The Defense Calls Brother Kevin

In 1993 I was asked to take on the job of music director for a Theatre Cambrian production of The Man Who Never Died, a play about the labour organizer Joe Hill. A Swedish immigrant and itinerant worker Joe Hill became the most famous of the "wobblies" (AKA the International Workers of the World or the I.W.W.) mostly for his songs but also for his untimely execution at the hands of a firing squad in Utah in 1915. Tried and convicted for the murder of a butcher shop owner and his son, Joe Hill always maintained his innocence. His death sentence was protested by the U.S. President and even Helen Keller but to no avail. His death and funeral were national news and he became an immediate martyr to the cause of working people even to this day.

 

 

 

I had become heavily involved in folk music by the time the music director job came my way and I was subsequently adopted by the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Local 598 (the sponsors of the production) as their go-to-guy for strike line support and labour events, a role I'm still proud to play. So I was more than full of zeal for Barrie Stavis' passionate play about the life and death of a true folk music hero. I studied Joe Hill's songs, got turned onto Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, The Grievous Angels and Stan Rogers, and just generally worked up a head of steam for all things folk and labour. I bought a bodhran, a banjo and a fiddle and forced my keyboard player to learn how to play an accordion. And yes I did take to wearing suspenders.

 

 

Not long after the play's run was over, the late great American folk singer Utah Phillips performed a concert at the Mine Mill Hall where the play had been staged. I had listened to Utah's music and was quite inspired by his persona and especially by his story telling. I later spent some time and even wrote a song with him in Port Elgin at the C.A.W. Education Centre where he told me, "Son, you gotta have a gaff" (He also taught me how to drink single malt scotch, neat). Utah was actually a longtime member of the I.W.W. and happened to have brought with him some recently discovered ashes which were supposed to be the lost (and last) remains of Joe Hill (thought to have all been scattered according to his wishes). Sitting at the front of the hall I sang Utah the song "Build Me A Bridge" which I had written specifically for the play. Upon hearing it he reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope containing the ashes and dropped a pinch into my Larrivee guitar.

 

 

I've written dozens of songs on that guitar since it officially became DNA evidence. It's been across Canada a few times, kept me company in hotel rooms, made me a better musician, but most importantly helped me find out who I am and what I want to say. I always think of Utah Phillips when I pull it out of its case. I don't know whether having the remains of a martyred folk singer floating around in my ax has helped my career but I'm certain that meeting and learning from Utah shaped who I am as a writer and performer. I learned that honesty and integrity are all an artist really has. If you tell the truth about who you are and what you see everything else will follow. If you chase after false dreams and vain desires you'll not only lose your way you'll lose yourself. And that is a hard thing to get back.

 

 

Oh, build me a road out of blood and bone
Let it join every city and town
And let it roll over sand and snow
May it lay on solid ground
And build it wide and pave with pride
Let it carry whoever may roam
Oh, build me this road, I will carry the load
'till every man is home

Then build me a bridge out heart and soul
Let it reach every shore in the world
And let it span every race of man
Let the banner be unfurled
And stay ye bold, never pay their toll
Let it stand for the weak and the poor
Oh, build me a bridge, no I won't budge an inch
'til every man cross o'er

Every man, every man
Every man, woman, child in the land
Oh, build me a land where there's power in the hand
Of every working man

Then build me a tower, oh, a tall, tall tower
Build it high as a eye ever saw
And pray thee keep its foundation deep
So that it may never fall
Then light me a light for to guard the night
Let it shine on the land of the free
Oh, build me a tower, I will count every hour
'til every man can see

 

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