The death of American folk singer John Prine on April 7, 2020, made me go back into my drawers and look for a cassette tape.
I got it through post from Missouri 1985. A young American longhaired radical I had met in Calangute Beach, Goa, India in 1984, had sent it to me. ”You gotta listen to John Prine”, he had said repeatedly at the beach bars we attended in this cool hippie resort on the Western coast of India.
Indira Ghandi hade been shot a few weeks earlier and foreigners were advised to leave metropolitan areas. I had taken a ferry from Bombay to Goa, travelling overnight close to the coastline.
The young radical in Missouri, his name could be John but I don’t recall, had spoken about the history of the American working class, an unusual topic for longhaired laidback Westerners in Goa, who rather spoke about the current drug traffics, Indian cops and where to eat the best fried banana pancakes.
AMERICAN WORKING CLASS
”John” was excited about about the history of working class struggles in the USA and seemed to be writing a Marxist thesis, as I remember. I knew some of Marx’s writings and we chatted away at the sunsets, being lost in the Wobblies (IWW), the Swedish-American singer Joe Hill’s union and what victories were important for American workers. He was very well informed.
The cassette tape with John Prine’s great 70s albums Prime Prine and Bruised Orange was welcomed into my home in Uppsala, Sweden, where I had returned in 1985 after a three months journey overland from Greece, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to India. I liked his folksongs but did not follow him as close as some of Prine’s admirers Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
John Prine’s songs about working people fit well with our discussions, as well as Woody Guthrie’s earlier songs. I had read Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory (and watched the film version but disappointed by Robert Redford) and loved the stories of freight train rides into the the Midwest and to California during the Dust Bowl years. As a rolemodel for the very young Bob Dylan, Guthrie was inevitable for a Dylan fan like me.
With singers like Guthrie and Joe Hill I got to understand more about the American left. I had met American Marxists-Humanists in New York and Trotskyists in Detroit in 1979. The Danish editor and historian Lars Hedegaard had much longer contacts with American Trotskyism he told in this interview 2019.
My interest and activism in anarcho-syndicalism lead me to American libertarian leftist leaders from the early 1900s like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Their books is translated into Swedish and published by the Swedish anarcho-syndikalist union SAC:s printing house Federativs förlag. Woody Guthrie was in this movement, and with the Beatniks in 1940s – 50s and then Bob Dylan, there are undercurrents of a certain anti-authoritarian left in the US.
CULTURAL LEFT ELITE
This left could either be a part of the people, like Woody Guthrie, or stray away into its own elitist stance, like the cultural left around the Democrats of today. The socialist philosopher Richard Rorty warned in an interview I did with him in 2001 for the neglience of the workers by the cultural left.
A few years later writer and Democrat Thomas Frank published his What is the matter with Kansas? where he found the Democrats going in the wrong direction, away from white skinned blue-collar workers. I listened to him in Stockholm in 2017 and spoke with Swedish podcaster and expert on US’ politics Ronie Berggren about Frank’s criticism of his own party.
In the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, the correspondent Malin Ekman tried recently to understand American leftism through Bernie Sanders. She is too involved with the same leftist liberal elite as Thomas Frank criticized to really understand why Trump succeeded 2016. The leftist elite is anti-USA, the workers not.
It is common to degrade Swedish nationalism and American conservatism in our press. SvD is not alone; writer Ola Larsmo (a enemy of free speech as head of Swedish PEN) seems happy to write about miserable Swedes in 19th century USA and leftist publicist Olof Lagercrantz, who wrote:
“Är vi svenskar mer konservativa och mera fallna för auktoritärt våld än andra folk? Jag blev orolig när jag i Boston för en månad sedan hörde professor Birgitta Odén – utsänd att studera svenskarna i USA – meddela att de svenska immigranterna i allmänhet stått och står långt mera till höger än andra invandrargrupper ”, Dagens Nyheter, 29 juni, 1970.
Weather John Prine was a Democrat, a Republican or independent does not matter. He sang songs for and about regular people, like himself, a mailman before he turned professional musician 1971.
I knew he was proud of the working class and that is why my friend at the Indian beach loved him. May he be remembered well and God bless his soul.