Late last year John was doing research into his ancestry and discovered that his great grandmother’s older brother was a radical poet, songwriter and columnist for the Industrial Workers of the World(IWW), who went by the name, "T- Bone Slim." A legendary figure in the history of the 20th century labor movement, his songs have been in print since 1920 and have been sung by folk musicians and activists such as Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and Utah Phillips, as well as untold numbers of working class activists and union members. Some of his most famous songs are "The Lumberjack's Prayer," "Mysteries of a Hobo's Life" and "The Popular Wobbly." John is currently working up renditions of some of T-Bone's published works as well as songs that were never in print. Check out the video below of Westmoreland performing "Resurrection." The lyrics come from the Rosemont/T-Bone Slim archive at The Newberry Library in Chicago.
His given name was Matti Valentinpoika Huhta. He was born in Ashtabula OH in 1882, a child of Finnish immigrants to the US. Very little has been known about his life outside of the contents of his songs, poetry and newspaper columns, of which there are a couple hundred pages of original writings still extant. The only image of T-Bone that has been published is a caricature that ran for over twenty years at the top of his column, it is said to have been quite a good likeness…
He was an elusive, mysterious character who managed to be an influential force while remaining virtually unknown. As Franklin Rosemont wrote in “Juice is Stranger than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim” “Few people in the IWW even knew that Matt Huhta was T-Bone Slim.” During the 1930’s his sayings were found written on the walls of boxcars, and they were passed on through word of mouth by sailors during WWII. Typical of T-Bone’s knack for staying out of the limelight, people often assumed that the moniker was a kind of “House Name” and not an individual writer.
As a first generation American, it’s entirely possible that T-Bone Slim's “Finnish background-with its Omnipresent echoes of "The Kalevala" -stimulated a particular alertness to language, and awareness of the power of words in the shaping of a non-conformist and revolutionary sensibility.” (The Kalevala is the epic collection of folksongs and poetry at the heart of traditional Finnish cultural identity.) His writings in English have been praised as the work of an alchemist of language, and are credited as inspiration for the modern surrealist movement.
The body of Matt Huhta was found drowned in the Hudson river in May of 1942. The cause of death was listed as “Asphyxia by submersion- circumstances undetermined.” Little to no investigation was conducted, and he was buried in a pauper's grave in potters field on Hart Island in NYC. At the time he was employed by the New York Traprock Company as Barge Captain of “The Casey.” The speculation surrounding his death has ranged from a drunken accident to the possibility of murder due to his outspoken activism and writings. Legendary Tennessee folk singer and union activist Aunt Molly Jackson speaks of his death in the introduction to her song "Crossbones Scully" for the Archive of American Folk Song at The Library of Congress. In the commentary she appears to link his death to the US' entrance into WWII.
“This is the story of T-bone slim. He told me how he got put in jail for a year and a day. He said he had tried to get a job for two months, and had been picked up as a vagrant different times till he had become desperate. He had not eat a bite in two days, he said, and it had been 10 weeks since he had lain in a bed. He was so cold and hungry he said he was desperate. When he saw this old "big shot," as he called him, he just knocked the big shot down, and took his suit of clothes, watch, money and all. Just as he was taking off the old man's shoes he saw some men coming and he ran off with the fine suit on and a high top hat, and when they saw him with his old rags and shoes and that high silk hat and that fine suit of clothes, they grabbed him and pulled him before the judge. He said when they turned him out and he did not have a cent and he could not get a job for food and rent. He said he did not want to steal and rob; he said he began to wonder how he could find a job. He said he was almost out of his mind when he went down on the waterfront and joined the seamen’s picket line. I was leading the picket line and I met him there. In the Seamen's union hall he told me this story. I remembered it all, and a few days later I composed this song. Old T-bone Slim got sunk in a ship when World War II come along. He was a good union seamen, but he is dead and gone.” -Aunt Molly Jackson
Adding further intrigue to the mystery of T-Bone Slim's death is the plot of a novel published in 1956- The Savage Streets. The author Floyd Miller had worked on the New York waterfront during the 1940’s, at the same time he was serving as a covert Soviet Intelligence agent. The plot of the book centers around the death of an old barge captain on The Hudson River who is described as a “Philosophical Wobbly" (IWW member). The official story was that the barge captain had a drunken accident. However as the plot unfolds it’s revealed that it was actually a murder by powerful interests involved in a dope smuggling ring.
John is continuing to research the life and work of T-Bone Slim, so stay tuned for more updates as this project continues...