Wednesday, May 15, 2013

St. Louis bluesman Hi Henry Brown and the Nutpickers Strike

  Last week, St. Louis workers went on strike to protest Missouri's shameful sub-poverty minimum wage and coincidentally next week is the 80 year anniversary of one of the most important labor movement victories in St. Louis. Although this historic incident was certainly well known to the public at the time, it seems that it is mostly forgotten today.

  Devil At The Confluence tells the story of Hi Henry Brown, one of the first protest musicians, and his blues songs of St. Louis during the Depression. In 1932, St Louis bluesmen Brown and Charley Jordan recorded Nut Factory Blues, a song about the sub-standard pay for women workers at a pecan shelling factory in the city. In the midst of the Great Depression, women workers were hired for manual labor jobs at wages of pennies per day. And with most men out of work, this was desperately needed income for many families.

  The song described the hard conditions and may very well have solidified the worker's resolve because in May of 1933, fourteen hundred women workers went on strike against the Funsten Nut company in Deep Morgan (near where the City Museum is today.) After eight days they won and doubled their wages, but more importantly, the demonstration represented a very important triumph for the American labor movement.

  By offering raises only for the white workers, Funsten management had tried to break the strike by inciting racial conflict. A ploy of this kind was successfully used in the 1917 East St Louis, Illinois riots over a decade earlier, but this time the workers remained unified. They were successful and their victory had a tremendous effect in St. Louis in bringing other workers to action such as the clothing workers and ladies’ garment workers.

  It's very rare that such a blatant protest blues song was recorded in the 1930s, and it could only have been done in St. Louis. This was well before Woody Guthrie began recording songs and the idea of music as activism - a man finding wrong in the world and using his songs for social justice - was something very unique. Hi Henry Brown's blues music was part-documentary and part-call for action, and like the best of the St. Louis blues, it was about how hopelessness is negated by hope.

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