The Last Time that I Saw Archie: Melvyn Dubofsky remembers Archie Green

by Melvyn Dubofsky

Archie Green

Archie Green

Archie Green, who died at his home in San Francisco on Sunday, March 22, entered my life in the 1970s when I was working on a biography of John L. Lewis. In researching the coal industry and mining culture, I became intrigued with the folk and vernacular songs associated with coal miners that I came across first in the books of the folklorist George Korson and then in Archie’s Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded in Coal-Mining Songs, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1972. Thereafter, I would occasionally bump into Archie at scholarly meetings and union conferences as well as read and sometimes review his publications about working-class culture and folklore.

The last time that I saw Archie was in his hometown, San Francisco, in April 1997 when he led a small group of labor historians on a walking tour of his old waterfront haunts.

Archie, then nearly 80, maintained a pace that we younger men (whatever the reason it was an all-male group) could barely match. He led us from a downtown hotel to Market Street and then to the waterfront, then quite unlike the busy harbor in which Harry Bridges rose to the prominence as a labor leader during the San Francisco general strike of 1934, and where a young Archie began his own working life as a shipyard millwright and union member. He led us into the hiring hall of the National Maritime Union, whose ancient chalkboard still listed scheduled merchant ship sailings and the openings available for different types of shipboard labor. From there, we went to a tiny greasy spoon long patronized by waterfront workers that purveyed inexpensive hamburgers and hot dogs along with tasteless coffee. And then it was on to the post office built by WPA workers during the New Deal and featuring on its interior walls magnificent murals that portrayed the development of California from its pre-Columbian days through the Europeanization and its assimilation into the capitalist world-economy on into the decade of the Great Depression, all from a New Deal “popular front” leftist perspective. Archie guided us through the places and landmarks that made him the great student and scholar of labor culture that he became many years later.

Born on June 29, 1917 in Winnipeg, Manitoba and named by his parents Aaron Green, he, at first, followed a trajectory common among the children of eastern European Jewish immigrants to the New World. Winnipeg along with Montreal and Toronto harbored substantial settlements of Jewish immigrants. For whatever reasons, his parents moved south and west to Los Angeles in 1922, the city where Aaron/Archie reached manhood. Educated in the city’s public schools, he entered UCLA in the midst of the depression, only to transfer to what was then the state’s most prestigious university, UC-Berkeley, from which he received a B.A. in 1939. Instead of entering a profession, Archie did what several other contemporary Jewish “reds,” most notably Julius Jacobson and Harvey Swados, did; he found work in the local shipyards, mastered the craft of shipyard millwright, and became a union journeyman, apparently with no intention of joining Swados and Jacobson as radicals who colonized workplaces in order to proselytize fellow workers in the cause of Shachtmanite third-camp socialism.  Instead, fellow workers taught Archie the argot, the traditions, and the stories that became the foundation for his subsequent scholarly forays into labor folklore. When war came in 1941, Archie enlisted in the U.S. Navy, his craft skills useful to the famous Seabees from whose diverse members he picked up further aspects of labor lore. After the war, he returned to civilian life as a shipwright and carpenter.

As he entered his fifth decade, however, Archie’s life took a different turn. He returned to school, to life as a student, earning a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois (1960) and a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania (1968). Thereafter he left the shipyards and the carpenter’s bench behind for life as an academic, first at the University of Illinois and later at the University of Texas, from which he retired in 1982. As a scholar, he pioneered and promoted the field of labor lore, bringing its languages, songs, and traditions to various campuses, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress whose American Folklife Center was largely a product of Archie’s inspiration and lobbying. Even in retirement Archie remained a vigorous scholar of labor lore, publishing some of his best books between 1993 and 2002, including Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes, Calf’s Head & Union Tale, Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture, and Tin Men. Only two years before his death, Archie served as a co-editor of the latest and most complete version of the famous IWW “little red songbook,” The Big Red Songbook.

It is unlikely that Archie’s like will pass this way again. It is equally remarkable that his passing occurred in the same week as the death of the historian, John Hope Franklin, who did more than any other scholar to integrate African American history into the narrative of the national past. Both are giants on whose shoulders will stand all future students and scholars of labor lore and African American history. Both are men whom I knew well and whose kindness and decency will live on long after their passing.

Melvyn Dubofsky is a professor of history and sociology, and a well-known labor historian. He is Bartle Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He  has written many books on labor history. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World is considered the standard work on the IWW.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: