convicted without enough evidence, without even a motive. And not only was he convicted, but he was also sentenced to death.

Joe Hill did become a perfect martyr for the labor movement. His body was taken to Chicago, where it was met by a huge crowd, and his ashes were sent to an IWW chapter in every state (except Utah) and to supporters all around the world. On May 1st, International Workers' Day, his ashes were simultaneously scattered. One envelope had been confiscated by the U.S. Postal Service in 1917 and turned up in 1988; those ashes were scattered in various places, and the leftist singer Billy Bragg even ate some of them.

In 1950, Wallace Stegner published Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel. Although a work of fiction, Stegner researched so thoroughly that he had the warden of the Salt Lake City penitentiary walk him blindfolded from Joe Hill's cell and through all the steps of a mock execution, so that he could feel what it would be like.

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