The feeble strength of one

Comrades in Denver recently attended a performance by the Manitoba band Propagandhi. I knew the group’s name but not their music and poked around a bit. If you like your tunes hard and fast, guitar-driven and polemically positioned, with gorgeously apocalyptic album art, this is up your alley. But I was quite surprised to learn that John K. Samson was the band’s bassist for nearly six years.

According to the cliché about art school, you learn the rules before breaking them. Samson can be seen, superficially, as having worked in reverse, with a minimalist-with-message band before leaving school to fashion, with The Weakerthans, a new song in an old mold: figurative, more muted, embellished with just enough magic in its realism to keep us inquiring. Perhaps the finest example of this craft is the band’s ballad “Pamphleteer.”

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Samson explains the genesis of “Pamphleteer” in a 2001 Punk Planet interview with Larry Livermore and Michael Silverberg:

A friend of mine wrote a film script and asked me to write a song for it. It was a script about various things, and it had a newspaper story to it. But I suddenly had this image of an activist, someone involved in politics, who passed out pamphlets on street corners—which is something I admire—and suddenly one day cracked and started churning out these pamphlets about his personal life and passing them out on street corners. It started with that image and grew from there.

For me a key, prosaic passage in the song is

I walk this room in time to
the beat of the Gestetner

10 to 10,000

Gestetner Ad imageFor any organizer or activist in the first three quarters of the 20th century, the Gestetner brand mimeograph machine was the propagator of propaganda. When I used them as a community organizer with the United Farm Workers beginning in 1973 the UFW didn’t bother to buy one. We availed of allies’ deeper pockets: labor union locals, houses of worship, community organizations and centers—sometimes openly, sometimes on the sly, but always with a sense that you might overstay your welcome.

Mimeo mechanics: You carved your design in its stencils or slid them atop your typewriter platen. If you could afford it, a companion stencil etcher would scan your original artwork and burn through the wax resist to the porous backing. Black, messy ink could flow through the Gestetner’s stencil until it disintegrated. Ads of the day say 10 to 10,000, but that would be stretching it. Nonetheless, if I recall correctly, you could clean a stable stencil for later use. The machine also accepted metal foil stencils that were more durable.

The original Gestetners were hand cranked, so Samson’s pamphleteer, walking in time to its beat, is dated to post crank, whenever that was.

Spirit Level

This device should not be confused with the duplicator or Ditto machine, which produced indigo images and print by a mineral spirit method—to the delight of many a student who sniffed and whiffed the solvent still present in a stack of pop quizzes sent ’round the room. This Ditto-versus-Mimeo distinction actually came up for me years ago.

In 2010, searching for something unrelated, I found that Stephen Gertz, a rare-book scout and dealer, had described savoring the Ditto spirit in a post titled “O Solé Mimeo”:

By now, many readers of a certain age no doubt have a sweet, intoxicating aroma wafting within their sense memory that harkens back to school days and fresh off the mimeo machine test papers and handouts. School Daze: putting the test right up close to one’s nostrils, taking two or three deep inhalations, feeling lightheaded, then getting down to business—inserting “Maybe” for True or False questions, and filling in blanks with answers not found amongst the multiple choice options. Like ex-junkies recalling their first shot, many people who attended school during the 1930s through mid-1960s vividly and fondly remember those mimeographed papers with purple ink whose odor lifted us a millimeter or two off the floor.

I wrote to Gertz, after raising another matter:

Also, your “O Solé Mimeo” column is very dear, although in the area of activism rather than literature. In my research I’m going through much mimeographed material and, at 55, am old enough to have used the machines on the UFW boycott when I came to L.A. from Boulder at age 17. I do have an olfactory memory, however, from the black ink, due to cranking or monitoring.

Gertz did not reply to my quibble, since it only was an aside to my main reason for contacting him. But tonight, when revisiting his post, I find he appears to have corrected himself (based on my comment?):

The problem, however, as I’ve just recently discovered to my horror (being completely wrong for over forty-five years is humbling if not humiliating)), is that those papers were not copied on mimeograph machines, which do not duplicate with purple ink or produce a distinctive smell.

Onward…

Solidarity Forever

John Samson’s pamphleteer paces the room to the mimeograph’s rhythm, to

contemplate my next communique.
The rhetoric and treason
of saying that I’ll miss you.
Of saying, “Hey, well maybe you should stay.”
Sing “Oh what force on earth could be
weaker than the feeble strength
of one” like me remembering
the way it could have been.

The pamphleteer’s latter quote is from Ralph Chaplin’s 1916 labor standard “Solidarity Forever”—but in this case we’re drawn to the personal within the collective struggle.

Chaplin, according to his memoir Wobbly (University of Chicago Press, 1948), completed the song in Chicago in 1915. He’d begun it during the bloody coal miners strike a few years before in Virginia’s Kanawha Valley when he’d been “bootlegging” strike literature “into the martial-law zone.” That winter of 1915, as Chaplin wrote, Chicago was home to the general headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World, yet “there was no English-speaking branch in town.” Hunger riots were rampant on both coasts and the Gulf. A somewhat contrived hunger demonstration in Chicago, per Chaplin, on January 17, 1915, was the venue for the debut of “Solidarity Forever,” which he had just completed while “lying on the rug in the living-room that day scribbling stanza after stanza.”

Jon Bekken, writing about the song in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (No. 55, Winter 2010/11) notes that, while the song has become a labor anthem, certain of its verses are shunned at events by corporate-style unions. Verse two declares, “There is aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,” echoing the IWW’s constitution preamble: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Bekken states that “many officials seem to believe that they do in fact have something in common […].” And while other verses touch on the basis of the labor theory of value—that “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn”—, verse four argues, “All the world that’s owned by idle drones, is ours and ours alone.” This is a bright-line alternative to the longtime, establishment, union-as-wage-slave-pimp. And the latter-day oxymoron of the “labor-management partnership.”

Wherefore Weakerthans?

“What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one” leads us to deduce the inspiration for The Weakerthans moniker. And in a 2004 interview John Samson admits as much, but prior to that he quotes from the film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover: “Go ahead, I’m weaker than you can possibly imagine.” (Somewhat curious, since upon leaving Propaghandi, Samson cofounded ARP/Arbeiter Ring Publishing, which issues fiction as well as titles by Ward Churchill.) The line from the film is stunningly ironic, uttered by the young girl’s Chinaman lover in response to her brother’s invitation to fight. Except that the line actually goes, “You have no idea how weak I am.”

Nevertheless, The Lover connection is of interest to me because the copy of the novel in my personal library was given to my wife Andrea Carney and me (and, thus, autographed) by Stan Weir, whose posthumous collected writing is titled Singlejack Solidarity (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). Although Stan cut his teeth in shipyards and factories, his own title is taken from the hard-rock miner’s shorthandled hammer wielded upon a spike held by a fellow miner, both workers having to trust that the spike won’t wobble nor the hammer miss its mark. Stan mentored Andrea—and me to a lesser degree—as we were being tempted to leave the rank and file of her union and of my workplace in the 1990s.

Stan gave us photocopies of his article, reprinted in his collection, “Meetings with James Baldwin” (Against the Current, Jan/Feb 1989). Andrea had all of Baldwin’s books on her shelves when I met her in 1975, and a couple of years before, in high school, I’d done a book report on his Another Country, my introduction to queer literature. Stan and Baldwin’s own solidarity was forged as young men when they worked together, navigating the new world (for them) of Greenwich Village in 1942. Andrea and I hadn’t known before that Baldwin had become involved in Stan’s efforts to integrate the ILWU.

Left and Leaving

I first was introduced to The Weakerthans through One Way Magazine, a freebie I used to pick up in Los Angeles. Each issue contained a CD sampler of music both familiar and unknown, as was “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)” from The Weakerthans’ 2003 album Reconstruction Site. I bought that CD and and later its predecessors, Fallow and Left and Leaving. The latter album’s “Pamphleteer” devastated me, and later when I was drafting my (still) work-in-progress about three early commie-pinko gay organizers, “the feeble strength of one” seemed to be a natural as my working title: these three fellows had experienced comradeship between themselves as well as at least one consequential relationship with another man, but ended their days alone.


For in-depth writing on “Pamphleteer” see an essay by cultural blogger Ashok Karra (The Passion of Politics: “Pamphleteer,” The Weakerthans) and a blog on reflections from The Weakerthans’ music (A New Name For Everything) by emmaajean, a London-based educator from Canada.

For a warm tribute to the Gestetner’s artistic use in literature and activism see a brief overview by the professional association for design AIGA (Cranking It Out, Old-School Style: Art of the Gestetner).

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