Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero

Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero

by Sean Burns, Nick Spitzer

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Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero celebrates one of the most revered folklorists and labor historians of the twentieth century. Devoted to understanding the diverse cultural customs of working people, Archie Green (1917-2009) tirelessly documented these traditions and educated the public about the place of workers' culture and music in


Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero celebrates one of the most revered folklorists and labor historians of the twentieth century. Devoted to understanding the diverse cultural customs of working people, Archie Green (1917-2009) tirelessly documented these traditions and educated the public about the place of workers' culture and music in American life. Doggedly lobbying Congress for support of the American Folklife Preservation Act of 1976, Green helped establish the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, a significant collection of images, recordings, and written accounts that preserve the myriad cultural productions of Americans.
Capturing the many dimensions of Green's remarkably influential life and work, Sean Burns draws on extensive interviews with Green and his many collaborators to examine the intersections of radicalism, folklore, labor history, and worker culture with Green's work. Burns closely analyzes Green's political genealogy and activist trajectory while illustrating how he worked to open up an independent political space on the American Left that was defined by an unwavering commitment to cultural pluralism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

 "Burns provides a balanced, fair, and well-informed analysis based on labor scholarship. . . . It is well worth the read."—Labor

"This sophisticated book ushers readers into Archie Green's compelling but always enigmatic presence, vividly and immediately summoning his personal, political, and intellectual pasts. Readers are welcomed into the community of purpose he spent a lifetime creating."
—Robert Cantwell, author of If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture

"An intimate, first-person account of Green's life that illuminates ideological and strategic links between expressive culture and progressive action. Folklorists, labor historians, discographers, and students and scholars of American culture will treasure this book."
—Robert McCarl, editor of Latinos in Idaho: Celebrando Cultura

"Burns has done a great service by writing Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero, a fine study that does justice to its subject's fascinating intellectual development and considerable impact."—Labor Studies Journal

"Sean Burns's biography of this remarkable person gives the reader a clear sense of Green's varied life and career and of his many accomplishments.  Archie Green made numerous contributions to folklore studies, labor and workplace oral history, and the history of recorded vernacular music.  Scholars today would benefit from understanding those topics from this early proponent and practitioner of the "bottom-up" oral history perspective."—Oral History Review

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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Archie Green

The Making of a Working-Class Hero
By Sean Burns

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07828-6

Chapter One

Family, Revolution, and Emigration

Archie Green was born on June 29, 1917, in Winnipeg, Canada. When he was six years old, Samuel and Rose Green "bundled up" young Archie along with his two sisters and got on a train, leaving "snowy Canada for sunny California." Family lore holds that Rose disliked the severe Winnipeg winters, but Archie suspected that the post–World War I recession also contributed to the relocation. The continental excursion marked a definitive rupture in his early life. Green insisted that he had no conscious memories of life in Winnipeg but perhaps the "train ride might have been such a cutting and traumatic break" that none of his early childhood memories survived. What Green knew of his early life he knew mostly through the stories of his father. Samuel Green's stories served as a foundation for Archie's identity in multiple ways. On one hand, the stories politically and culturally linked Archie to "the Old Country," specifically, the Chernigov Province of Czarist Russia (north of Kiev in modern-day Ukraine). On the other hand, Samuel's tales structured his son's encounter with American culture as an immigrant child. The stories, therefore, offer an important starting point for exploring experiences that formatively shaped Archie's political orientation and commitments.

In late October of 1905, Nicholas II, the Russian czar, implemented martial law in several of the most politically tumultuous provinces of his empire. Revolutionary calls for economic justice and political representation were spreading through rural and urban areas alike. In the cities, workers held mass strikes. In the countryside, peasants organized to seize land, looting and burning massive estates. Russian Cossacks stormed into these regions, looking to imprison anyone associated with radical challenges to the czar's power or the stability of rural land holdings. These political upheavals, commonly referred to as the Russian Revolution of 1905, were a heightened manifestation of long-term struggles to defeat monarchical absolutism and overcome feudal serfdom. Samuel Green, sixteen at the time, lived in Chernigov and was inspired to support these revolutionary causes.

No one political party spearheaded the Russian Revolution of 1905. Numerous parties debated whether social change should proceed through leadership from the emergent urban proletariat or be rooted in the vast peasantry of agrarian Russia. The most established of these parties were the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) and the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (SDs), the latter ultimately produced the split that became the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. The SRs promoted agrarian revolt while the SDs focused on organizing the urban proletariat, as explored in V. I. Lenin's What Is to Be Done?

Green had few details on his father's early life and regretted not recording him talking about his youth. What he did know about young Samuel, however, formatively influenced his own political identity. The father's political values served as a kind of north star for the son's constellation of commitments. Samuel was born around 1889 and spent his adolescence in Chernigov Province. His family name was Canterovich, and his given name Shmuel. Both would be changed during immigration. The men of his extended family were all connected to trades. They were tailors, tinsmiths, and foundry workers. Samuel had little contact with city life and in his early teens began apprenticing as a harness maker, being that horses were still the prevailing mode of transportation. He also began to engage with revolutionary political groups in the years preceding the Revolution of 1905 and was likely familiar with the competing platforms of the main revolutionary parties by the time he was sixteen. According to Archie's sister, Mitzie Green, Samuel hid a primitive mimeograph under the floorboards of the family house and used it to run off socialist broadsides.

Green portrayed his father as a politically sophisticated young radical who, like many other East European Jews, was captured by ideals of the French Revolution, particularly the challenge to orthodox religion by scientific rationality. Samuel told Archie that he identified as an agnostic at a young age. He also conveyed that the decision of whether to affiliate with either the SRs or SDs during the years leading up to the 1905 Revolution was deeply entangled with questions of ethnicity and nationalism. Of his Jewish Ukrainian father, living in a Russian, Christian Orthodox empire, Archie explained:

Minorities had the choice to be either with the SD or SR and affect revolution against the Czar. But the wiser position was, we may achieve revolution, but the great Russians may still discriminate against Poles, Finns, or Balts, or Ukrainians or Jews. If you wanted to be safe, you ought to combine some form of socialism with some form of nationalism. Now, in modern times we think of socialist nationalism as so negative because that's a Nazi experiment. I now recoil against the phrase and against the thought. But then it meant an ideal combination of socialist values and ethnic, linguistic, nationalist identity. My dad was early influenced by socialist Zionism, but in his thinking there wasn't much stress on Zionism, yet still it meant you couldn't place your full confidence in Moscow. Even if you had a socialist revolution in Russia, whoever emerged in power would likely discriminate against Ukrainians or Jews. Many Jews, Poles, Latvians, Ukrainians, and Estonians believed that when socialism would come there would be no oppression. Others in these minorities saw that the patterns of oppression are such that when Russian Bolsheviks rule they [would] continue to discriminate ... and this proved true.

Russian Jews within the Bolshevik Party, for example, took the position that ethnic discrimination would end after the revolution. Other Jews argued that ethnic discrimination had a life autonomous from class-consciousness and that its deep roots could persist beyond a working-class revolution. These Jews promoted radical politics combining socialism and ethnic nationalism.

Samuel Green wrestled with political decisions that foreshadowed perennial challenges of revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. Looking back on his father's youth, Green said, "I realized later that at age seventeen, my father already faced some of the central problems of revolutionary or Marxist thought, that is: how to make a combination of your identity as a member of a minority with revolutionary activity?" Versions of this question have deeply challenged many U.S. social movements. For decades, the relationship between the African American freedom struggle and the Socialist and Communist Parties (as well as other sectors of the labor movement) was rigorously contested by blacks and whites alike. Similarly, multiple waves of the feminist movement faced challenges around the place of different forms of racial, class, and sexual identity. At root, the issues concerned the capacity for difference in solidarity. Like participants in more recent movements, Green recognized that "for my dad and his friends, those were not theoretical questions as they are for university students. They were living questions. They meant when you went out on the street whether you'd get clobbered or not." When Archie reflected on his father's experiences in Czarist Russia he often linked them to contemporary sovereignty struggles in Chechnya, Tibet, or Palestine. His message, in short, was that when one hears a call for freedom, the attendant question must always be, Freedom for whom?

Samuel told Archie that at the height of the 1905 Revolution, the SDs and SRs seized power in Chernigov Province and for several days ran the area through a joint administrative council until Cossacks reestablished control through martial law. Revolutionaries were shot, sent off to Siberian prisons, or escaped the region via an underground railroad. It was during this phase of political purging that Samuel fled Chernigov. As Archie told it, "In the dark of night, my dad escaped in the back of a wagon covered by straw. The closest port going south would have been Odessa, but for some reason he went north to Helsinki, Finland, ... The movement was significantly organized in that they could get people out—helpers at various locations, fake documents, etc." Samuel's escape was, in fact, facilitated by fake documents. Archie did not know whether the documents were forged or if they belonged to someone who had died. In either case, Samuel made his way from the port of Helsinki, across the Baltic Sea, and to Hull, England, with papers designating the surname Greenstein. Shmuel Canterovich became Samuel Greenstein, and, as Archie observed, "Greenstein translates as green stone, emerald, or green stein like beer stein. We're not sure of the exact etymology."

Although it is now easy to romanticize such a tale of political contest and escape, Samuel emphasized to Archie that he was part of a generation that fled repression. "[Samuel] was careful to point out that his adventure was not unique, it was quite common for the young radicals to be smuggled out of the country." In Hull, he began work at textile and shoe factories, gradually picking up English. "My father was very good with language," Archie said. "Ukrainian was the language of the community, Russian of the state, Hebrew of the synagogue, and Yiddish was the language at home. Then he added English. Dad was well read in four languages." Samuel spent no more than a year in England before moving further west to Canada, which encouraged immigrant labor through cheap Atlantic crossings. Archie believed that his father paid $10 to get to North America and first settled in the forested areas surrounding the Hudson Bay, where lumber camps proliferated. Before the advent of motorized transportation the timber industry required huge numbers of oxen and horses. The work of a skilled harnesser was in constant demand; all the draft animals needed their harnesses prepared for hauling work. The steady income enabled Samuel to send money back to his young sweetheart, Raisel Goosen, in Chernigov, and in 1907 she joined him in Winnipeg, where they married shortly thereafter. The harness work continued for years, but Samuel had shifted to factory labor by the time of World War I. He first built wooden containers in which butter could be shipped, and then he began doing repair work at a small secondhand furniture store.

During World War I, Samuel made the transition from working-class labor (i.e., following a manual trade) to becoming, in Archie's words, a "cockroach capitalist" or small business owner. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, "Jewish people were not thought of as professionals, they were workers. Although this is supposed to be a big theoretical jump [worker to professional], for many Jewish workers in the trades, this transition wasn't severe." Archie emphasized that his father was never successful as a business owner but did make enough to support their family of five. Judy, Archie's older sister, was born in 1913, and Mitzie, his younger sister, was born in 1919. In addition, Samuel subsidized the emigration of several more Ukrainian family members to Canada, including his parents and brothers and sisters.

Chapter Two

Boyle Heights in the 1920s

If being uprooted to California severed Archie Green from his earliest sources of memory, his family's arrival in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights vividly marked the beginning of a new life. Boyle Heights in the 1920s was a diverse, working-class neighborhood that attracted immigrants from all over the world. It is illuminating to situate Green's many stories about adolescence in Boyle Heights against the backdrop of George Sanchez's seminal essay "What's Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews" (2004). Sanchez focuses on the decline in Boyle Heights's ethnic diversity in the 1950s, but his argument rests on data revealing the multicultural character of the neighborhood in the first half of the twentieth century. Green's family arrived in 1923, and Sanchez tracks how changing racial politics in the decades that followed catalyzed significant demographic shifts in Boyle Heights. Green's memories of East Los Angeles align with Sanchez's claims about shifting racial categories in this period and the geographies through which they were reinforced. In sociopolitical terms, therefore, Sanchez's work effectively contextualizes many of Green's memories of adolescence.

When the Green family moved to Boyle Heights, Jewish immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the area. They constituted a vibrant, working-class community infused with many European radical traditions and fervor for trade unionism. As Green accurately remembered, Boyle Heights also had significant populations of Mexicans, Armenians, Serbs, Slavs, Bosnians, and Japanese. That ethnic mix was not accidental. "Local officials attempted to keep two discrete migrant streams—one of Midwestern 'folks' and another of distinctly working class and ethnic newcomers—carefully separated from one another in Los Angeles through an intricate residential segregation that placed American-born Anglo newcomers on the west side of the city, while foreign-born and nonwhite residents found themselves largely confined to the east side."

Samuel and Rose welcomed neighbors of all ethnicities into their home, and the long-term impact of doing so on Archie's personality and political commitments cannot be overemphasized. "My dad had solidarity with people of other castes," he recalled. "That was part of his pluralism." Visitors frequently came and went, and Green's anecdotes of this period paint a picture of a home that provided a vibrant intersection for ethnically diverse, working-class intellectuals. "The discussions around the living room were philosophical and political," he said. "They didn't talk about fashion, or Super Bowls, or the stock market, and in that sense they were unassimilated into American life."

Although many visitors were other Jews from the neighborhood, most of whom worked in the garment industry, other communities were also present. He remembered "some interesting meetings in the 1920s in L.A.: political refugees of the Diaz leadership in Mexico—followers of the Magon brothers, Magonistas; a lot of Wobblies and anarcho-syndicalists. I was always intrigued by the Jewish immigrants speaking a broken English, talking to the Mexican immigrants speaking a broken English. They were debating anarchism versus socialism, Wobblyism versus trade unionism. I have a vague memory of meetings like this in the house before I started going out around town on my own." Some memories were quite specific. On one occasion, "Some visitors argued Mussolini made the trains run on time. Others argued it [didn't] matter if the trains r[a]n on time. He's a bad man." Another poignant memory concerned Japanese youngsters in kimonos, going door to door to ask for donations for victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in which more than a hundred thousand died. Samuel gave them money and then emphasized to Archie and his sisters that "Jewish people have an obligation to be generous and charitable."

Green portrayed his parents as maintaining a lifestyle that combined material austerity with cultural sophistication—a mix that defies popular class assumptions in the United States today. When I asked him, for example, to describe the impact of the Depression on his family, he responded, "Our family standard of living never changed substantially before and after 1929. We always had lentil soup before and after the [D]epression. Hobos would come to the door, and mother never turned away anyone. Always enough to feed us, but it was basic. Mom sewed and repaired all our clothing. I don't remember breadlines or soup kitchens." Samuel and Rose did not place much emphasis on making money, but Archie hesitated to characterize that purely as political principle or a consequence of their modest income. Instead, he viewed his parents as embodying qualities common to first-generation Jews from the Old Country. "Jewish life," he said, "emphasizes an interesting combination of Puritanism and hedonism—joie de vive. Mom never drank coffee, never smoked or played cards, no makeup. She raised the girls as virtuous. My parents were not religious fundamentalists. All three of us were early on exposed to culturenzachen—cultural things."

When the famous Russian baritone Feodor Chaliapen toured the United States in the early 1920s the Greens took the children. Rose loved his rendition of "The Volga Boatmen." On the political front, Samuel brought Archie to the Zelig Zoo to hear Eugene V. Debs on his 1924 campaign tour for U.S. president. Years later Samuel was baffled at Archie's inability to remember hearing the legendary American orator. Green's recollection had nothing to do with Debs's fiery polemics but of sneaking off to imitate Tarzan in the thick bamboo forest surrounding the gorilla section of the zoo.


Excerpted from Archie Green by Sean Burns Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sean Burns is a teacher, musician, and gardener. His research and teaching interests center on the history, culture, and politics of progressive social movements. His band, Professor Burns and the Lilac Field, is rooted in Berkeley, California.

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